Innovations Signs of Life from the Lab: How Innovative is the Process Industry?
The heroic age has passed. Very little revolutionary process technology has emerged in the chemical industry in recent years. No pioneering achievements like Haber-Bosch. Nevertheless, the labs are still alive and well — a journey to the world of developers and innovation.
Bristol, England 1898 — It was a dramatic moment: English chemist William Crookes announced that the world was threatened by unprecedented famine within 20 years. The supplies of fertilizer such as manure and guano could not keep pace with rapid population growth. Chemistry alone could provide the solution, Crookes claimed.
Stockholm, Sweden 1919 — The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences made a controversial decision. German chemist Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of ammonia synthesis. In 1908, Haber submitted a patent application for a process which made it possible to produce artificial mineral fertilizers, needed to feed around 3 billion people today. Industrially produced ammonia also replaced Chile salpeter as an ingredient in explosives. Thus Haber’s invention made it possible to feed billions but also to sustain the mass carnage of World War I.
But where are the innovations which revolutionize today’s industry? Today, the price/performance ratio is the overriding factor. Technologies only have a chance if they significantly increase yield or reduce cost. And yet, we need innovation. New competitors in Asia, South America and the Middle East are looking for a piece of the cake, so the big industry players cannot afford to stand still. Efficiency, sustainability and cost are the major factors driving innovation.
From Optimization to Revolution
Worms, Germany 2013: Here, the German speciality chemicals maker Evonik Industries produces methacrylate monomers which are used for paints, adhesives and plastics such as Plexiglas. Methyl methacrylate (MMA), the raw material used to make the transparent plastic, is a colorless liquid, produced by reacting hydrocyanic acid with acetone followed by esterification with methanol in the presence of concentrated sulfuric acid. Treating the spent acid byproduct from this process is an expensive proposition. At around 1000 °C, the ammonium hydrogen sulfate is broken down and the sulfur is recovered as sulfur dioxide. That may sound simple, but in practice it takes a large gas pipe network and big compressors to move thousands of cubic meters of sulfur dioxide in a facility which is larger than the actual MMA production plant.