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Signs of Life from the Lab: How Innovative is the Process Industry?

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Breakthrough after Five Years of Trial

A completely closed system loop is needed to carry out an evaluation under production conditions. Yields and catalyst life are always prime considerations. “You do not want to be shutting down your facility every five months and losing weeks of production while you replace the catalysts.” The goal of the development program was to extend catalyst life to two years or more, as that is the only way to reduce catalyst costs to an acceptable level in industrial-scale production.

After five years of pilot trials, the difficulties were overcome. Yields and product quality met expectations. “In practical application, Aveneer process yields are 95 %, which compares favorably with the conventional ACH sulfo process. In the literature, ACH sulfo process yields are listed at 85 % – 90 %, and a higher yield in itself means real progress,” added Krill. “Product quality is on a par with conventional MMA.”

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Innovation is Good – Industrial Processes Are Better

Industrial-scale production is the next step. In September, Evonik announced the start of engineering design for an 120,000 metric tons per year MMA plant based on Aveneer in Mobile, Alabama. That makes Aveneer a real exception: Internal estimates at Evonik indicate that only about 20 % of R&D expenditure is directed at the development of new technology platforms. 60 % is spent on new products or enhancements to existing process technology. Process development is aimed primarily at energy costs, elaborate reactions and raw materials that are difficult to handle. However, breakthrough innovation is still possible, even in places where people least expect it.

Cost Reduction at Any Price?

Butyl rubber is one example: Produced in a 1940’s era process from isoprene and isobutylene by cationic polymerization, at around –100 °C (to make matters worse, the reaction is strongly exothermic). 6 GJ of energy and about nine tons of steam are needed to produce one ton of butyl rubber. CO2 emissions are roughly 2.5 tons per ton of product. The challenges appear all the more formidable when you consider that Lanxess alone produces something like 30,000 metric tons of the valuable synthetic rubber each year.

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