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Implementing Technology

Vacuum Conveying:
The Flexible Solution To Powder Handling
Seven Key Parameters To Consider When Conveying Powders
By Roger Burgess,
Product Manager,
and Sharon Nowak,
Global Business Development Manager,
K-tron Process Group

The pharmaceutical industry processes thousands of have undergone a mixing
very expensive dry bulk materials every hour of or blending cycle.
every day for a variety of applications in solid 4) Optimize Cleaning
dosage form manufacture. In order to maintain the Cycles: All equipment
highest standards of safety and hygiene, it is essen- used in the transfer of
tial that these powders are moved from process to powders must be capable
process without any danger to the operatives, dam- of being very thoroughly
age or exposure of the product to the atmosphere, cleaned. A variety of
or loss of valuable product within the process cleaning techniques and
stream. designs are available for
Seven Key Parameters 5) Optimization Of The
When moving powder from process to process in Overall Process Through
the pharmaceutical industry, several crucial factors Integrated Systems
must be addressed to ensure an acceptable solution. Design: For reasons of
Pharmaceutical design
The method of moving powders in an enclosed Premier Pneumatics vacuum economy, it is advanta-
stream of air or nitrogen is commonly known as receiver geous if the transferring
vacuum conveying and the technology for this form of powders can be inte-
of transport has evolved to meet the arduous grated into a duplicate process such as air swept
demands of the modern pharmaceutical industry. sieving or air swept milling. This integration simpli-
Typically, there are seven key goals which the end fies the powder handling and helps to increase effi-
user, in conjunction with the equipment supplier, ciency on the secondary process.
should consider when addressing the use of vacu- 6) Ease Of Operation: The powder conveying
um conveying. equipment should be simple to operate and easily
1) Maximize Product Containment: The system integrated into the process for ease of control and
used to convey toxic and highly expensive powders overall validation. Options are available for a wide
must eliminate any possibility of the powder leak- variety of product delivery and pickup.
ing into the working environment. 7) Optimization Of Safety: Inert gases such as
2) Maximize Product Yields: All the powder leav- nitrogen are very easy to introduce into a vacuum
ing one process should be transferred to the next system thus ensuring the elimination of oxygen and
process with an absolute minimum of retained pow- a consequently safe system with no danger of
der. explosion.
3) Minimize Product Segregation And Attrition:
Low-velocity, dense phase systems are possible Parameter 1: Eliminate Leakage
when using vacuum and this type of system mini- Vacuum conveying meets many of these criteria due
mizes product degradation and also eliminates to the fact that the negative pressure inside the ves-
product segregation when conveying products that sels and pipework precludes any powder leakage to

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the atmosphere. A to consume too much power during the transfer.

typical vacuum con-
veying system is Parameter 2: Maximize Product Yields
fully sealed with the The speed of the air movement in a well-designed
entrainment of the vacuum conveying system ensures that the powder
powder being con- cannot settle out in the pipe line, thus ensuring that
tained by means of no residue remains. In addition, at the very end of
a sealed container the run, line clearing valves can be used to ensure
attached to the that any remaining material is cleared into the
process device receiver prior to dismantling the unit for cleaning.
being unloaded. In Design of the vacuum receiver with reverse jet fil-
the case of highly ters and steep discharge cone angles, or sometimes
toxic powders, the straight cylindrical walls, also encourages the free
additional use of flow of powders from the receiving hopper into the
split butterfly con- next process. The more difficult-to-handle powders
tainment valves can are encouraged to flow with various flow aids such
be incorporated to as vibrators and varying degrees of fluidisation.
Vacuum Receiver integrated with maintain specific Filtration is crucial when handling fine powders.
powder handling unit to maximize OEL levels. Modern filter materials, such as PTFE laminated
powder containment (photo cour-
During the vacu- polyester, have been designed to have high release
tesy of Extract Technology)
um process, the characteristics that ensure that the filter does not
vacuum or suction is generated by means of a vac- allow the passage of fine particles and that residual
uum pump. The vacuum in the pickup source is ini- material is removed during the filter clean cycle.
tiated and material flows from its source directly to Well-designed vacuum hoppers have all welds
the sealed container or receiver. After the receiver is ground smooth and are designed to be crack and
filled to the required capacity (usually detected by crevice free with a high degree of polish.
means of a level indicator), the vacuum breaks.
Material settles within the receiver. Upon request of Parameter 3: Minimize Product Segregation
powder from the process below, such as in the Many pharmaceutical powders and tablet granulates
drum filling operation shown, the valve at the bot- have to be conveyed without product degradation
tom of the receiver opens and product is delivered or de-mixing. This is essential, especially in the
to the process. Shortly thereafter a pulse of air is cases where active ingredients are a very low per-
sent through the filters housed within the collection centage of the overall mix. It has been found that
receiver in order to clean the filters of any residual when conveying by slow moving slugs, the mate-
material. This also aids in maximizing overall yields rial is not de-mixed. This method of material move-
(see parameter 2). ment is achieved by dense phase vacuum convey-
The introduction of powders that are not free flow- ing.
ing to the vacuum system can be assisted by a It is critical when investigating the use of dense
range of flow aids such as vibration, fluidization, or phase vacuum that the viability and blend uniformi-
aeration pads. These ty of the mix be confirmed by individual trials,
devices are located where the conveyed material is analyzed by the
into a steep-sided client to confirm that the specified parameters have
vessel, which also been adhered to. The technique of low-speed con-
encourages the pow- veying by vacuum has been used for many different
der to flow to the pharmaceutical products, and is utilized primarily
entrainment point for short up and in distances. Typical applications
where the air and are the loading of tablet presses, capsule filling
powder are mixed lines, sachet fillers, and mixer to storage systems.
ensuring a smooth
transfer through the Parameter 4: Optimize Cleaning Cycles
convey line. In many cases the equipment used for conveying
Distances between The above photo shows a paral- pharmaceutical powders is still dismantled and
process devices are lel-sided Premier Pneumatics P- taken away to the wash room where it is cleaned
Series Vacuum Receiver with a
usually short in this full bore discharge valve. This before re-assembly. To aid this method of cleaning,
industry so it is not design ensures 100% discharge all good quality conveying equipment can be very
generally necessary of the conveyed powder. easily dismantled and reassembled by unskilled

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before entering the manufacturing process. This is

achieved by simply introducing a sieve into the con-
vey line. Powder is conveyed from the sack or bin
and as it passes through the screen any oversize
particles or foreign matter are trapped on the stain-
less mesh. The acceptable powder passes through
the mesh and continues on to the next phase of the
process. The flow of air through the mesh helps to
keep the mesh clean and often increases the effi-
ciency of screening compared to gravity screening
where there is no additional air flow.
A similar technique can be used with conical
screen mills which are often used to de-lump the
material coming from the powder source and prior
to introduction to the process. The conical screen
mill is placed in between the product pickup point
and the vacuum receiver, with the effect of material
being drawn through the mill with a stream of fast
flowing air. Operation of the conical screen mill
under vacuum has the added advantage in reduc-
This photo illustrates a capsule filling machine being tion of overall residence time within the mill, thus
loaded by a dense phase vacuum system. The vacuum pump is also reducing any added attrition which may occur
located outside the process area.
in the process.
operators. As an option in design, most conveying An added advantage to air swept milling is the
equipment can now be designed to be wet-in-place ability to use nitrogen as the conveying gas. This
(WIP). This method involves the use of retractable makes the system safe because the mill can often be
spray nozzles, which are activated at the end of a considered a source of ignition if the material being
production run. These nozzles spray water inside milled is potentially explosive.
the vessel. The liquid spray has the effect of wetting It is important to note that although most makes of
any residual dust particles within the entire filter mills and sieves are able to operate under the fairly
receiver as well as on the filter media. This aids in low level of vacuum required, the use of vacuum
the filter media removal by making them easy to with the mill/sieve in question should be addressed
remove without the chance of dry dust becoming with the equipment manufacturer to ensure that the
airborne. In some specialized receiver designs, the proper seals/gaskets are in place to ensure a dust-
top section of the receiver can be swung away and free operation.
the filter elements withdrawn and taken away for
intense cleaning. The remaining section of the sys- Parameter 6: Ease Of Operation And Integration
tem is then thoroughly cleaned and dried before Due to the availability of a wide variety of product
The swing-out head feature of the filter receiver is
also helpful in areas where there is a headroom
issue, since the filters in this case are removed from
below, as opposed to above the filter receiver.
Further design options incorporate lift mechanisms
for the complete filter receiver assembly in order to
facilitate the overall cleaning and dismantling pro-
cedures, thus shortening and optimizing overall
cleaning cycle times.

Parameter 5:
Optimization Of The Overall Process
One of the major advantages of a vacuum convey-
The photo above shows a bag tip station connected to an air
ing system is that it is very easy to introduce a sec-
swept sieve and then to a vacuum-receiving hopper mounted
ondary process into the initial transfer process. For over a mixer. This system enabled the operator to simulta-
example, when base raw materials arrive in paper neously load the mixer and screen the powder at a rate of
sacks, it is essential that they are check screened 3,000 kilos per hour.

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sources in drums, bags, bulk bags, intermediate est and least complex to implement. This method
bulk containers (IBCs), and flexible intermediate simply replaces air with nitrogen as the conveying
bulk containers (FIBCs) it is imperative that the gas. The elimination of oxygen prevents an explo-
vacuum system utilized be easily integrated into the sion from occurring because the third leg of the fire
product pickup method. Sack tip stations complete triangle has been removed.
with integrated vacuum pickup points as well as Of all three options, inerting is the most common
IBC docking stations with the same type of pickup method utilized in the pharmaceutical industry in
hoppers are available from most systems-orientated order to ensure safety when using a vacuum system
vacuum conveying manufacturers. Typical connec- on potentially explosive powders. It is a very sim-
tion points are via simple triclamp arrangements for ple procedure to connect a nitrogen supply to the
ease in assembly. Most pickup devices usually suction lance on a vacuum conveyor. Nitrogen con-
incorporate some type of spray ball assembly for sumption is relatively low since the nitrogen only
cleaning as well as a drain in the pickup device for flows when the system is operating on the convey
drainage. cycle.

Parameter 7: Optimization Of Process Safety Summary

Many pharmaceutical powders have a low mini- The use of vacuum conveying in the pharmaceuti-
mum ignition energy (MIE). This is a measure of cal industry for powder transfer is a viable choice
how easily the powder dust cloud can be ignited by that addresses a wide variety of process require-
any source of ignition. A generally accepted mea- ments. The range of vacuum conveying techniques
sure of explosive potential is if the powder being is evolving continuously, offering new solutions to
conveyed has an MIE of less than 10 millijoules; the major pharmaceutical manufacturers who are
when this occurs a method of dealing with this moving more and more to continuous processes.
explosive potential must be designed within the The ability to move small amounts of powder in a
system. clean contained manner as well as the inherent
Sources of ignition can vary from several sources process advantages (safety to operator and prod-
including static sparks, metal impact by a fast rotat- uct) and increases in process efficiency make vacu-
ing item, hot particles from dryers, or faulty electri- um conveying via negative pressure the optimal
cal items. Any of these sources coming into contact material handling solution.
with a potentially explosive dust cloud can create
an explosion. The severity of the explosion is mea- About The Authors
sured by the KST value but even a mild explosion Roger Burgess has been involved with the pneu-
must be avoided. When dealing with powder con- matic conveying industry for 35 years. Roger has
veying in the pharmaceutical industry, there are a degree in mechanical engineering and was man-
typically three methods of dealing with a potential aging director of Vac-u-Max before starting P.C.S.
explosion. (It should be noted that explosion sup- in 1990. In 2001 the company was incorporated
pression is not listed as there is a strong possibility into the K-Tron Group as a specialist in the vacu-
of tripping the suppression system and introducing um conveying of fine powders. In 2006 K-Tron
the suppressant to the batch, thus eliminating it as acquired Premier Pneumatics and now uses the
a good choice for pharmaceutical systems). Premier Pneumatics name for all PCS vacuum
The three most common methods of explosion conveying equipment. Burgess now has the
suppression are the following: responsibility of training and advising the mem-
1) Explosion Containment: This is a method bers of the worldwide network in an effort to
where all the equipment must be made strong incorporate his extensive experience into the
enough to contain the explosion when and if it process industry.
occurs. Due to the strength of the required design, Sharon Nowak serves as K-Tron Process Groups
this can be a very difficult and expensive solution global business development manager for the
to implement. food and pharmaceutical industries. Nowak works
2) Explosion Venting: This method builds in a closely with K-Trons sales, marketing, research
bursting disc which ruptures at a very low pressure and development, and systems engineering
rise and allows the explosion to be vented through departments to identify new applications and
a duct to an external wall. The main problem with focus on the very specific needs of these indus-
this technique is finding an external wall close to tries. Nowak offers a 20-year background in the
the equipment, as the distance of the vent and vent process equipment industry for both food and
duct to the point of ignition is critical in the design. pharmaceuticals as well as a degree in chemical
3) Inerting: Of the three options, this is the easi- engineering from Rutgers University.

48 The Pharmaceutical Solutions Update