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1920 Ind. Eng. Chem. Res.

2002, 41, 1920-1924

Process Intensification
The chemical process industry is sometimes seen as raw materials/environment, etc.). Process intensification
a mature industry, grown evolutionary to an essentially is about revolution rather than evolution.1
ideal constitution. In this view, to ensure good profits The ways to reach the above target are many, and so
and stable business, it is sufficient to extend it with many are the faces of process intensification. It com-
some novel branches, such as life sciences or perfor- prises novel types of equipment (hardware), as well as
mance materials sectors. Is this picture based on reality? novel processing techniques and process/plant develop-
We do not believe that this is the case. When we ment methods (software). Among the process intensifi-
consider the world with its increasing need for space, cation examples one can see developments and ideas
safety, healthy environment, and economic growth, it that may drastically change the face of the chemical
is evident that all sectors of production have to critically industry in the 21st century. Many of such develop-
assess their impact in these respects. A parallel might ments and ideas are already on their way. One of them
be drawn between the chemical industry and other is the so-called heat exchanger (HEX) reactor, a reactor
production sectors, such as agriculture, tanneries, or that was shown to be able to decrease the processing
automotive industry. Had the space they use grown time in a fine chemical process of Hickson and Welch
proportional with their production, the impact would be from 18 h to 15 min2 and to decrease the byproduct
dramatic. In all of these sectors, intensification has formation in one of the ICI Acrylics processes by ca.
occurred to a large extent. One might say that, in the 75%.3 Another one, the so-called in-line monolithic
society new technological sectors always arise, while the reactor, offered a decrease of the equipment volume in
total capacity of the world is constant. As a result, one of DSM processes by almost 2 orders of magnitude,
traditional production sectors have to constantly de- by placing a structured catalyst in a pipeline (Figure
crease their share in the natural resources, including 2).4 In micro heat exchangers and microreactors heat-
land utilization. For the chemical process industry, this transfer coefficients exceeding 20 000 W/m2K are
implies that a decrease in size and an increase in reached, values that could never be reached with the
efficiency are a must. Of course, the scale-up in chemi- conventional equipment. The spinning disk reactor
cals manufacturing has been impressive. Although the investigated in one of SmithKline Beecham processes
production volumes have increased dramatically, the offered a 99.9% reduction in reaction time, 99% reduc-
space used only modestly increased. Imagine, however, tion in inventory, and 93% reduction in impurity level.5
that we could give back to the society 90% of the space The rotating packed bed (HiGee) technology allowed
we currently use for production. Because many petro- Chinese engineers to replace 30 m high vacuum desorp-
chemical complexes lie in areas of high natural value, tion towers with ca. 1.5 m diameter rotating strippers
we could really mean a lot to the society. Think of the in the deaeration of water at Shengli Oil Field, Sandong
industrial complexes built in harbor areas by estuaries. Province, P.R. China.6
Should these complexes shrink, both sea life and tour- The Industry: Opportunities and Barriers. Some-
ism would benefit enormously! what surprisingly perhaps, it is just industry, not
The above is, of course, a too simple picture. Space is
academia, where process intensification has its origins.
not the only criterion. The direction in which we want
It was Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) where first
to move leads toward a sustainable society. The question
investigations of rotating HiGee equipment for separa-
is how to move. Chemical engineers are inclined to be
tion purposes took place.7,8 It was Shell who first
realistic and to define achievable goals. We believe that
patented a static mixer9 that was later so successfully
a transformation of the chemical industrial sector into
commercialized by Sulzer and a number of other manu-
one with much less impact on the environment is
facturers, marking a quantum leap in mixing technol-
possible. A logical aim is to replace big is the best by
ogy. It was the same Sulzer who developed and com-
small is beautiful (Figure 1).
mercialized the distillation plant for hydrogen peroxide,
Problems with Definition: One Target, Many
consisting, in fact, of a single integrated unit.10 Another
Ways. An often used definition of the term process
industrial company, Eastman Chemical, became famous
intensification is the strategy for achieving dramatic
for the development and commercialization of a highly
reductions in the size of the plant at a given production
integrated methyl acetate process, in which the number
volume. Other researchers active in the field define
of pieces of equipment has been reduced from 28 to 3
process intensification in different ways. Two words,
(Figure 3). The Eastman process is now widely regarded
however, are common to practically all process inten-
as a textbook example of a task integration-based
sification definitions. One of these words is innovative:
process synthesis.11 Another company, Dow Chemical,
Process intensification is characterized by the novelty,
has recently applied the HiGee technology on a com-
and in this sense presents a contradistinction to the
mercial scale in their hypochlorous acid process.12
conventionalism in chemical engineering and process
design. The other common word, substantial, clearly The opportunities that process intensification offers
defines the target of process intensification. That target to a chemical company lie primarily in six areas: costs,
is not to squeeze another few percent from an existing safety, compactness, controlled well-defined conditions,
plant; the target is to make a quantum leap in process time to the market, and company image.
and plant efficiency (with respect to space/time/energy/ Process intensification leads to substantially cheaper
processes, particularly in terms of land costs (much
* Corresponding author. Phone: +31 46 4760820. Fax: +31 higher production capacity and/or number of products
46 4760809. E-mail: per unit of manufacturing area), investment costs
10.1021/ie011025p CCC: $22.00 2002 American Chemical Society
Published on Web 03/16/2002
Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 41, No. 8, 2002 1921

(smaller equipment, reduced piping, etc.), costs of raw research and carrying it out in the academic environ-
materials (higher yields/selectivities), costs of utilities ment, but so far the universities do not sense an
(energy in particular), and costs of waste-stream pro- increased demand for such research projects from the
cessing (less waste in general). industry.)
Also, process intensification may dramatically in- Barrier 2. The R&D effort in chemical companies is
crease the safety of chemical processes. It is obvious that primarily focused on the new products (chemistry) and
smaller is safer. Tragedies such as Flixborough and much less on the new manufacturing methods (chemical
Bhopal show clearly how disastrous consequences may engineering). Chemical manufacturers are not inter-
arise from the large volume of process vessels when ested in developing the novel types of equipment or
something goes wrong. A study done at AIChE showed processing techniques. It is simply not their key busi-
that methyl isocyanate (MIC), the intermediate that was ness. On the other hand, equipment manufacturers and
released at Bhopal, could be generated and immediately engineering companies are not sufficiently active in the
converted to final products in continuous reactors that field of process intensification.
contained a total inventory of less than 10 kg of MIC13 Barrier 3. Many novel apparatuses and processing
(in reality ca. 41 tons of MIC were released in Bhopal, methods are not yet proven on the industrial scale. It
killing almost 4000 people). However, process intensi- is well-known that an average plant manager in the
fication offers not only smaller equipment but also much chemical industry wants his plant to be second best
better possibilities for keeping processes under control, only, not the best. He/she typically tries to avoid the
for instance, by extremely efficient heat removal from risks involved in the application of the equipment or
exothermic reactions. processing method that has not yet been tested on the
To fine chemical and pharmaceutical industries, full scale elsewhere.
process intensification may offer a substantial shorten- Barrier 4. Chemical engineers in industry are not
ing of the time to market, for instance, by developing a familiar with process intensification and are often not
continuous laboratory-scale process, which could be used aware of the emerging novel types of equipment and
directly as the commercial-scale process. One must not processing methods. Process intensification is not taught
forget that the liquid flow of only 1 ml/s means in the within regular chemical engineering curricula, which
continuous operation ca. 30 tons/year, which is a quite are still based on the unit-operation, onionskin meth-
reasonable capacity for many pharmaceuticals. In such odology of process development (first the reactor, then
a case process development takes place only once, with separation/purification, then heat integration, then
no scale-up via a pilot plant to the industrial scale. Also, process control, safety, etc.). This methodology, standard
all administrative (FDA) procedures involved in the for petrochemical and bulk chemical processes, has
legal approval of the production technology take place obvious limitations when it comes to modern product
only once: the laboratory-scale technology is the com- engineering and technology.
mercial technology. In consequence, start of the produc- Barrier 5. Standard tools and methodology for mod-
tion is greatly speeded up, and the patent lifetime of ern process development from the laboratory to the
the drug can be much more effectively (read: longer) commercial scale are often missing. A chemist develop-
utilized. ing a new fine chemical process will surely stick to the
Last but not least, process intensification, deeply traditional, batch stirred-tank-based, cooking recipe
anchored in the philosophy of sustainable development, route, simply because this is the only standard develop-
in safe and environment-friendly processing, presents ment tool available. We still do not have any highly
perhaps the simplest and the most obvious key to the efficient continuous reactors as standard laboratory
improved image of a chemical company, necessary to equipment, which could be easily and quickly set up and
ensure public support for its activities. Presently, in the scaled up, nor do we have reliable methodology for doing
United States only the tobacco industry and the nuclear it. (Of course, additional factors play here a role, such
energy sector appear to have a worse reputation than as the chemists lack of interest in fluid dynamics and
the chemical industry. The situation in Europe is especially kinetics which are so vital for rational reactor
probably not very much different. design.)
Yet, despite all of these potential advantages and a Barrier 6. Many of the novel equipment and process-
number of successful commercial applications of process ing methods are of radically different nature, and there
intensification principles, there are still several impor- is lack of simulation and scale-up capability (experience
tant barriers hindering deeper changes in the chemical and lack of models). Also, there is a lack of early
process industry: screening methods to qualify these novel technologies
Barrier 1. The strategy of chemical process industry (lack of tools for early economic and process evaluation).
growth in the global economy of the present times is The good news is that many of the above-mentioned
mainly based on mergers, splits, takeovers, and changes obstacles can be removed or at least minimized, and
in the structure of the product portfolio (shift toward universities, along with nonacademic research centers,
high added value products). It is basically a strategy of can play an important role in this process.
growth via trade, not via R&D. Shareholders value- Universities. The mission of the university can be
driven companies are interested in reaching clearly described in a variety of ways. The minimum is the
defined short-term business targets rather than in contribution to the development of novel methods in
investing funds in more risky long-term development production and novel products. Keywords are creativity,
projects. Corporate funding is greatly reduced (along innovation, long-term R&D, science push, and market
with corporate R&D organizations), and opportunities pull. For the university, a wealth of subjects can be
are primarily sought in cost reductions via optimization considered for research programs. For several reasons,
of the primary business work processes or via debottle- often evolutionary (small-step and low-risk) subjects are
necking of the existing plants. (N.B.: Many companies chosen. We would like to challenge the university groups
speak about outsourcing of the more fundamental to select high-risk and high-reward subjects. Process
1922 Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 41, No. 8, 2002

short-term results does not help. Fortunately, many

modern university groups are entrepreneurial in science
and technology research. Despite the present circum-
stances, they succeed in attracting funding and, more
importantly, good people, allowing the building of chal-
lenging research programs.
Universities do not only play a role in research. After
all, it is teaching that is their core business. Courses
aimed at innovative process and product development,
including various elements of process intensification, are
at least being considered in many places. Modernization
of chemical engineering curricula is necessary. It may
sound very obvious, but we will never succeed in
transforming the chemical industry at the speed we
want if we supply it with young people having no
understanding of the process intensification principles
and being unaware of the latest developments in the
Summary: the Need for Change and the Third
Paradigm. Since the late 1980s, a discussion has been
going on regarding the changing paradigms in chemical
engineering.14 Six years ago, a remarkable paper on that
subject was published by the late Professor Gianni
Astarita and Julio Ottino,15 followed by another widely
cited comment paper written by James Wei.16 The
authors distinguished two paradigms in the history of
our discipline. The first one, the unit operations
paradigm, was initiated by Arthur D. Little and pre-
sented for the first time in the famous Principles of
Chemical Engineering textbook by Walker, Lewis, and
McAdams (1923). As Wei wrote it, the essence of the
first paradigm was to study the major equipment for
chemical manufacturing, including its construction and
Figure 1. Illustration of a school excursion to a chemical plant performance. In the early 1960s, this first paradigm was
in our times (top) and, hopefully, in the times of our grandchildren pushed aside and replaced by the second one, the
(bottom). Here, we have tried to depict, in a somewhat exaggerated transport phenomena paradigm marked with the
way, the required mentality change in the chemical process publication of the textbook Transport Phenomena by
industry. The old paradigm: we are great because we are big Bird, Stewart, and Lightfoot (1960). However, after
must be replaced by we are great because we are most efficient
(with respect to space, time, energy, safety, environment, etc.).
years of successes, also the second paradigm appeared
The two pictures hanging on the wall in the lower drawing to lose its potential. As the late Professor Jacques
symbolize two possible ways the chemical process industry can Villermaux said in his speech at the 5th World Congress
go: the way of technological progress (chip, right) or the way of of Chemical Engineering, the second paradigm did not
stagnation (blast furnace, left). favor creativity, invention of new processes, or design
and manufacture of new products to meet the market
intensification is absolutely one of them. Structured needs and eventually led to a dead end.17 Clearly, the
catalysts and reactors allow rational designs resulting time has come for a change. However, what will be the
in breakthroughs. Reactors can be developed where the core of the new third paradigm of chemical engineering?
heat produced is removed at the scale of the catalyst Will it be new business or new product research? Will
layer, leading to a superior reactor performance. Here,
it be, as Lanny Schmidt calls it, the Bio-Nano-Info?
one enters the world of microreactors, HEX reactors, etc.
Or maybe the green engineering? Will there be a place
Both simulation studies and demonstration are called
for process intensification? There is a lot of discussion
for. We expect many positive surprises in the future.
going on around this subject.18
Multifunctional reactors are already a trend, although
simulations are emphasized and experimental data are James Wei sees the possible core of the third para-
scarce. Not a perfect setting for discoveries! The com- digm in product engineering.19 We share this view to a
bination of simulation and experimental work in this great extent. We think, however, that product engineer-
area is most rewarding. Fortunately, some groups do ing alone will not be enough to form a solid fundament
practice this. for the new chemical engineering paradigm. We believe
Can we conclude then that the university will be the strongly that further developments in what to make?
cradle of exciting new findings in process intensifica- (product engineering) must proceed parallel to the
tion? Also here barriers are present. Because of decreas- developments in how to make? (process engineering).
ing enrollments, universities practically all over the Process intensification shows clearly how large a growth
world are confronted with reductions in funding, staff, and innovation potential process engineering still has.
etc. This can easily lead to a retreat to a safe but not Besides, one has to remember that there are still sectors
spectacular research: more of the same results in high- in the chemical process industry in which product
quality papers with a minimal impact on society. Also, engineering plays only a marginal role (e.g., petrochemi-
the attitude of the industry with the fascination for cals). The new chemical engineering paradigm must not
Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 41, No. 8, 2002 1923

Figure 2. Potential of process intensification. The conventional system can be replaced by the almost 100 times smaller in-line monolithic
reactor.4 The reactor is so small that it could even fit under the operators desk!

Figure 3. Methyl acetate plant of Eastman Chemical: a wonderful example of process intensification via process synthesis!

omit the issues that are important to those sectors. It fermenters. We should ask ourselves if random catalyst
must not run out on its own children! systems are the solution for heterogeneous catalysis. We
Any paradigm nowadays, to survive, must be based should ask ourselves if the sequential, unit-operation-
on a broader social acceptance. Lack of social acceptance based process design is the solution for the optimum
for our third paradigm would mean the lack of young plant. We should ask ourselves if todays sky-scraping
people willing to study chemical engineering and, as a towers are the solution for distillation or absorption
result, the death of the paradigm, if not of our profes- operations. We should ask ourselves if thousands of
sion. Manufacturing of new products, however sophis- kilometers of pipelines should only serve for sending
ticated and functional they might be, with the present gases and liquids or whether they could not be made
equipment and methods generating tens of kilograms functional and be used for reactions or separations.
to tons of waste per every kilogram of those products Such questions are many. Few of them can be
(as currently happens in manufacturing of many phar- answered right now, but only by posing such questions
maceuticals), will not be accepted by the sustainable may we achieve the rebirth of creativity and innovation
society. in chemical engineering research. Moreover, it is clear
So, before we all set up the third paradigm for that some trends in technology tend to lead to de-
chemical engineering, we should go back in time and intensification rather than intensification. This applies
revisit the first paradigm. We should take a critical look not only to biotechnology but also to the energy sector.
at the equipment, its construction, and performance, Renewable energy sources require often extremely large
reexamine the existing unit operations, and start asking space; think of the extremely large equipment for tidal
ourselves questions. We should, for instance, ask our- energy, extended panels for solar energy, etc. In par-
selves if batch-operated stirred-tank reactors are really ticular, in these new sectors creativity is called for.
the solution for manufacturing of fine chemicals and Process intensification is a good component of the
pharmaceuticals. We should ask ourselves if modern third paradigm. In this commentary, we hopefully were
biotechnology really requires gigantic bubble-column able to show its meaning and appeal. We expect that a
1924 Ind. Eng. Chem. Res., Vol. 41, No. 8, 2002

systematic effort to intensify the chemical process (9) Taber, R. E.; Hawkinson, D. R. Fluid Mixing Device. U.S.
industry will lead to spectacular results. Patent 2,894,732, 1959.
(10) Meili, A. Practical process intensification shown with the
example of a hydrogen peroxide distillation system. In Proceedings
Acknowledgment of the 2nd International Conference on Process Intensification in
We are very grateful to Professors Edward L. Cussler, Practice; BHR Group Conference Series 28; BHR Group: London,
1997; p 309.
Bart Drinkenburg, Colin Ramshaw, and Lanny Schmidt
(11) Siirola, J. J. An Industrial Perspective on Process Syn-
for their valuable remarks and suggestions on the first thesis. AIChE Symp. Ser. 1995, 91 (304), 222.
draft of this commentary.
(12) Trent, D.; Tirtowidjojo, D. Commercial operation of a
rotating packed bed (RPB) and other applications of RPB technol-
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Andrzej Stankiewicz*

DSM Research, P.O. Box 18,

6160 MD Geleen,
The Netherlands

Jacob A. Moulijn

Delft University of Technology,

Julianalaan 136,
2628BL Delft,
The Netherlands