March 10, 2014

Advancements in Chemical Processes Translate Across Applications

One of the key benefits of bringing a consultant on board is that you gain the benefit of an outside perspective that can stretch your own thinking. In this article, one of CECON’s consultants, a chemical engineer specializing in process design, blogs about leveraging advancements in chemical processes across different applications to improve efficiencies and/or lower costs.

Many of today’s chemical processes still use basic operations developed decades ago. But in the past five decades, the understanding and catalysis of chemical processes has improved dramatically. This applies to polymers (plastics) as well as liquid and solid chemicals. In one research study, projected process efficiencies and operating costs were improved dramatically by developing new catalysts.

For example, one of the greatest advances in manufacturing chemical polymers has been a fluidization process for polyolefins such as polyethylene and polypropylene. Pioneered by Union Carbide (now DOW), the process dubbed UNIPOL has taken over 40% of the world’s production in a span of 25 years. Why? Because the process requires only one half of the capital investment and one third of the operating cost of the former high-pressure processes (30,000 psi).

The typical fluidization process employs a solid catalyst which enables a reactant in vapor form to form a final product. In the case of polyolefins, the catalyst is embedded in the surface of the polymer formed and becomes part of the product.

 In other fluid bed processes, the catalyst is separated from the product (vapor) and regenerated and recycled to the fluid bed. In all these cases, the reactant is in gaseous form to act as the fluidization medium as well as a reactant. Formaldehyde, a major raw material for resins that bond plywood and other wood products, is made in such a system by a patented process (DuPont).

Can this technology be applied to other products? CECON’s experts can help answer this question.

How a major pollutant was converted to salable products
Until the mid 1990s, paper mills vented methanol-rich streams to the atmosphere. When this was finally recognized as a major industrial pollutant in the U.S. by the EPA, the pulp and paper industry was ordered to severely reduce their methanol emissions.

The industry resorted to combustion in waste heat boilers or biological digestion in waste treatment ponds. The methanol was converted to carbon dioxide, adding to the amount in the atmosphere.

One pulp and paper company explored the option of converting this waste methanol stream into useful chemical products that could be sold on the open market at values higher than the fuel value of the methanol. This was accomplished by designating the research work to a qualified university. A successful pilot plant confirmed the new process as viable.

Similar programs can be achieved for other contaminants given the right chemistry and experience.


Since 1985, The CECON Group has been placing experts in over 200 scientific disciplines. CECON Consultants include pharmaceutical consultants, clinical trials experts, and chemistry experts.

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