The chemicals sector could afford itself a pat on the back when the Office of National Statistics reported in late 2019 that its research and development spend had reached a seven-year high for the previous 12 months period.
Despite Brexit uncertainties, R&D investment grew by £175 million – a 3.4% year on year rise – to give an overall total of £5.36 billion, close to 2011’s all-time high of £5.43 billion achieved in the era of the last great economic crisis.
Now the sector must contend with the challenges of logistics, supply, social distancing and digitalisation that have emerged from the Covid lockdown regime in Britain and abroad.
Yet the nature of its output means that, in common with certain of its process peers, the crisis is likely to increase rather than diminish demand for its products.
Replacing spreadsheets and manual data entry has minimised mistakes and provided greater visibility – we can see where everything is and how much of it there is
Paul Johnston, automation & information systems manager, Grangemouth
Zidac Laboratories recently announced a £5 million investment in expansion with 80 new posts, prompted by increased demand for its sanitising products. This will expand the factory’s capacity to produce 15 times more volume – equating to 50 million litres a year.
Tellingly, the company has not limited itself to a reactive exploitation of the crisis. Among the new jobs will be R&D positions, explains managing director Luigi Jurica Weissbarth: “We’ll be able to increase our capacity to support through the pandemic and beyond, innovate to create new products and continue our donations programme to those that need it most.”
Yet the new environment will require innovation in all areas, notably logistics and supply chains as chemical firms look for markets and suppliers.
Crossword Cybersecurity recently signed a two-year contract with a FTSE 250 global chemical manufacturer to use its Rizikon Assurance software to assess the client’s 250 strategic suppliers.
Replacing manual processes, the automated system will include key risk data in a ‘Supplier Scorecard’ feature. The Assurance Framework dashboard displays a holistic view of the risk-criticality score of suppliers. While this highlights those deemed low risk, it also encourages a more agile approach; tracking those operating above acceptable thresholds but undertaking remediation efforts to lower their overall risk.
Rizikon Assurance product manager Ken Fraser commented: “Third-party assurance is particularly important for organisations with large, complex supply chains who face multiple challenges when managing third-party risk.
”Technology is also enhancing a more parochial aspect of supply; tracking the movement of product within plants. Global producer of agricultural chemicals Syngenta ordered 10,000 new CoreRFID tags for ingredients at its Grangemouth plant, which helped boost production.
As we continue to see innovation and deployment in renewable electricity generation, we expect to see a knock-on effect and much higher adoption in the chemical sector
Runeel Daliah, Lux analyst
RFID has allowed Syngenta to replace manual spreadsheets, rack the bags containing the active ingredients used in its fertilisers and crop protection products as they are moved around the site, and improve control over production processes. Every bag is fitted with a tag which can be scanned by fixed readers or by staff with hand-held scanners at critical points along the way.
Paul Johnston, automation and information systems manager at Grangemouth, says: “Replacing spreadsheets and manual data entry has minimised mistakes and provided greater visibility – we can see where everything is and how much of it there is. A paper system is just not manageable on the scale that we manufacture and doesn’t have the benefit of ensuring right product, right place, right time.
”Digital data extraction and analysis pervades every function and while chemical industry leaders have often been in the forefront of the sector’s adoption, Industry 4.0’s permanent state of revolution will require regular reviews.
Powder processing equipment giant Hosokawa Micron turned to long-time partner Siemens’ Cloud-based open operating system, MindSphere, to extend its smart manufacturer offer for customers using quality, energy usage, environmental conditions, process parameters and the factors affecting them as its KPIs.
Ian Elsby, head of chemicals UK & Ireland, Siemens Digital Industries, sums up: “Industry 4.0 is constantly evolving, and so is our alliance. We are able to bring to the table the challenges from the varied verticals we work in and share the outcomes of positioning in other industries, helping Hosokawa harness that knowledge to boost their digitalisation process.”
Hosakawa managing director Iain Crosley says this has refined data acquisition, allowing better production output decisions. Results include a 15% improvement in uptime; 10% reduction in energy usage; and capacity gains of between 10-12% recorded for customers.
Upgrading its existing in-house app allowed Hosakawa to remotely monitor the performance of equipment and plant, while a customised app taps into the growing emphasis upon servitisation offers for clients.
The holistic, portfolio approach to services provides perhaps the best insurance for survival and market growth. Sulzer GTC, a subsidiary of Sulzer Chemtech, typified this with its one stop shop approach in a distillation column replacement project for INA’s Rijeka, Croatia refinery.
The client sought a new column to meet existing capacity yet able to support future modifications of the entire tower to increase productivity to reach a capacity of 600 tonnes/hour.
Sulzer GTC’s Engineering, Procurement and Construction Management (EPCm) group combined feasibility studies and front-end engineering design (FEED), delivery and installation of the new column. Also preparing documentation necessary for building permits and providing on-site technical services.
The 265 tonnes, 5.6 metre internal diameter, 44 metres high column was installed in one piece, with all internals already pre-installed during the refinery’s planned shutdown.
Much ground-breaking work is being carried out with regards to the building blocks of industrial production such as feedstocks and catalysts.
Electrolysis technologies provide an opportunity for the chemical sector to decarbonise its supply chain and use renewable electricity as an alternative to oil and gas feedstock, suggests Lux Research.
Eight chemicals it evaluated showed a lower cost of production with power-to-chemical platforms if the cost of electricity were to drop.
“Low electricity prices would lead to widespread adoption of power-to-chemical platforms,” says Lux analyst Runeel Daliah. “As we continue to see innovation and deployment in renewable electricity generation, we expect to see a knock-on effect and much higher adoption in the chemical sector.”
Concerns around feedstock availability and security will prompt interest, yet a large drop would be needed though for hydrogen, methanol, ammonia and ethylene to replace current production methods, cautions Lux.
At Sheffield University, researchers are seeking ways to produce chemicals sustainably by replicating natural processes, using carbon dioxide mixed with water.
Using CO? instead of oil to produce high value surfactants, fuels and pharmaceuticals could reduce annual global greenhouse emissions by about 3.5 billion metric tons by 2030, claims the university.
However, using CO? as feedstock requires it to be mixed with hydrogen, which is very energy intensive and often derives from fossil reserves.
Dr James McGregor’s team from the university’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, reported that, using an appropriate solid catalystone, scientists could modify the natural process to react CO? with water rather than using hydrogen, tailoring the reaction to produce specific desirable high value chemicals.
McGregor said: “What this research has done is to look at a simple reaction, using just water and CO?, applying intelligent engineering to look at the natural process happening on the seabed, then adapting that process into something that makes industrially useful chemicals.”
Warwick University is also addressing the cost intensive processes of making high-value chemicals for uses such as the pharmaceutical or electronics chemical industry and the large amount of wasted side products [University of Warwick researchers Jonathan Barrios-Rivera, Martin Wills and Yingjian Xu are pictured above].
Collaboration with China’s Golden Keys High-Tech specialty material company has resulted in the development of a series of new catalysts for the asymmetric synthesis of alcohols which could be used for high-value chemicals such as pharmaceuticals and electronics chemicals, potentially making it faster, cheaper and more environmentally sustainable as fewer chemicals are required under the catalytic conditions.
Researchers made the catalyst by making the molecules’ ligands – that act as building blocks – bind to the metal ruthenium.
Scientists can choose which molecules to bind to form a catalyst and produce the chemical required faster and more sustainably.
Dr. Yingjian Xu of GoldenKeys High-Tech Materials states: “If this method is used in the pharmaceutical and electronics chemical industries, for example, then products and intermediates can potentially be made more cheaply and quickly with higher purity for consumers and reduce waste as less material is needed to make the catalyst, unlike traditional stoichiometric methods.”
- Pistoia Alliance has partnered with the American Chemical Society to provide greater access to its Chemical Safety Library.The database of hazardous reaction incidents, supported by Bayer, Bristol Myers Squibb, Glaxo, Merck, Pfizer and Roche, has 1,000-plus users from industry, academia and government.The library shares critical safety data and hazardous reaction information based on laboratory experiences with the goal of improving safety and reducing incidents across the chemical sector. ACS subsidiary the CAS will provide a new deposition and a search interface it has developed.