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Chemical engineering - a path to future innovations.

Past and Present Trends

The post Second World War period gave North America a tremendous advantage to invest and earn good profits in the chemical industry. Shinnar and Avidan' have observed that "this head start combined with high growth rates allowed North American industry to become used to higher rates of return on capital investment compared to other countries". This tendency to look for higher rates of return in North America has continued due to higher real interest rates (particularly in Canada), compared to Europe and japan.

In the meantime the industries in Germany, japan and some Pacific countries were rebuilt and apparently accepted a lower rate of return on their investments. They were also able to combine the advantages of free competition and market forces with government planning in the form of cheaper capital costs due to lower real interest rates) along with other advantages. The North American chemical industry reacted to this competition using economies of scale by building larger single train plants to design limits. However, many plants reached the size where scale is no longer important. As Landau' pointed out in his analysis of the past and future of the chemical process industry, flexibility is more important than capacity when required to adjust to economic cycles - smaller plants operating at full capacity can be more profitable over their life cycle. Large scale projects are increasingly being looked upon with disfavour. Large-scale projects can take so tong that obsolescence may set in before the project is complete. The nuclear industry, which has a substantial chemical engineering content, has been particularly handicapped by projects taking too long to implement.

Due to increased global competition Shinnar and Avidan show a reduction from an average of about 8% return on investment in 1960 in North America to less than half that by the mid 1980s. This resulted in considerable effort by the chemical industry to reduce production costs and capital costs of new plants. Bodman(3) notes it was lawyers and MBAS who assumed leadership positions in the 1970s and 1980s, rather than the scientists and engineers who create new industries. Production costs were reduced mainly by reducing manpower. Capital costs per unit of product were reduced by going to larger single process trains with the inherent hidden cost penalties due to inflexibility. Also, there have been some not too successful attempts at low cost construction using minimum equipment and building standards. in our experience the best control of capital costs comes from a well defined project which has a well defined process and high quality drawings and specifications.

Chemical process engineering of new plants must always have an appreciable level of innovative content to improve the quality of new installations as well as to incorporate higher efficiencies. in the US there have been complaints that the era of strong innovation in the chemical process industries has largely all but ended. However, recently, in recognition of increasing global competition, industrial leadership is again swinging back to strong technical people.

In Canada, at least in the extractive metallurgical field, major innovations continue to be attempted. The proportion of imported innovations appears to be increasing, but the success rate is not impressive. Five examples of current major Canadian innovative projects are listed in Table 1. The need to improve environmental conditions combined with global competition is the major driving force for four of the five projects.

Other major Canadian innovations in the less recent past are: The Inco Flash Smelter which uses pure oxygen to burn sulphide concentrates thus reducing the off-gas volumes to be handled. The great Canadian Oil Sands operation which had a difficult start, but has continually innovated and developed to remain in production today. The Savard-Lee shrouded tuyere developed by Canadian Liquid Air has been implemented in so many steel plants around the world. Earlier successful Canadian innovations can be cited such as: the development of plastics at Shawinigan Chemicals based on acetylene chemistry; the chlorine dioxide applications in pulp and paper by Howard Rapson, FCIC, and ERCO; CANDU and its heavy water supply by AECL; and, low density polyethylene at DuPont of Canada.

Predictions for the Future

Three reviews of future opportunities specifically in chemical engineering were conducted in the late 1980s by a committee appointed by the US National Research Council and chaired by Neal Amundson, an AlChE New Technology Committee, and the Chemical Industries Association in the United Kingdom. it was noted that there is a continuous emigration of mature staple industries from the technological leaders to other countries causing increasing global competition. This requires that the leading technology countries must continually invent better processes and products.

The following stand out as a short list of perceived opportunities among the technologies identified in the three reports: Energy and Natural Resources; Environmental Protection, Safety and hazardous Materials; Agriculture and Food; Advanced Materials; Biotechnology Systems biomedical systems); Process Modelling and Control.

The theme of the United Nations report on Environment and Development entitled "Our Common Future "(5)commonly known as the Brundtland Report) is that industry must move towards sustainable development in a global context, This report predicts a five to tenfold increase in world industrial output by the time the world population stabilizes in the next century. This will impose a severe demand on resources which will require increasing globalization of environmental standards and health and safety provisions.

Another study by OECD concluded the expenditure on environmental measures had a positive short-term effect on growth and employment and frequently the economic benefits are greater than the costs! The requirement for cleaner, more efficient processes has resulted in new innovative technologies, consequently increasing the competitive strength of major industries including food processing, iron and steel, non-ferrous metals, pulp and paper, chemicals and electric power generation.

According to the United Nations report there will be challenges in:

* Reduction of resource use for a given technology

- better recoveries, less water,

energy, raw material usage for a given

product. Minimization of by-products

harmful to the environment, i.e., reduction

of wastes.

* Development of new light weight, high

strength, plastics and composites.

Biotechnology particularly in the treatment

of solid and liquid wastes. Genetic

engineering to develop better plant strains

to fix nitrogen from the air.

* Renewable Energy (small to medium


* Remedial action in clean Lip of hazardous

waste sites.

Innovation Steps and Pitfalls

Hatch has described the steps involved in technical innovation". The key starting point always is an idea which aims at an economic improvement. This idea must have as its genesis sound scientific and technical knowledge of the field. This leads to a well defined series of steps of data development, technical economic evaluations and finally the design, construction and start tip of the project.

Some of the rather simple pitfalls which can cause enormous difficulties on development projects are described below.

Process Chemistry. The chemist must be well understood in the peripheral areas as well as the core process by the relevant members of the process design team. The scheme shown above represents a true example of a system which caused unnecessary interruptions and difficulty for the operators of a substantial new technology because the municipal water supply was 'hard' and the mixing with caustic soda caused precipitates to accumulate in the packed bed scrubbers. A very simple concept was overlooked in the development of the main, much more complex process.

Physical Chemistry. Are the rates and equilibriums for the new system established properly understood? Reactors must be sized correctly to give the expected throughput. Negative surprises are still occurring on major projects.

Physical Separations. The thickeners, clarifiers, filters and other separators must be properly, sized and selected. These simple operations often consume a surprising amount of plant space and capital.

Equipment Selection. The equipment must be suitable. A stand by pump or fan is not of much use if the original equipment fails after a few hour's operation ! Management Climate. The management must be sufficiently interested and knowledgeable about the new technology as well as the economics) in order to ensure relevant decisions and positive support during the implementation phase of the project.

Committed Operators. if the key operating team has contributed to the development of the new process and the reviews, it will be an asset when the start-up goes through difficult periods. The difference between success and failure of new technology is often close enough that attitudes can make the difference.

New Technology Guarantees. The purchase of a "guaranteed" new undemonstrated technology package does not relieve the purchaser of the need to do detailed reviews of the project during the design phase. For new technology eve effort must be made to ensure that the homework" is done to minimize surprises. An innovative project which fails to perform as expected can become a very expensive package of second hand hardware regardless of guarantees.

Comprehensive check lists exist for project development and should be given complete attention by the design team.

Turning now to the more positive side, the following conditions provide a favourable climate for innovation.

Significant Problem. There must be a recognized problem which, if solved, would represent a significant economic and/or environmental improvement.

Champion. There must be at least one person with the conviction, enthusiasm, and energy in a leadership position to drive the project through to implementation. The champion must be able to explain the proposed technology, however complex, in simple understandable terms, particularly to those paying the bills.

Favorable Corporate Climate. if the innovation is to be developed within a corporation, there must be recognized policy of seeking innovations to enhance proritability. Very few innovations will come out of a corporation where the management is driven by fear, and the corporate climate favors the 'status quo'.

The corporation or funding managers must be willing to understand the basic technology involved, as well as the economic goals. Once committed, management should be consistent and flexible) in their support and interest, as well as having realistic expectations about the timing, cost, manpower and other resource allocations.

Recognition. The most important reward for innovative people is appropriate recognition, particularly from their peers, for their contribution. Since there is always a risk of failure or negative surprises, recognition during the work should be in the form of support and later only, in accolades and monetary forms.

Chemical Engineering Problem Solving. when confronted with a critical industrial environmental problem, the optimal approach should be to examine all aspects of the problem with a view to improving the performance of the primary process rather than applying a costly "band aid" to simply treat the wastes. The chemical engineer has the tools to examine the whole process system as the following example illustrates.

The environmental problem of an existing Electrolytic Zinc Plant as originally presented to the process engineers required the treatment of six million gallons of waste water containing heavy metals per day. Some of the effluent contained a substantial amount of acid and the majority of the waste water was generated in a vacuum evaporative electrolyte cooling system. A process change was tested and implemented using turbulent contact absorber towers to evaporate cool electrolyte in atmospheric air, eliminating 90% of the plant's water requirement. Other conservation measures reduced the volume another 5% and considerable laboratory test work was carried out to look for a use for the acidic waste water. it was found that the acidic effluent could be used to extract magnesium from locally available zinc concentrates making them acceptable feed for the zinc plant. These concentrates were previously considered unacceptable to the electrolytic process. The final result was:

* three process projects instead of one for

approximately the same capital investment

improved flexibility in feed source for the


* compact effluent treatment plant treating

5% of the original flow volume.

Innovation Opportunities

Increasing globalization, combined with the higher cost of capital, have made it increasingly more difficult to implement new processes in North America. The increasing global mobility of capital, however, will provide pressure to narrow interest rate differences and to also level out taxation rates between different countries. This should provide a more "level playing field" for the development and implementation of new technology in North America compared to Europe and japan. Competent, well trained people will make the difference. in Canada, the resource-based industries must continue to create new technology in order to survive. The increasing adoption of cradle to grave" responsibility for environmental impacts is adding to the impact on design criteria and problem solving in existing operations.

The environmental movement provides opportunities for chemical engineering innovations.

We can now define some interesting problems which should receive considerable innovative inputs over the next 25 years. In the Canadian context, we can take pleasure in knowing that we have abundant natural resources and with this base we have the opportunity to provide technological leadership for a long time to come.

Energy and Natural Resources. The thrust is towards more efficient transportation the search for better or different motive power in vehicles and the conundrum over increasing CO.sub.2, in the atmosphere. in the meantime we continue to use gasoline and diesel fuel and we are running out of conventional crude reserves in North America. The petroleum industry in Canada has recently reported that their greatest problem is the high cost of finding and developing new sources. Hibernia represents a huge investment In a difficult risky undersea operation. At the same time ultimate hydrocarbon recoveries from Pembina, which is Canada's largest conventional oil field, are expected to be 20% or lower. if we can increase recovery in Pembina by just 8%, this is equivalent to an additional Hibernia. Clearly there is a need for cost-effective technology to increase the recoveries from conventional fields! Cost-effective technology on a smaller scale "quick is beautiful") to extract oil from the Alberta Oil sands is also needed.

For utilities, nuclear and solar power are perceived to be at the opposite ends of the environmental spectrum and have uncertain futures due either to public opinion or costs. Innovative improvements are clearly needed. in the long run, even at our latitudes, solar power is likely to win out.

Metals and Extractive Metallurgy.

Canada is a recognized leader but as improvements occur new problems arise to challenge the process engineers. The industry is responding to the combined effect of competition and environmental pressures and there will be continuing development work aimed at recycling of all metals.

The steel industry is continually increasing the overall amount of recycling from scrap. This move towards recycling has caused an increase in the production of unwanted by-products or wastes such as furnace fume which contains heavy metal oxide dusts which are difficult to treat in a cost-effective manner. There is a need to find a process which could treat these dusts at the source at a reasonable cost on a comparatively small scale.

The growing problems of ponding jarosite residues may result in fundamental changes in the processing routes for zinc.

In addition to the very high proportion of recycling already achieved, primary smelting will go through a revolutionary change driven by environmental pressures. off-shore companies are leading the development of new technology, for this problem.

Some key challenges in non-ferrous sulphide technology are: continuing sulphur dioxide abatement; improving mineral separations in the mills partictilarly pyrhotite rejection; more intense smelting systems with oxygen LO reduce capital costs and automation and quality control. Pulp and Paper. In Canada this industry is facing major changes stemming from environmental concerns including: use less forest by recycling paper and reduce the chlorine usage. Efforts are underway to develop inks and ink removers that leave recycled fibres comparatively clean, to increase the recovery of fibre from wood, to develop specialty high value products in order to compete from remote locations, and to improve existing waste disposal systems.


All major resource-based companies are facing global competition combined with environmental pressures. Meeting these challenges will require innovative engineering but the overall effects must be to create leading edge technology wherever possible to maximze the chances of survival. The leadership of the industries which involve chemical transformations must be provided by people who are knowledgable in the technologies involved, have a clear view of the world outside their own area and have a sound understanding of business economics. This should provide opportunities for well trained chemical engineers into the foreseeable future.


1. Shinnar, R., Avidan, A.I., Chemical

Engineering Progress, july 1988, pp.


2. Landau, R., Chemical Engineering

Progress, September 1989, pp. 25 39.

3. Bodman, S.W., Chemical Engineering

Progress, December 1989, pp. 21-24.

4. Scriven, L.E., Chemical Engineering

Progress, December 1987, 65-69.

5. Our Common Future, The World Commission

on Environment and Development,

Oxford University Press, 1987.

6. Hatch, G.G. Canadian Chemical News,

June 1991, pp. 23-2b.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Chemical Institute of Canada
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Author:Nenniger, Emil H.
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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