Efficient Plant May 2019 - 15

feature | pilot plants
Argo Genesis partnered with EPIC Systems to
take a newly formulated asphalt additive and
scale it to a pilot plant level of production.
EPIC designed and fabricated this two-phase
batch-reaction-to-distillation pilot plant.

it thought would work really does. Or, second,
it will discover something unexpected and can
then find solutions and feel confident moving
forward. Or, third, it can find things that cannot be remedied, which will halt the full-scale
project." In the end, he concluded, maybe the
company spends $5 to $10 million on a pilot
plant rather than $150 million on a full-scale
operation.
"Pilot plants are the true workhorse of the
process-development industry," said David
Edwards, P.E., vice president, sales and marketing for Zeton Inc., Burlington, Ontario, Canada (zeton.com), which completes laboratory,
pilot-plant, demonstration-plant, and small
modular-production-plant projects around
the world. "As chemical or biological processes
are scaled from the laboratory to production,
pilot plants provide the first window into
continuous, as opposed to batch, processing. It
will often incorporate unreacted feed/product
recycle so the mass balance can be closed."
Companies are using this idea to experiment with everything from plasma technology
to spinning-disc reactors, to reactive distillation units. "There are a lot of new technolo-

MAY 2019

gies out there that companies are now really
working to create scaled pilot plants for," Schott
said. "We've developed projects in just about
every industry, including pharmaceutical, food
and beverage, industrial chemicals, consumer products, petrochemicals, it's all over the
board. And [they're] all for the fundamental
purposes of de-risking the expense of building
a full-scale facility that may not work. De-risking is the key word and the main reason
companies build pilot plants."
Many companies, however, will skip pilot
plants and go straight to full-scale production.
Schott and Edwards agree this approach is a
mistake, especially with innovative, untested
process technologies.
"Often, the thinking is that the cost of a
pilot plant is too high. But [investing] millions
of dollars in a commercial-sized system that
doesn't work is ultimately more expensive,"
Schott said. "Pilot plants are an excellent
risk-mitigation strategy for process scale-up at
a fraction of the investment."
There is a substantial amount of money
on the line when start to scale a process from
a laboratory setting to a commercial plant.

"You might have reaction data and theoretical
models describing every conceivable detail
of the reaction taking place. Yet taking them
from process to production scale is still a big
unknown. Turning the unknowns into something manageable and scalable is the role of a
pilot plant."
Process equipment does not scale linearly,
which, although it is an unnoticeable effect at
the small scale, can have huge ramifications in
a production plant, Schott explained.
"Modeling the process can catch some
of these changes, but there are still a lot of
assumptions in even the most sophisticated
of computer models," he said. "Although it
can be easy to let yourself think that a reactor
is a reactor, whether it's 50 milliliters or 5,000
gallons, there are some fundamental challenges
that must be vetted out and overcome. An
investment made in a pilot plant can demonstrate your process technology is ready for
production scale. It saves money by catching
design issues early on, and it increases the
likelihood of securing funding for new technologies. A pilot plant will greatly reduce your
risk and provide a feasible path to successful
commercial production."

ADVANTAGES
A pilot plant allows companies to collect
real-time data that can help to ensure a fullscale production plant runs properly. It allows
experimentation with such items as inputs,
outputs, and processing time for streamlining
the process.
"Jumping from lab scale straight to full
production can result in problematic mixing,
product output, and slow or hard-to-control
reactions," Schott explained. "Since chemical
processes don't scale linearly, it can be difficult
EFFICIENTPLANTMAG.COM |

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Efficient Plant May 2019

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