Skip to main content

Integrated Control and Sensing for Sustainable Operation of Flexible Intensified Processes

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CONSENS (Integrated Control and Sensing for Sustainable Operation of Flexible Intensified Processes)

Reporting period: 2015-01-01 to 2016-06-30

The future competitiveness of the European chemical industry depends on its ability to deliver high quality and high value products at competitive prices in a sustainable fashion, and to adapt quickly to changing customer needs. The use of flexible intensified continuous processes is a promising strategy towards this goal. Compared to traditional batch processes, intensified continuous production gives access to new and difficult to produce chemical compounds, leads to better product uniformity and reduces the consumption of raw materials and energy drastically. Flexible (modular) chemical plants can produce different products using the same equipment with short down-times between the campaigns, and enable companies to bring new products to the market quickly. As an analysis within the former project “F³ Factory” has shown, full automation is a prerequisite to realize the benefits of intensified small and medium scale continuous plants. In traditional batch production mode which is widely used in the specialties sector, a batch can be put on hold to take samples and analyse them in the lab and then to decide on corrective measures. In contrast, continuous flow processes necessitate automated real-time measurements and tight closed-loop control of the product quality. If these are not available, there is a huge risk of producing large amounts of off-spec product. These would then require rework or even must be treated as waste, thus causing high cost and high consumption of energy and of raw materials. Therefore, the main goal of the CONSENS project is to advance the continuous production of high-value products that meet high quality demands in flexible intensified continuous plants by introducing novel online sensing equipment and closed-loop control of the key product parameters. CONSENS will focus on flexible continuous plants but the results in the areas of sensing, control, and performance monitoring will be transferable also to large-scale continuous processes.
Three case studies are being prepared for the integrated validation of the novel technologies: Intensified continuous organic synthesis in a tubular reactor, intensified continuous polymer production in a kneader reactor, and continuous formulation of complex liquids. Two of them are modular containerized pilot plants that were constructed in the former project “F³ Factory”. Required modifications to the pilot plants were planned, and safety assessments were performed to ensure a safe validation. Moreover, first experiments were conducted on the pilot plant of the third case study to collect data for the data-driven control.

Within the first 18 months of the CONSENS project, three novel sensors were developed which can continuously measure relevant process parameters in industrial plants: a fast and explosion protected sensor measuring the concentration of chemical substances in liquid mixtures using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, a fast non-invasive sensor for measuring the flow behaviour of liquids (rheology of complex non-Newtonian fluids), and a non-invasive sensor measuring the thickness of incrustations inside a tubular reactor. The sensor requirements were derived from the case studies, lab-scale sensors were developed and validated in lab experiments, and the final prototypes of the sensors are being completed for application in the case studies. For the closed-loop control of the key parameters, dynamic models of the case-studies, a self-adapting optimizing control method, and a data-driven control method were developed and validated in simulation experiments. The finalization of the process models requires experimental data from the case-studies which will become available in the third year of CONSENS. Moreover, novel methodologies were developed for online sensor failure detection, performance monitoring, and early design evaluation of control solutions. The corresponding software prototypes are being implemented. The first two concepts could already be validated in a preliminary setup using data from real commercial plants.
The technologies being developed in the CONSENS project are mostly completely new, unique, and provide capabilities that are not available on the market. E.g. in contrast to conventional optical sensors (e.g. NIR, Raman), NMR spectroscopy permits to observe minor changes in functional groups such as aromatics-to-aliphatic conversions or isomerisations, and to measure the composition of turbid media and liquid dispersions. The non-invasive inline measuring of incrustation layers and of fluid rheology is not available at all. The same applies to intelligent sensor failure detection techniques which are a prerequisite for the long-term use of sophisticated Process Analyser Technology (PAT). Novel PAT-based adaptive control concepts combine model information with online data for robust performance and fast adaptation to new products. Such schemes are not available for flexible plants yet. The methodology for early-stage design evaluation of PAT-based control solutions under realistic scenarios, as well as the performance monitoring technique considering long-term shifts of the process optimum ensure that the overall system is set up and operated permanently in an optimal way, but are not current practice. The ambition of CONSENS is to close all these gaps.

CONSENS will provide an impact on the whole European chemical and other processing industries by
1. making processes resilient to variances in feed-stocks and to external disturbances,
2. enabling the migration of batch processes to flexible continuous intensified processes, and
3. enhancing fast development of new products.

An enormous impact will be achieved, because this enables to:
- develop quickly highly innovative high-value products tailored to customer needs
- adopt flexible production concepts for products with short life-cycles
- achieve high quality levels and produce within narrow specification ranges
- achieve a high productivity of the production facilities, i.e. increase throughput, yield, and reliability, and reduce down-times, durations of change-over and amounts of off-spec products
- increase the energy and resource efficiency of production, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce the ecological footprint of products

The following contributions can be concluded from the case studies*:
- Financial savings: > 265 M€/year
- Reduction of CO2 emissions: > 400,000 t/year
- Less consumption of non-renewable raw materials (solvents): 176,000 t/year
- Acceleration in the development of new products: 2x faster additional innovations, 2x shorter times-to-markets
*) Considered EU markets: pharmaceutical and fine chemicals industry, consumer chemicals, production of polyamides, polyester polyols, and thermoplastic polyester polymers.

It is expected that the market share of European chemical production plants on the global market will increase by ca. 3% due to better quality, innovative products and higher competitiveness. Also the European instrumentation vendors will benefit from the CONSENS project, as the demand for the innovative sensors will lead to higher turnovers. Several project partners intend to develop and produce products based on the project results in Europe.

The savings of resources and energy as well as the acceleration of process development and implementation show that CONSENS will help the European chemical and other process industries and vendors to have technological advancement and increase of market share world-wide, and to increase the social responsibility of creating wealth and employment, of assuring a high quality of life, of diminishing threats to health of customers, employees, and citizens, and of using the natural resources in a sustainable way to preserve them for future generations.
Measuring Principle of the Online NMR Sensor
Overview of the Consens Project Consortium
Pilot Plant used in Case Study 1
Consens Logo
Pilot Plant used in Case Study 3
Consens Symbol
Overview of the Characteristics and Benefits of Intensified Processes
Overview of the Case Studies and the Technologies to be validated
Measuring Principle of the Online Fouling Sensor
Summary of the Expected Impacts
Measuring Principle of the Online Rheology Sensor
Pilot Plant used in Case Study 2