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European Training Network for Continuous Sonication and Microwave Reactors

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - COSMIC (European Training Network for Continuous Sonication and Microwave Reactors)

Reporting period: 2016-10-01 to 2018-09-30

COSMIC, the European Training Network for Continuous Sonication and Microwave Reactors, addresses the problem that the European chemical industry still relies on conservative production technologies and is reluctant to introduce new production technologies with better performance. In Europe, batch and continuously stirred tank reactors are the workhorses of the chemical industry. The focus lies on making these reactors bigger to cope with the required larger production volumes. Because of this strive for ever-larger batches, we created production processes with some serious drawbacks such as excessive energy consumption, poor efficiency, variable product quality, high emissions and limited flexibility in production volumes.

As a result of this focus on conservative production technologies, companies in lower-labour-cost markets are able to produce chemicals at a lower cost than their European competitors. Consequently, the European share in the global chemical market decreased significantly. In 1995, Europe was responsible for 32% of the chemical sales in the world. 20 years later, this share has dropped to 15% (see Figure 1). Hence, also the number of people employed in this industry dropped significantly from 1.6 million in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2015. This is particular important for Europe’s economy because the chemical industry is one of the most important manufacturing industries in Europe.

This difference in labour-costs is not likely to be solved in the near future. A key strategy to stop this decline in market share is therefore to develop competitive production technologies which offer performance beyond that of Europe’s rivals. One of these competitive production technologies is milli-flow reactors. These reactors show the potential to be superior, in terms of resource efficiency and product quality, compared to batch and continuously stirred tank reactors. The COSMIC project supports and trains the chemical industry with the introduction of these reactors in their processes. It introduces ultrasound and microwaves in these milli-flow reactors and makes it possible to use these reactors for the production of a wider range of chemicals. The use of these reactors for organic synthesis and the formation of nanoparticles is investigated in the project. Application areas of these focus domains are medicines, zeolites, plastics, catalysts etc. In the COSMIC project, 15 young researchers are trained through responsible research and innovation in these technologies. This will lead to further understanding of the knowledge gaps and transfer of the developed technologies into the chemical industry via real applications and knowledge gained by these researchers.
The work performed in the COSMIC project can be divided into 4 groups. The first group investigates the use of ultrasound and microwaves in flow reactors for the synthesis of organic chemicals. Ultrasound and microwaves are used to produce organic molecules which are later used in for example pharmaceutical drugs or plastic products. Ultrasound successfully increases the yield of carboxylic acids products of an oxidative cleavage reaction which are used for the production of chemicals for plastics for sport shoes, gas pipes, coffee machines, tubing etc. Also, the researchers in the COSMIC project synthesized more than 28 new organic components in these flow reactors.

The second group uses the same technologies but for the production of nanoparticles. New designs for ultrasound and microwave milli-flow reactors are developed and tested for the production of several types of (nano)particles. Nickel, copper, silver and iron oxide-based nanoparticles are, for example, synthesized and successfully used as catalysts to support the chemical reactions of the first group. Figure 2 shows an example of iron oxide nanoparticles which are used for the creation of thermoresponsive nanogels with healthcare applications. Increased synthesis yield, reduced production times and narrower particle size distributions are obtained for several (nano)particles compared to conventional technologies.

The third group assists the two previous groups on the development of very efficient ultrasound and microwave reactors. Models are developed to simulate the effects of ultrasound and microwaves and it is studied how ultrasound can prevent the particles present in the small flow reactors from clogging them. Also the combined use of ultrasound and microwaves and their synergistic effects are studied. The researchers in this group showed that the process time of several chemical reactions (e.g. deracemization of isoindolinones and the reduction of dyphenylacetilene) can be reduced significantly (30% and 83%, resp.) and that less byproducts are produced by using ultrasound and/or microwaves.

Finally, the fourth group focusses on the environmental and economic impact of the ultrasound and microwave technologies. The environmental and economic impact of the production of nanoparticles in a milli-flow reactor is estimated. This allows to make decisions on the environmental and economic impact of the technologies developed in the COSMIC project.
The COSMIC project is the first project of this size focused on applying ultrasound and microwaves in continuous milli-flow reactors. Most research before this project applied ultrasound and microwaves in batch vessels. The limited penetration depth of ultrasound and microwaves makes scale-up in these batch vessels not straight-forward. The same problems arise as with the conventional batch and continuously-stirred-tank reactors. The COSMIC project, in contrast, takes another approach and applies ultrasound and microwaves in continuous milli-flow reactors. Several new reactor designs are developed and tested on a number of chemical reactions including commercial reactions already applied in industry today. Researchers go, with their new reactors, on short visits to equipment manufacturers or industrial partners to further optimize their designs. These short visits physically bring the new ideas and designs to all beneficiaries. This allows in the end to introduce ultrasound and microwaves faster in real-life industrial production.

The results obtained for one particular reaction is so promising that KU Leuven, Arkema and Weber, together with other partners outside the COSMIC consortium, decided to go one step further. They launched a new project to develop this technique further to a larger (pilot) scale , which will demonstrate the use of ultrasound in an ultrasound-assisted oscillatory baffled flow reactor. This pilot scale is a serious and important step towards the implementation of this technology in a real-life industrial process.
EU share in world market of chemical sales
Hybrid nanogels for healthcare applications