Global Experts Contribute Know-How in Integration and Optimization of Unit Operations

unit operations

Over my career of 40 years in the process industry and unit operations, writing has always been a passion for me.  It represents an opportunity to convey concepts, ideas, and technical information in a manner that makes sense to the audience.  My technical and marketing application articles — more than 150 to date — culminated in 2015 with the publication of my first book for Elsevier, Handbook of Solid-Liquid Filtration.

On the strength of the Handbook’s market acceptance, Elsevier asked me to propose a second book.  I am now pleased to announce the just-published book, which I edited, Integration and Optimization of Unit Process Operations.

First, this book is not another textbook for designing equipment and technology.  There are already many references, university courses, etc., for this work and teaching the “nuts and bolts” of pumps, heat exchangers, distillation towers, thermodynamics, etc.

This book takes a different approach to share up-to-date and practical information on chemical unit operations from the R & D stage to scale-up and demonstration to commercialization and optimization.  At each stage, the information presented differs as the technology and issues faced at the lab scale change in commercialization and optimization.  This book takes a broader view and encourages an integrated and holistic approach to chemical engineering.

Global experts offer integrated and holistic view

A global collection of industry experts, with a combined 350 years of experience, systematically discuss all innovation stages, complex processes with different unit operations, including solids processing and recycle flows, and the importance of integrated process validation.  Each chapter discusses a specific step in a chemical process with design questions, troubleshooting ideas, etc.

The organization of the chapters follows that of a chemical operating company no matter the size of the operation.  It begins with crystallization and fermentation.  Then, there are discussions of the process equipment followed by automation, mixing and blending, process modelling and safety and commissioning.  We then discuss optimization, project management, techno-economic analysis and “putting it all together.” The book concludes with a chapter on decommissioning which is important, as processes change, products change, and the market itself changes.

The book addresses the needs of engineers who want to increase their skill levels in various disciplines so that they can develop, commercialize, and optimize processes.  It is a useful resource for collaborating and developing creative solutions.

I hope that the information from the experiences of the contributing authors will help you to succeed in your careers and personal growth.  Let me know how P&ID can assist you.


Safely mothballing and decommissioning plants

Helping to solve process problems and install equipment and technology solutions is always great fun. I've had forty plus years now meeting these challenges in the chemical, pharma, energy, environmental, and water industries. Now, I'm involved in battery materials processing too!  Throughout all these experiences, sometimes the task is mothballing or decommissioning plants. This could be as a result of market conditions, economic forces, or simple process obsolescence. It's sad to see a plant go, but it is important to prioritize safety.

In one case, for a broad-spectrum antibiotic, I worked with the client's team in the lab, on the pilot plant, and finally in the equipment specification, purchase and install for 3+ years. The client was positive of the FDA approval, so they constructed the plant, in advance, to get the antibiotic to market once approved. Unfortunately, the drug failed the Phase 3 Clinical Trials. We then worked with the client to mothball the facility. Fortunately, it was eventually restarted for a much more successful outcome.

In another case of chemical plant decommissioning, the market for the product changed from North America to Asia. The client decided to decommission the plant I'd worked on and move all the technology to Asia.

Actually, the more I think about this topic, the more examples I can find. But one essential thing is the same — It takes careful planning to mothball or dismantle / decommission  a plant.

Decommissioning Plants Safely

In my recent article in Chemical Processing, Safely Decommission And Decontaminate Plants, co-authored with Vinay Devgon, retired Technology Director from Bayer CropScience, we cover the steps for mothballing and dismantling. We explain that the same manner of organizing and executing is required in decommissioning plants as is seen in a design-and-construction project. There also needs to be a  special emphasis on personnel safety and environmental compliance.

It can be hard and sad to demolish equipment. While it is only a mechanical part, personnel become attached to the equipment and remember the good production days and the difficult troubleshooting nights. But, sometimes it has to be done

At the end of the process, discussed in more detail in the article, there should be a final project report. Seek to capture any lessons learned that could be helpful to engineers in the future. Remember, a plant closure / demolition means that a new plant / process is being built and developed. So, looking on the bright side, the integration and optimization will begin again.

This blog and the related article are excerpted from my new book, Integration and Optimization of Unit Operations. Find more industry-focused insights on my P&ID website. In the meantime, if you need assistance with dismantling, mothballing, or decommissioning of a process or plant, Vinay and I are ready to assist you.


Taking Yoga Lessons into Technical Sales

I have long been a devotee of yoga. With business travel limited and most sales calls moving remote in recent years, I've relied on my practice to power my technical sales. How? I find yoga and meditation can help me keep my composure and work towards the desired result: The Sale.

The teachings of yoga and meditation can help improve your performance during stressful video calls. After all, some of the key ideas are:

  • Use controlled, deep breathing to stay relaxed and focused.
  • Remain in the present.
  • React to events in a detached, non-judgmental manner.
  • Practice and prepare to perform at your best.

All that translates in technical sales

As we know, technical sales require selling value and not pushing product features. Selling value starts with understanding customers’ needs. One of the best ways to uncover customer needs is through in-depth interviews. Unfortunately, inexperienced or poorly trained sales people often find these customer conversations extremely stressful. When people are in what they perceive to be stressful or dangerous situations, fight-or-flight instincts kick in.

I've seen it happen. I was with a process sales engineer when the customer made a relatively innocuous comment about a different idea for the process filtration and drying solution. The engineer lost his composure and began arguing with the customer. Needless to say, the meeting did not go well. With more discussions and e-mails, and without the sales engineer, I was able to re-establish the customer trust. This example highlights the need for staying relaxed and focused when conducting effective customer-needs assessment sessions.

Applying the four yoga principles

  1. Leverage the power of the breath

When under stress, we take shorter breaths. Yet, research has proven that taking longer, deeper, slower breaths has a calming effect. Knowing that, engineers should do some slow, deep breathing prior to any customer conversations.

  1. Be in the moment.

The best customer interviews can never be fully scripted. So, paying attention to what the customer is saying is vital. By being in the moment you will also be able to ask appropriate follow-up questions. A good way to start is by minimizing distractions. Turn off your phone. Minimize excess motion such as wiggling your leg or clicking a pen. Consciously maintain eye contact and watch the customer's mouth move. Before you respond, take a moment to absorb what they are saying. Then ask a follow-up question. Writing the purpose of your visit at the top of your pad can also help you stay in the moment.

  1. Avoid being judgmental

To ensure our survival, we have hyper-developed our ability to identify and flee from danger. This helped people avoid becoming a saber-toothed tiger’s meal. Still, it is counterproductive when we want to have a learning conversation with a customer. We tend to overreact to customer comments (our modern version of danger), take them personally, and potentially misinterpret them. If a customer makes a negative comment, recognize it for what it is. Instead of focusing on the implications of the customer’s comments, focus on understanding the customer and his or her goals and challenges. The customer’s expressed concern may not be the real issue. Instead of reacting, focus on asking some probing questions, listening sympathetically, and seeing it from the customer’s point of view.

  1. Practice and prepare to perform at your best.

Yoga and meditation are known as practices. As we do them repeatedly, we get better at them. Confidence gained through repeated practice can help you keep focused on your goals for the sales call and get the most out of it.

Some of the things to prepare prior to a technical sales customer conversation include:

  • A statement of the purpose of the conversation, including how the customer will benefit
  • A list of hypotheses you want to test
  • A conversation guide to keep things on track
  • A process to ensure that action items don’t get dropped

Namaste and signing the dotted line

These four principles of yoga and meditation–breath control, remaining in the moment, avoiding judgment, practice and preparation–can help you relax and perform at your best in customer conversations.

Let me know any other connections you see between yoga and technical sales. For me, combining the two together is a foundation  for productivity, efficiency, and growing personal and business health.


Addressing Climate Change One Sustainable Martini at a Time

I've found another example of innovation we can toast to — quite literally! With this new discovery, we can feel we're addressing climate change one sustainable martini at a time. Yes, while enjoying my vodka martini with sweet vermouth, I have been known to ponder sustainability and the planet's future. Who doesn't?

I came across a company in New York City that has created what it calls the “world’s most sustainable spirit” The Air Company makes its vodka out of carbon dioxide captured from the air. The 40% proof drink, appropriately called Air Vodka, removes a pound of CO2 from the atmosphere for each bottle of vodka made.

The company, which started manufacturing from a Brooklyn plant in 2019, produces about 5,000 cases of vodka a year. Gregory Constantine, an Australian entrepreneur, started the climate-friendly distillery with Stafford Sheehan. The duo claims that traditional vodka, which involves the fermentation of grains, releases about 15 pounds of CO2 for each bottle made. The Air Company's process changes that.

The innovative vodka process

The Air Company takes CO2, either sucked directly from the air or captured at source at industrial facilities and combines it with hydrogen created through electrolysis – the process where electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The technology used to merge these elements creates ethanol which, when combined with water, becomes a vodka.

The carbon conversion reactor is a tubular, fixed-bed flow system. The CO2 and H2 rise to the top of each tube, which are filled with a patented catalyst. This creates a chemical reaction that produces a reactor liquid. The reactor liquid is composed of ethanol (C2H5OH), methanol (CH3OH) and water (H2O). From there, it goes through a distillation process that separates the reactor liquid.  Ethanol, methanol and water all have different boiling points. Therefore, when heated to a specific temperature, they separate. First, the ethanol and methanol are separated from the water. Then, the process repeats to separate the methanol from the ethanol. The ethanol and water are combined in large steel totes and mixed by hand to produce “air vodka.”

Putting carbon emissions on ice

Continuing the innovation, Air Company is also using a similar process to make a hand sanitizer and to create a new fragrance called Air Eau de Parfum. Still, I'm most excited about addressing climate change by selecting a sustainable brand. It's time to make what they call an "airtini."

There is a lot to be said for being able to enjoy a drink and care about the climate at the same time. I am sure that there are other distilleries using other innovative techniques for sustainable liquor production. Investigate your local distillery and let me know your favorite. Hope to have a cocktail with you soon!


Sustainability for Agriculture Irrigation

 

Did you know agriculture irrigation accounts for 70% of the water used worldwide? That’a a lot. At the same time, most of the world relies on flood irrigation to water crops as a more efficient alternative has proved elusive. Any innovations have not been widely adopted due to expense. Yet, one Israeli soil physicist has provided a sustainable solution in a tiny plastic widget.

This modest innovation in drip irrigation could forever change agriculture, especially in resource-starved environments.

In places where rainfall is insufficient, irrigation is critical. Despite all the innovation that has made its way into agriculture irrigation in recent years, 85% is still done by releasing vast quantities of water across the surface of a field. Yes, that’s the same way it was managed thousands of years ago.

Flood irrigation has hung on because it is cash cheap. However, from a natural-resource perspective, it is staggeringly expensive. As much as 70% of the water goes to waste. Plus, overwatered crops can fail to reach their full potential. Additionally, excess fertilizer is carried away by the runoff to contaminate streams, wetlands, and lakes.

Microdrip irrigation was supposed to solve all that

Yet today, while there are hundreds of drip irrigation companies, the technology is applied to less than 5% of irrigated acres globally. That’s usually to big-ticket crops such as almonds, wine grapes, and tomatoes. Cost is the limiting factor. The whole setup amounts to at least $2,000 an acre, plus energy bills. For lower-value crops such as cotton or alfalfa, drip irrigation simply does not pay.

The good news is that there is a new alternative. This season an innovative experiment is being installed by the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) for various commodity crops. Israeli irrigation startup, N-Drip has developed a system promising drastic water savings without the prohibitive costs. We’re talking down from the $2,000 to $400/per acre.

In a standard drip system an emitter, about the size of a Tic Tac, is fastened inside every hole in those humble black plastic dripper lines. Water comes out in measured droplets as its movement is regulated through an exceedingly narrow, maze-like channel inside the emitter. The resistance produced is the reason so much pressure is required to move water from one end of a field to the other.

New innovation in agricultural irrigation

Now, along comes the new type of emitter with zero, yes…zero pressure drop. The many additional technical details are beyond the scope of this blog. But, Chuck Cullom of CRIT is convinced to give it a try. He told Bloomberg, he was originally “superskeptical…It sounded like a unicorn solution.” Yet, in 2020, CRIT Farms tried the system out on 40 acres of sorghum and “cut water use in half, while slightly improving the quality of the crops.”

The most crucial point is that an innovation, big or small, can have a major impact on society. Keep following this blog for more discoveries. And don’t hesitate your own innovative ideas with me too at [email protected]