Ask An Expert, Joel Maul, Director of Client Services, Industrial & Technology Assistance Corporation (ITAC), image of Joel Maul over a lightbulb with machine gears

Ask An Expert: Joel Maul

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For this edition of “Ask an Expert” we spoke with Joel Maul, Director of Client Services for ITAC, the New York Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Center for New York City. At ITAC, Joel works to develop engineering principals for the chemical process industries by working with the American Institute of Chemical Engineering’s Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Institute. RAPID is a Manufacturing USA Institute that supports process intensification and modular manufacturing for the chemical industry.

Please explain “process intensification,” and “modular manufacturing” in language the average person can understand.

Chemical engineers are trained to think about a process as independent steps in a series of operations. Fluids and/or solids are pumped, mixed, heated and/or cooled, separated and go through reactions in independent units. For example, to make chocolate candy: the raw beans are washed, cooked, ground, stirred into a liquid, may be cooked some more, allowed to cool, cut to shape and packaged. Process intensification looks to combine these six or seven steps into 2 or 3. Perhaps cooking, grinding and stirring can be a single step. Could the heat derived from the cooling process be returned to the reaction’s cooking step? The goal is to lower the energy use, drive efficiency and perhaps even increase productive capacity.

Modular manufacturing is a ‘Lego’ approach to building a processing plant. A large oil refinery typically spans hundreds of acres, and has many different units processing chemicals, each highly customized. A modular mindset thinks of numbering up these plants’ process units instead of building for scale. The modules are standardized and manufacturing economies of scale (of the components and modules) drives down costs. Moving from custom designed parts with various maintenance schedules to lower volume, and higher quantities of modules (numbering up) provides a variety of business and operating efficiencies, including more reliable production, rationally planned maintenance and reduced spare parts inventory. In addition, because the modules are standardized, various industries and markets could benefit in the production of pumps, catalysts, and vessels.

Discuss the barriers to process intensification.

There are several barriers to process intensification, but when looking at the reasons given as to why adoption is uncommon, I find two core issues: Cost and the availability of technology.

The chemical industry has a 150-year history in the US of processing items into more useful and valuable goods. Over the past century, infrastructure has been created to support standard ways of operating. Taking a process and looking at it in novel ways may be innovative but is costly. The cost of developing and deploying new technology can be prohibitive. While strategic investments can fund research, the need to deploy the technology must be risk assessed, as risk avoidance is an issue. As opposed to more commonly used technology, new technology suffers from a lack of life events that more commonly used technology doesn’t. The larger the scale and output demands, the more risk adverse manufacturers are for the cost associated with changing operations.

As technology advances, new materials and ways of performing tasks are introduced. However, some new ideas require new ‘things’ to make processes work. Feedstock selection, the types of fabrication techniques needed, and environmental impacts require extensive study before deployment. Though the technology may be available, ensuring continued and safe operability requires even more testing. In short, we don’t have all the technology needed to make process intensification feasible in all cases.

How can manufacturers engage with the institute and what do they need to know to make the most of the relationship?

The easiest way to engage the institute is to contact RAPID directly or those MEP centers which are associated Manufacturing USA Institutes. There are meetings, webinars and a multitude of events which are part of the RAPID offering. Calling or emailing representatives like me offers the best view of what RAPID does. The Institutes are membership organizations and membership does have its benefits related to project participation and industry insights; however, each of these projects needs a manufacturer to make key components. Asking your MEP representative how a company’s skills overlap with the needs of the members’ projects is the most direct line for success.

Can you tell us about a particular RAPID project to give an example of what the Institute does?

RAPID has broken its work into six focus areas: Chemical Commodity Processes, Intensified Process Fundamentals, Modeling and Simulation, Modular Manufacturing, Natural Gas Upgrading, and Renewable Bioproducts.

One example from the Chemical Commodity Processing focus area is The Energy Efficient Separation of Olefins and Paraffins through a Membrane. Compact Membranes Systems (CMS), in Delaware, is the project owner and is developing an alternative means to separate fluids over traditional distillation techniques. Project success would mean chemical refiners could use lower energy methods to operate plants, thereby saving billions of dollars.

RAPID provided approximately one-third of the funding to further develop this solution. Funding is a critical component of deploying MCPI, but in the words of Dr. Hannah Murnen, Chief Technology Officer of CMS, the RAPID network provides much more than money. The network of members that support each other and the exchange of ideas are the greatest resources that RAPID offers. That said, CMS’s research using doped membranes for separation promises to yield excellent results.

What else should we know about RAPID and what it has to offer.

RAPID is seeking New York State companies and organizations as members. We need manufacturers who are looking to build the technology that will deliver naturals gas, produce ammonia, process wastewater, freshwater, food, medicine, nanotechnology and many of the other goods that society requires. Any manufacturer can simply contact me or RAPID to discuss how they can support this growing industry.

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