The Chemical Industry is undergoing a digital upheaval

"Speed becomes a competitive advantage" is the title of an interview in the trade magazine Chemie Technik in April 2022 with Tobias Gehlhaar, Managing Director of the Chemicals, Basic Materials and Utilities Division at Accenture on a study they prepared on the future of the chemical industry.

Chemistry is undoubtedly one of the great leading industries in Germany. It's really about the heavy industry and, accordingly, the challenges are similar. "The exciting thing for me here is especially how companies from this sector are now increasingly approaching topics such as digitalisation and AI and adopting new technologies," says Gehlhaar, adding, "I believe that it is necessary for companies in the current phase of upheaval to place one or two 'bets' on the future."

He sees one problem with the issue of fuel procurement and energy efficiency and believes that we will see much more cooperation between the two areas in the future. One stumbling block here, he says, is that German industrial companies in particular are very reluctant to enter into partnerships at eye level. The idea that you alone have to determine value creation is in part very deeply anchored in corporate cultures.

Where will it go in the Future?

There are certainly examples in recent economic history that show us where the journey could go, argues Thomas Gehlhaar: "In the financial sector, for example, we have seen that some innovations in this area have not taken place with the big players, but with small start-ups, the so-called fintechs".

Such a development is also possible in the chemical industry, especially against the backdrop of the emerging distortions in the energy sector. The idea that assets protect a company in the long term is wrong. As soon as innovations become established, there are two possibilities: Either the innovators do not manage to scale themselves, in which case the innovations spill over to established companies and they can use them or market them. Or else, new players emerge - as in telecommunications and technology, for example - which then "steal" a substantial part of the margins from the big players.

How the Chemical Industry Should Reposition Itself

New regulations and rules, for example in the field of energy transition, will make speed and readiness for change a competitive advantage in the coming years. If it is then soon no longer primarily about production capacities and quality - all things: in which German industry is traditionally strong - then this will become a problem, says expert Gehlhaar.

In the end, it's a question of how quickly a company is able to move from an idea to its implementation. They should take a self-critical look at the question 'where do we stand'? This is then about different release levels, hierarchies in the company and so on. An honest stocktaking is a very helpful measure here, Gehlhaar emphasises.

If companies only think in terms of their own product lines and develop them incrementally, the next disruption that completely turns the market upside down will not emerge. And that may mean making investments in an area for which there is currently no market at all.

Original source and quotations: Trade journal Chemie Technik – the original interview was conducted by editor Jona Göbelbecker.

Photo: Yellow Boat


Production Of Man-Made Fibres: Specially Adapted Water Treatment Plants For Complete Demineralisation

From spinning to cable production and fibre cutting: all these work stages require fully demineralised water (demineralised water) – almost pure water that is largely free of electrolytes and has low conductivity. About 70 per cent of the water is used for the production of polyester products. In order to induce desired chemical reactions or not to disturb them, the water must be as salt-free as possible. Individually adapted water treatment systems can ensure significantly lower maintenance requirements and higher economic efficiency.

With fully demineralised water, fibre manufacturers avoid, among other things, deposits in the steam boiler, which could often lead to corrosion damage and, in the worst case, even to the bursting of a boiler. All other containers, pipes and fittings with which the water comes into contact on its way through the production stages are also protected by demineralised water, provided they are made of suitable materials.

Reliability And Reduced Logistics

Customised water treatment systems should deliver the desired pure water of the highest quality, without the use of hazardous substances – and they should also simplify maintenance and be available around the clock. In fact, a breakdown might cost several hundred thousand euros a day. Therefore, the reliability of such a plant is an extremely important criterion.

In the past, the preparatory work alone for the beginning of the desalination process was much more time-consuming. For example, about 300 kg of regeneration salt had to be manually filled into salt containers from 25 kg bags every day. This high logistical effort is avoided by the new solution, in which large brine bunkers are created (in the size required by the company), in which brine is continuously formed and used to feed the brine measuring vessels of the softening plants. In this constellation, the necessary salt is delivered in silo trucks only every 1.5 months.

Second Purity Stage with Reverse Osmosis

In reverse osmosis plants, semi-permeable membranes are used that are only permeable to water but not to salt. In this stage, full desalination and the desired 'pure water' are finally achieved. All parts of the system with which it comes into contact have a longer life and need to be maintained or cleaned only very rarely. And this also applies to the central element of steam generation, the steam boiler. Any residual amounts of salts that may be still present have to be removed several times a day by drain depressurisers.

The boiler water, which is over 200° C, is cooled down to 40° C so that it can be discharged into the wastewater system. This is done using existing soft water that comes directly from the softening plant and is stored in the drain depressuriser.

Photo: chinnawat

Non-Intrusive Flow Measurement with Ultrasonic Sensors - Important for EX Areas

EX areas are areas where an explosive atmosphere can potentially occur. This risk is particularly present where explosive substances such as powders or liquids are manufactured, processed, transported or stored. Especially in the chemical industry, with its often aggressive and toxic media, users, therefore, rely on non-intrusive measurement technology. New devices offer a high degree of flexibility with regard to media, aggregate states, pipe materials and dimensions, as well as pressure and temperature. The 'clamp-on' ultrasonic sensors used for this purpose are simply mounted on the outside of a pipe, usually even while the pipe is in operation. Flow measurement from the outside of the pipe means measuring from the safe side – without any wear caused by the medium, without any risk of leakage, and without any pressure loss and thus impairment of system availability.

Special Features of the EX Area

It is certainly a challenge to transport such advantages into potentially explosive atmospheres without having to make compromises in terms of measurement size and accuracy. For this purpose, current ultrasonic systems measure the flow according to the transit time difference method. From the difference in the transit time of ultrasonic signals that are radiated into the pipe with and against the direction of flow, the transducer calculates the average flow velocity of the medium and ultimately the volume flow. Inside the pressure-proof encapsulated housing, a powerful processor ensures the necessary measuring performance. The speedily measured value output (also directly into the IT system via Wi-Fi, for example) allows highly dynamic processes to be recorded in real time. Transducers and sensors are calibrated independently of each other in a patented process and without the influence of application-related disturbance variables. This ensures high measuring accuracy at all times – regardless of the combination in which the measuring system is used.

High Flexibility for Additional Applications

Such a 'clamp-on' device measures virtually anything that flows. In concrete terms, this means: The liquid metering devices are suitable for non-intrusive flow measurement of virtually all liquid media, from the thinnest pipe to the largest pipe – regardless of the pressure prevailing inside and over a wide temperature range. In conjunction with an appropriate sensor attachment for extreme temperatures, the flow of liquids can be measured non-intrusively in a temperature range from -190°C (for example, in the case of LNG) to over 600°C. The technology of the devices enables reliable flow measurement even of liquids with an increased solid or gas content.

Photo: 279photo



Focus on Sustainability: Using Water as a Refrigerant

In order to implement a functioning circular economy in its entirety in an ecologically sensible way, the CO2 emissions of the processing operations must be reduced in addition to increasing the recycling of plastics and the extensive use of recycled materials.

The basic problem of the plastics processing industry is a constantly necessary cooling requirement, mostly based on energy-intensive processes in combination with refrigerants that have a high greenhouse gas potential. Some plastics manufacturers now rely on water as a natural and, above all, CO2-neutral refrigerant in their cooling and refrigeration machines. For a functioning circular economy, it is not enough to optimise the material properties of the product in terms of sustainability. Extruders, injection moulding machines or even rollers – cooling plays a major role in the processing of plastics – it is even crucial for the overall quality that there are no major temperature fluctuations.

According to the International Institute of Refrigeration, eight per cent of global emissions are caused by the refrigeration industry alone, writes Angelika Thum of Efficient Energy in the trade journal 'Plastverarbeiter'. By switching to natural refrigerants such as water, air, ammonia, propane or CO2, direct emissions could be almost completely avoided. The corresponding refrigeration technologies are available, have already been tested in industry and can now cover the entire refrigeration demand.

Water – a Natural and Unproblematic Refrigerant

Operators of refrigeration systems using water no longer have to deal with issues such as the greenhouse potential, toxicity or explosiveness of the refrigerant. From the point of view of energy efficiency, too, water has an advantage over F-gases (fluorinated greenhouse gases) because of its high heat of evaporation.

Legislation to reduce the CO2 equivalents of F-gases has led and is leading to some refrigerants being banned outright and others probably being changed several times in less than ten years. This results in bottlenecks, price increases, increased maintenance of existing plants and, in case of doubt, limited operational safety. In addition, F-gases have to be transported, stored, made available and disposed of. All these points are eliminated when using water and help companies reduce their carbon footprint.

From this point of view, the concept of 'free cooling' is also very interesting. In this free cooling system, the compressor typically used is reduced in speed or switched off completely when the outside temperature is low enough. This saves the energy required and reduces the operating costs of the refrigeration system even further.

Photo: visoot


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