12/09/2021 | Process Innovation

Interview with William Grieco | RAPID

There are a number of barriers to MCPI deployment in the process industries but there are also many advantages, thanks to advanced control methods. RAPID’s William Grieco gets into the issues.

Modular Chemical Process Intensification (MCPI) offers opportunities for the process industries to rethink manufacturing by integrating operations and modularising production to reduce energy consumption, increase yield, lower capital and operating costs, and shorten time to market for new production.

As for those barriers: many technology options are not fully proven at scale and engineers lack software, modelling tools and data needed to develop next generation MCPI-enabled processes. RAPID was formed to address the issues and pave the way for the breakthrough technologies the US Government hopes will boost energy productivity and efficiency in industries such as oil and gas, and various domestic chemical manufacturers. While the concepts of Process Intensification and modular process designs are not new, there has long been a lack of clarity on what these terms do – and also do not – include. The roots of Process Intensification go back to the 1970s, when process developers began to seek the sort of new configurations and design principles that would deliver transformative changes in cost and performance. Significant improvements were delivered, thanks to advances in process optimisation with, for example, more sophisticated integration of heating and coolant flows via process analysis.

Other areas included the development of very active and selective catalysts and advanced process control methods. Such advances fit within the broad definition of Process Intensification, even though they are classical methods of process improvement. Current Process Intensification moves beyond the concepts of novel process design and reaction engineering and takes advantage of additional drivers like advances in hardware and control strategies to combine multiple steps into a single unit. Such processes have the potential to reduce capital costs through a reduction in distinct process steps and they also have the additional potential to improve energy efficiency by reducing recycle streams and the application of significantly enhanced driving forces – both chemical and physical – to improve chemical and transport processes.

ACHEMA Inspire: RAPID is funded by the Department of Energy and energy efficiency is a key goal of your work. How does modular production contribute?

  • __William Grieco: Process Intensification (PI) and modular process platforms enable the integration of unit operations in new and novel ways. For example, combining reaction and separations reduces equipment footprint and capital cost while also improving yield and minimising waste generation.

    Likewise, conversion of batch processes to continuous operation drives quality and yield improvement while also reducing energy consumption in the process.  PI also offers the opportunity to electrify processes using novel heating technologies such as induction or microwave heating, which allows for integration with renewable electricity (e.g. PV and wind) assets. Ultimately, in projects RAPID sponsors, we measure improvements in energy efficiency and embodied energy (kJ/kg), targeting at least 20 per cent improvements in both. 

ACHEMA Inspire: Which sectors are you focusing on and why, in partiular, were those specific sectors chosen?

  • __William Grieco: The majority of our work focuses on commodity and specialty chemicals, oil and gas production and refining - and sustainable biomaterials.  We focused on these sectors initially because the industries are interested in and ready to adopt new process technologies to enable safer and more sustainable operations. Over the past year, particularly in response to the pandemic, we are increasingly engaged with the pharmaceutical industry for distributed manufacturing and batch to continuous production.  We see similar opportunities in agriculture, food and beverage, and consumer product spaces. 

ACHEMA Inspire: What about the costs that in involved? Aren’t these flexible systems more expensive?

  • __William Grieco: Depending on the application, the first of a kind modular processing platform will almost always be expensive but we expect unit cost of these platforms to drop as more modular systems are built. 

    In the process industries, economies of scale are typically reached based on building larger and larger centralised facilities. That is not going away, but for modular we’re expecting to see some of the number economies of scale that mass manufacturing brings to industries such as automotive and consumer electronics. Also, we fully expect the total lifecycle cost to be lower for modular compared to traditional stick-built, centralised facilities.
    In fact, we are running a benchmarking project on this topic now. It turns out that for many new to the world of process technologies, the total lifecycle cost is much higher than expected because of unanticipated cost overruns during construction, startup and commissions problems, and rework required when the process does not work as planned. In modular processing, the commercial scale manufacturing is the same as pilot (just more units operating in parallel) so debugging occurs at the actual operational scale, dramatically reducing start-up risks and costs. 

ACHEMA Inspire: This paradigm shift will be a big change for the existing workforce. How do you address their concerns?

  • __William Grieco: RAPID has built, and is growing, a community around the concepts of PI and modular processing. Part of our effort is networking and outreach to those members. A very large part is funding and managing research, development, and deployment projects. Another critical part is developing and deploying educational content to the current future workforce. RAPID has nearly 30 webinars and eight eLearning courses and a related Process Intensification Credential program, four face-to-face courses, an Internship program and a new student competition. All of this is designed to teach the current and future workforce (ranging from technicians and operators to engineers and business leaders) about these new manufacturing concepts.

ACHEMA Inspire: RAPID Institute started four years ago. What is the state of your projects and what are your upcoming challenges?

  • __William Grieco: We are in year five of our first five years of funding from the US Dept of Energy. We have a plan in place to fund ongoing operations. That includes additional but smaller amounts of government funding, various product and service offerings, and support from our members. 

    With our original funding and commitment from members, we funded over R&D and education projects. Seven of those have closed and more will finish up throughout 2021. All of those projects will officially end by mid to late 2022.
    Of course, funding is always a challenge. Sustained commitment from the public and private sector will allow RAPID to continue having an impact. The challenge is just that... securing sufficient and long-term funding commitments to maximise our impact.

ACHEMA Inspire: What does the future bring for modular production in the US?

  • __William Grieco: RAPID projects have already promoted the commercialisation of at least four PI and modular process technologies... one for natural gas cleanup at the wellhead, another for distributed production of clean hydrogen from renewable sources, a third for efficient, low-energy separation of olefins and paraffins, and a fourth that converted batch specialty chemicals manufacturing to continuous production in record time. 

    PI and modular are not one-size-fits-all solutions, but rather are technologies to enable lower energy and carbon footprint, distributed manufacturing across different sectors. And we see avery bright future for the application of these technologies and are enthusiastic about the opportunities for RAPID and our members.


ACHEMA Inspire staff

World Show Media


Keywords in this article:

#process engineering

Find more contributions:

Detailed search in the magazine


Always up to date

With our newsletter you will receive current information on ACHEMA on a regular basis. You are guaranteed not to miss any important dates.

Subscribe now