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Maximizing Chemical Pilot Plant Benefits

A chemical pilot plant is an intermediate scale-up step that greatly mitigates project risk, design unknowns, and unexpected consequences. But how to utilize the pilot plant to best maximize the investment?


This article outlines several key learnings and take-a-ways for investing in a chemical pilot plant as a focused ROI tool. Through starting with concise objectives a pilot plant will help to ensure the project’s success. Several of the best arguments for pilot plant investment include:


Refining Critical Operating Parameters – Chemical systems are highly complex with tolerance ranges for the independent variables. When a full-scale unit is creating an off-spec product, it is no time or place for patiently altering each independent variable through the scientific method until the problem is solved. Large chemical systems generally have long lag times before they come to equilibrium, which increases uncertainty. Operating variables such as temperature, pressure, or concentrations can be adjusted by operators but, critical design parameters such as equipment size cannot be altered. 


Converting Batch Processes into Steady State Processes – A chemical laboratory generally operates the unit operations in a batch process. Commercial chemical factories generally operate in a continuous fashion or semi-continuous fashion. A Pilot Plant bridges the gap of process conversion from batch to steady state.


Generating Accurate Cost Estimation Data – In securing funding for a full-scale production unit, the pilot plant removes large amounts of uncertainty in estimating the total funding required for the project. Without good estimation data, a larger amount of contingency needs to be added to the estimate, which could jeopardize the project’s viability and fundability.


Building Investor Confidence – A well-planned and executed chemical pilot plant will increase potential investor’s confidence levels, lower finance discount rates, and diminish the risk to political capital. It also allows companies to penetrate markets as they allow clients to examine and integrate a new product into their product lines.


Calibrating Distillation and Stripping Towers – Designing these towers is very complex. The ‘300 lb gorilla in the room’ is how many feet of packing for HETP or HTU. Pilot plants are normally forced to use very conservative margins for separation towers due to the variance of the unknown variables. Overdesigning towers causes ‘weeping’ and reduced mass transfer efficiency. Once a pilot plant is operational, good data can be collected to reduce conservatively in the tower design, and reasonably calculate HETPs and HTUs for the mass transfer equipment. 


Improvement of System Integration and Simplification – Often the total number of unit operations in new chemical systems can be reduced through trial, experimentation, and deep thinking. Removing unnecessary unit operations is challenging, but it increases the system’s value proposition and usability.


Reducing Environmental Permitting – Receiving air and water permits from government agencies can be a costly and time-consuming activity. Since chemical pilot plant operate at low production rates, sometimes their emissions do not trigger a need for an air or water permit, and small amounts of pollution can be controlled by methods that are not economical for a large scale production unit. Pilot Plants can create solid emissions data for the EPA permitting process.


Operator and Operations Training – When bringing a new production plant online, pilot plants can be an excellent way to train production engineers and operators. Solid training should increase operator performance during the commissioning and start-up of the full-scale plant.

Having clear goals and concise objectives for the pilot plant will help to maximize its benefit. Chemical pilot plants allow for an efficient and risk mitigated transformation of chemical science into engineering. As with most highly complex systems, the devils are in the details. Through the utilization of chemical pilot plants, companies can substantially increase the probability of project success. 

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