The bigger the better. Go big or go home. There are many sayings where growth is the ultimate metric for success. In the ’90s and early 2000s, process simulation technology took off, allowing chemical plants to expand in ways previously unseen, spanning miles of land.
But Chau-Chyun Chen, the Jack Maddox Distinguished Engineering Chair in Sustainable Energy, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering through Texas Tech University’s Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering and a National Academy of Engineering member, wants to change the way chemical plants are designed and built to not only make them smaller, but also make them more energy efficient.
Through a four-year, $1.1 million grant from the Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Manufacturing Institute, a public-private partnership between the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) of the U.S. Department of Energy and the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), Chen and his partners will work to advance the process simulation software used when designing these chemical plants.
“When people build chemical plants, either oil refineries or petrochemical plants, they use a technology called process simulation,” Chen said. “Process simulation is computer-aided chemical engineering for designing chemical plants. People use computer design software to design chips. Likewise, when people design chemical plants, they have the process simulation software to capture the chemical engineering fundamentals within the plant. But we are now looking to a different direction: smaller, distributed chemical unit with advanced materials.”
With this new technology, chemical companies, or any industry utilizing a chemical plant, will be able to design small-scale chemical units that take up less space and use less energy.
“Instead of building a huge campus with chemical plants, they want to build modular units for chemical processing that make chemicals using a new, modular size unit they can put in every community,” Chen said. “So instead of having big reactors and big columns that are very energy intensive, we want to see if there’s a way to use advanced materials to build a new type of chemical plant that’s small, modular and intensified. That’s the keyword: ‘intensified’ units. My project is to learn from what we have excelled in process simulation 20 years ago and advance it to facilitate the design.”
Chen is especially thankful for the support this project has received from those in the chemical industry.
“The key to this project is, we have excellent industry partners,” Chen said. “The project was pushed very hard by all the national labs and the ever-expanding RAPID member community. They all appreciate the value of process simulation, so they’ve been very supportive.”
Chen’s partners on the project include:
Savannah River National Laboratory
Georgia Institute of Technology
Dow Chemical Company
Aspen Technology, Inc.
Process Systems Enterprise Inc.