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Determining equipment solutions in biorefining projects

Determining equipment solutions in biorefining projects

A major trend in the process industry is the adoption of sustainable principles in its production and products. As it strives to replace fossil or resource-intensive feedstocks, the need to develop processes enabling utilization of biobased or recycled raw materials grows.

Applying existing process equipment solutions for the chemical and mechanical processing of such materials may pose significant technical challenges and equipment selection often requires careful consideration.

Novel processes face challenges in equipment availability

In recent years, many of our biorefining projects have covered new and innovative process concepts, some of which involve exceptional process conditions and position themselves on the borders between more established process industry sectors. A particular challenge in such projects is the availability of process equipment for the demanding requirements of the application. Unless special equipment is specifically developed for a particular application, one is bound to what the market has to offer, and in some cases, there is no established off-the-shelf solution. For our clients in such engineering projects, our work often involves contributing with our expertise and experience, having a solution-oriented mindset and proactively putting forward fresh ideas and out-of-the-box thinking.

Process equipment is often developed and intended for established applications, for which the manufacturer knows there is a market and demand. When there is an evident need to apply technologies and solutions from a different industrial sector, the equipment may have limitations in terms of e.g. operating conditions or throughput. E.g. a type of equipment developed and aimed for the food industry may not be available with sufficient capacity for a large-scale biofuel plant or be suited for hazardous media involving hydrocarbons. Higher temperatures and pressure levels often associated with biofuel production processes may also be an issue which prevents applying equipment designed and used for applications with more moderate operating conditions.

Taking nothing for granted

Suppliers are rarely inclined to develop their solutions to fit a new application. For a typical, challenging cases, suppliers will often offer what they have available in their product portfolio and leave it to the customer to assess if the proposed equipment is suitable. For design engineers, this requires having a critical eye and identifying whether or not the proposed solutions are fit for the intended purpose. Understandably, it simply may not be worth the manufacturer’s time and effort to develop solutions for an unusual, niche application or scale. However, in some cases, equipment manufacturers do recognize the benefit and potential of expanding the area of use for their products and increasing business opportunities. Nevertheless, receiving performance guarantees may be difficult if the application is unknown to the supplier.

In many cases, successfully implementing new processes requires testing in either pilot or demonstration scale. In such activities, it is critical that test data and results are relevant and representative. In terms of process equipment, scale may become an issue. The desired process equipment may not be available small enough for small scale testing and verification of its performance and suitability. Likewise, process equipment may be successfully proven for application in pilot or demonstration scale, but is not available large enough for a full-scale industrial plant. Equipment manufacturers and technology providers may have their own testing facilities which can be utilized in order to determine the feasibility, performance, and scaling of the solutions that they offer. Independent companies offering third party testing may also be a viable alternative to in-house testing by clients.

Finding a way forward together with AFRY

In order to best serve our clients, who target new and innovative concepts and processes, it is key to have an open mind for adapting existing equipment solutions. It is also necessary to have tenacity when pushing and persuading suppliers to go outside their comfort zone and find solutions that can be implemented for more unconventional and challenging applications. The challenge of finding suitable process equipment for demanding process applications cannot be underestimated. As part of our process design work, we strive to help our clients understand and avoid the potential pitfalls, identify potential solutions, and guide them in selecting equipment that will fulfil the requirements of their process.


Written by Niclas Sjöblom, Technology Manager, Chemicals, Process Industries Finland