Thinking outside the box: EU researchers help industry become more efficient
Large industrial plants constantly monitor the resources that go in and the products - and waste - that comes out. Companies use this data - known as resource-efficiency and life-cycle inventory indicators - to work out their performance over months or years.
But what if a plant manager could see those indictors in real-time during daily operations? The consortium behind the EU-funded project MORE (Real-time Monitoring and Optimization of Resource Efficiency in Integrated Processing Plants) believe it will enable large industrial plants to be managed better and more efficiently.
Stefan Krämer of INEOS Köln GmbH, who was the industrial application coordinator behind the three-year EU project and has a long-held enthusiasm for resource efficiency, believes continuous efficiency monitoring on industrial sites will enable performance to be optimized at the same time as environmental impact is minimised.
What do you hope to achieve with the project?
The goal of the project is to develop methods and tools that provide indicators of resource efficiency during operation of large-scale chemical production plants based on real measurement data from process control systems and analytical instruments. We want to develop guidelines for plant operators and managers on how to improve resource efficiency in daily operation in response to changing throughputs, different weather conditions, or variations in input streams and customer demands.
The key idea behind the project is to not only to calculate resource efficiency indicators in real time during plant operation, but also to use these indicators to steer plants towards more favourable operational conditions and indicate where there is potential for improvement through technological means and better process control.
We want to integrate resource efficiency indicators at different levels: control, operations and planning, which will lead to more efficient management of a factory as a whole.
How and why did you become interested in this area?
Personally, I have always been interested in a resource efficient lifestyle. I live in an energy efficient house, I cycle to work, I don’t drive much, I take the train and my hobby is gliding!
As a company, INEOS in Köln has always tried to produce chemicals as resource efficiently as possible. In the past, this was a necessity to be cost efficient and it is why we use our off gas to make steam and electricity, and utilize every last drop of our raw materials. In 2012, we became ISO 50001 certified and run an energy management system.
So MORE is really a natural extension of our existing efforts and helps us visualize even better the efforts that we are making. More generally, INEOS in Europe has now started an internal program to research and innovate ideas for us to try and is taking part in other research and EU projects.
What issues do you hope the project will tackle?
At the moment, there are several indicators (known as KPIs) that are used to determine the environmental impact of products and production processes. These indicators are also used when companies are evaluating alternative production routes and making decisions on investments in new production facilities. But environmental impact and resource efficiency indicators (which we call REIs) have not yet been used to steer the daily operation of chemical processing plants.
Today, it is often not clear which indicators are helpful or how they could be used to influence day-to-day plant operations. In addition, current indicators cannot combine energy and resource usage and have problems with batch processes. Finally, these indicators often don’t address different hierarchical levels of plant operation. We want to address all these shortcomings.
What have you achieved so far?
We have identified a list of indicators that are suitable for our purpose and have developed guiding principles on how to use these indicators to steer plant operations in the right direction.
To actually implement our results, different paths are being followed. At INEOS and BASF, novel analytical measurement techniques, developed by our partner S-PACT, have been tested. We showed that this type of measurements are possible and that the data can be used to calculate resource efficiency indicators and provide guidelines for optimal operation.
Our two partners Petronor and Lenzing, who had measurement systems already in place, have implemented data reconciliation and optimal control directly in their processes with support from academic partners TU Dortmund and Universidad de Valladolid. By implementing the solutions, the plant at Lenzing has saved 1.25 million m3 of gas and 3400 tons of CO2 a year.
Meanwhile, Leikon has spent time and effort developing a platform that can display the indicators in a dashboard format, while operators’ feedback has been analysed using a questionnaire developed by inno. Finally, VTT will provide a guidebook outlining how to implement and use our findings.
What impact do you hope this project will have?
Being more resource efficient ultimately increases a company’s competiveness. If raw material and energy prices, as well as emissions prices, are comparable worldwide, more competitive companies will be successful. Extrapolating from our results, we believe that visualizing resource indicators in real-time will make process lines 2-3% more energy efficient. This improvement in efficiency translates directly into energy savings and reductions in CO2 emissions (providing production stays at a similar level). Protecting the environment and saving resources will help future generations to have the same standard of living that we enjoy today.
So, there is a short-term impact for companies who implement the results of our project and hopefully a long-term impact on society as a whole.
What has been the most exciting aspect of the project for you?
For me, seeing an initial idea that was only a few sentences long being turning into real action. A number of years ago I wanted to have energy and resource efficiency indicators of our plant operation that could tell our operators and plant manager where to look for improvements. Now we have them and can implement them – and both the indicators and implementation path are about to be standardized for others to benefit from. This is great!
Personally, it was great to see how the consortium managed to work together from day one. The trust that we would reach a common goal was there.
I also liked the change from the daily routine. As a highly trained engineer, I relished being allowed to ‘think outside the box’ and look beyond my daily routine of tasks.
How did you become involved in the project in the first place?
We have a long-standing personal and professional relationship with Professor Sebastian Engell (Technische Universität Dortmund), who is the scientific coordinator of the project. He knew what INEOS can do and asked us to join the consortium. He collected the right partners, many of whom he knew personally already, and identified new ones. In fact, we already knew inno, who has a long-standing relationship with TU Dortmund, from a previous project and had been impressed with their professionalism and organisation.
What new skills have you, as an individual, acquired during the project?
Personally, I have learnt how to work within an international group of people from different backgrounds. While I have spent time abroad before, the project has taken this to a new dimension. This skill comes in handy in a multinational company and now I have a role in our INEOS European Energy Network.
What are the benefits of being part of an EU-funded project?
European projects are more complicated and more extensive than regional ones. They require more time, more coordination, more diplomacy to develop trust between partners and more travelling but they have more benefits.
As a German petrochemical site that does not run a large R&D Department, we would never have cooperated with some of the project partners like the Universidad de Valladolid in Spain or VTT in Finland. The project has opened up new perspectives that we would not have had otherwise, such as how pulp is turned into paper or a refinery is optimized.
The case studies in MORE would have been difficult to achieve on a national level and MORE sure benefits from them. The many different competences brought to the project are an added advantage. And as an organization, we have acquired new technical skills in resource efficiency reporting and energy management.
The key benefit of participating in an EU project is the multiplication of effort and ideas on a practical level with the potential of realizing the outcomes in real life. Companies can embark on research in an area that is not immediately or directly economically viable but is interesting or important.
Especially in energy and resource efficiency, there is a strong political drive (such as the Energy Efficiency Directive, the ETS and others) that needs European solutions. So the viewpoint of different international partners when tackling these challenges is very useful.
In the end, you get to see Europe through project meetings. This helps all the partners grow and appreciate a European approach.
What are your key ingredients for a successful project?
I believe there are four key points that need to be upheld and maintained by a strong coordinator: a common goal; a defined path to reach the goal; a diverse but overlapping set of skills among the partners; and an initial leap of faith.
Building trust from the beginning is essential to a successful project. Often partner companies come to a consortium not sure what information can be shared, but projects are time critical and partners must work together efficiently from the start.
From the first meeting, this worked very well on the MORE project and all the partners were happy to share information. An understanding and supportive project officer is also very helpful and here also MORE could not have done better.
Would you take part in another EU project?
Yes! Because you get to focus on challenges other than your day-to-day activities. And the time and effort spent by one company or university alone is multiplied many times over.
But you have to be well organized from the start. As a coordinator, you have to understand your partners’ expectations and motivations. You need to apply the same skills as you would to managing a team: building trust; listening to team members; setting goals and milestones; and, once challenges are met, determining how much further the team can go.
Success requires a leap of faith from everyone. But if you can develop that from the start, then your project has a good chance of finding a way forward. In the end though, it is research and you have to be open-minded about success and failure.