Making European chemicals more competitive
In recent years, competition from Asia has cut into the European chemical industry's global market share. An EU-funded project is developing a new production process using ultrasound and microwaves that will produce better chemicals while sharpening Europe's competitive edge in this industry.
© Romolo Tavani #142087350, source: stock.adobe.com 2019
Between 2005 and 2015, the EUs share of the global chemical market dropped from 28 % to 15 %. During that time, China replaced Europe as the global leader in chemical sales. Many reasons explain this decline, including high labour costs and regulatory and tax burdens. However, another problem may be a lack of innovation.
The EU-funded COSMIC project has taken on the task of helping the European chemical industry adopt the most modern and innovative techniques. First on the list is a method called continuous production.
Conventional industry techniques process batches of chemicals in large vats creating significant losses of heat and energy. However, continuous production treats chemicals differently. Inside an apparatus known as a flow reactor, chemicals are pushed through tubes at a steady pace, without stopping to rest in a vat. Instead of heat, ultrasound and microwaves modify the chemicals as they flow. The result is higher-quality products that can be manipulated more precisely. The process also allows more renewable energy to be used during production.
The equipment used in the chemical industry today is not so different from that applied in the Middle Ages, says Tom Van Gerven, general project coordinator for COSMIC. But the widespread adoption of continuous production, he adds, could dramatically upgrade this ageing industry in Europe. The result will increase jobs in Europe, and the European chemical industrys share of global sales.
Applications for better chemicals
Since the project began , COSMIC researchers with the help of academic and industry partners have been testing ways in which continuous production can help revolutionise the manufacture of different chemicals. To date, one result involves zeolites minerals typically used as catalysts or absorbents during the production of chemicals. Researchers tried creating a zeolite with ultrasound rather than inside a conventional vat. The new method achieved its aim in 25 % less time, resulting in a major improvement and subsequently a patent application.
Another potential use involves creating crystals that are widely used in medicines produced by the pharmaceutical industry. Using microwaves to create crystals can greatly improve the effectiveness of some medicines, while the new process requires 50 % less energy compared to the conventional method.
COSMIC has also discovered several new methods for nanoparticle production. Experts believe that nanoparticles will transform consumer products in areas including biomedicine, optics, electronics, and data storage.
Renewing an old industry
Furthermore, the project is training 15 PhD students as early-stage researchers. The students work in both academic labs and industrial production settings, helping chemical companies to transition from batch production in traditional vats to continuous production in flow reactors.
Van Gerven is also proud that the project will train researchers in the right values. For a scientists work to break through a labs walls, he or she needs to be equipped with complementary skills such as communication, gender-balance awareness, leadership and entrepreneurship, he says. COSMIC makes sure that the best version of the scientist comes out of this programme.
The project ends in September 2020.