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The industry is no stranger to continuous processing in cases where megatonnes are produced, but for the smaller scale, flow chemistry is offering tangible benefits.
The evangelists for this emerging technology point to improved yields, less waste, greater purity of the finished product and, in some cases, a safer process.
It recently revealed that one of its reactors is being used successfully by China’s Nanjing refinery for an industrial nitration process, which has reduced the plant’s footprint.
On a larger scale, AM Technology makes general purpose continuous reactors which employ active mixing – loose mixing elements in the reactor body are rotated or shaken, which makes them good at handling different materials such as gas and liquids.
Good heat transfer is achieved because of the high surface to volume ratio, which means reactions can often run at much lower temperatures than in batch.
Processes can be scaled up by having multiple reactors in parallel.
Crucially, batch doesn’t provide optimal processing for every chemistry, as manufacturers have to work within the constraints of the equipment.
The inherent industry conservatism also means there are very few case studies, with companies reluctant to let suppliers reveal details of the work they are doing.Net reaction time might only be ten minutes, says Robert Ashe, founder of AM Technology, but in batch, the whole process of cleaning, heating and the subsequent cooling and extraction might take a day.By operating continuously, the same or greater volumes can be achieved, using far less energy. Moving to continuous processing means the size of the reactor can be reduced to such an extent that if it were to explode, the damage could be contained.‘Safety is the main driver we’re seeing in the past two years,’ says Charlotte Wiles, chief executive of Chemtrix.‘Where processes are inherently dangerous, [manufacturers] can see a better way.’ But change comes slowly; the chemical industry is conservative and processes don’t change overnight.
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This will eliminate much of the trial and error for any new application.