How digitalisation helps chemical operators become more sustainable

Sustainability is fast becoming a key discussion topic around the boardroom tables of operators working across the chemicals industry. With pressure growing from stakeholders and regulators, chemicals businesses are urgently seeking ways to achieve energy efficiencies and reduce environmental impact, notes Paige Marie Morse, Chemicals Industry Lead, AspenTech

As they address the challenges on the road to enhanced sustainability, operators can gain confidence knowing they are supported by the industry, academia, policymakers and wider society.

SusChem, the European Technology Platform for Sustainable Chemistry, whose participants include the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), is focused on inspiring European chemical and biochemical innovation to provide sustainable solutions to key societal challenges.

In late 2019, SusChem unveiled its new “Strategic Innovation and Research Agenda," targeted at moving its vision on to 2030, delivering both strategic priorities and a new technology roadmap. To meet sustainability challenges across European chemicals requires both the right technological solutions and the active involvement of key stakeholders and interested parties.

With concerted action, the chemicals industry can gain operational efficiencies, boost innovation and deliver improved profitability. It can build sustainability through efficient process control and production planning that drives enhanced productivity while also reducing waste ... and the industry can be the source of new technical solutions and products to these sustainability challenges.

Chemicals businesses will need to adapt quickly to keep pace with the drive to sustainability and survive and thrive in this new environment.

To do that, they will require the agility that will only come through advanced technology solutions. Several opportunities can be explored: applying digital techniques to deliver streamlined business processes and operational efficiencies, making use of predictive analytics to pinpoint and eliminate unscheduled shutdowns, and boosting innovation to get new solutions to the market more quickly.

Helping operators to meet sustainability goals

Streamlined business processes support improved compliance with environmental regulations. Both the performance and energy efficiency of assets positively impact energy resource conservation. An integrated approach to energy performance management can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, both within manufacturing units and the utilities systems that support them.

The list of processes chemicals companies undertake to achieve their sustainability goals is growing. Scheduling tools, for example, can help businesses increase production planning efficiency to eliminate waste throughout their operations.

They can help companies decide when to make which product, based on customer demand — resulting in lower energy usage and less waste in the production phase.

Process control solutions help to stabilise operations so less energy is needed even as throughput is increased. And dynamic optimisation across multiple units raises efficiencies to higher levels as integration and operational balance is achieved across multiple units and production processes.

Digital simulation tools can also drill down into specific processes, correlating certain emissions with various steps in a reaction and identifying efficiency improvements. Reducing waste is another vital part of the equation across all chemicals processes.

Clean-up on its own is not enough. As Dewey Johnson, Vice President, Market Research at IHS Chemical, puts it: "You need to turn off the faucet before you pull out the mop."

Eliminating downtime

Equipment breakdown and unplanned plant shutdowns often result in production downtime for plants ... but also often lead to increased emissions and discharge. From an environmental perspective, unplanned shutdowns can be disproportionately damaging.

A single event lasting a matter of hours can result in the release of years’ worth of regulated emissions into the atmosphere, potentially putting employee and community safety at risk.

The latest predictive maintenance and reliability software is key to mitigating this danger. By applying this technology, operators can gain advance warning of equipment breakdowns, allowing for controlled shutdown of operations before the problem occurs.

This allows them to avoid breakdown events and the associated emissions, as well as major profit losses incurred while the plant is offline.

Innovation success

New technology development is a key tool toward achieving sustainability targets. Certainly, efficiency improvements in existing processes are important, but a true step-change in production technologies is likely required to make progress toward the circular economy.

This point is highlighted by Dow CEO, Jim FItterling: “Climate change has serious consequences for the planet and society if left unaddressed. We are approaching a limit in reductions that cannot be achieved through traditional incremental improvements.”

Significant strides toward sustainability targets will drive many companies to change their energy sources and shift product portfolios.

The transition toward this new position will take time and will require substantial investment toward new technologies. But the value is high, worth an estimated $1 trillion in new business opportunities according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

Digital technologies are a fundamental part of this solution set, enabling customers to increase efficiency of operations and more quickly develop solutions to solve the challenges of the circular economy.

Simulations can efficiently screen alternative energy sources and new process routes, while accounting for associated emissions and resource demand for each. Early efforts are under way to apply modelling technology to improve the efficiency of processes based on new energy feedstocks, such as biomass and plastics waste.

And digital networks also enable better connectivity between energy demand systems so it is used more efficiently across a plant, or a community or region, referred to as industrial symbiosis by SusChem.

An urgent requirement

In today’s environmentally conscious age, chemicals companies need to act urgently to ensure the sustainability of their operations. Digital technologies can be key in ensuring that companies achieve their sustainability goals both today and in the future.

Through their drive to digital transformation, chemicals businesses are applying artificial intelligence capabilities to boost business profitability while also enhancing safety and environmental compliance.

There is no time like the present. By investing in digital technology now to achieve their sustainability targets, chemicals operators are investing in a better future for themselves and the communities and ecosystems in which they operate.

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