The rhythm of (chemical) life is a powerful beat

07 Jun 2021

The rhythm of (chemical) life is a powerful beat

Throughout the whole of June as part of the ACHEMA Pulse program, GEA will be taking an aspiration to profitability approach to the multifaceted chemical industry. With technologies that play key roles in lowering greenhouse gas emissions, process optimization and the circular economy, to name just a few, the company is highlighting how, by marching to a different beat, increased yields, higher quality products and more energy efficient systems are just a heartbeat away.

In the past, pursuing a circular or bioeconomy was almost exclusively viewed as a benchmark and aspiration for many markets, including agriculture and both consumer and business-to-business ventures. Today, replacing petrochemical products with renewable raw materials has become profitable when used as a basis to make products of higher economic value. For example, producing biochemicals by biorefinery involves converting plant, microbial, organic waste and fungal biomass into diverse bio-based products and components for use in a wide range sectors, including the chemical industry. By leveraging renewable resources, whole industries are now lowering their carbon footprint by developing new innovations that reduce fossil feedstock use.

GEA solutions cover nearly every type of renewable resource and industry application, including the efficient production of biofuels, biopolymers and other bio-based chemicals, as well as components and ingredients for the food and feed industries. We’ve partnered with customers and diverse consortia to establish and test biorefinery models to produce acids from renewable feedstocks to be used as building blocks in bioplastics, leverage microalgae for use in biopesticides and feed, produce rubber from dandelions, protein from insects and waste streams from food production… and much more. In fact, from fermentation to downstream processing, our portfolio covers centrifugal separators, membrane filtration units, evaporators, crystallizers, distillation plant and fluid bed dryers for product isolation and purification, concentration and drying.

From aspiration to profitability: producing biochemicals by biorefinery

Take plastics, for example; cheap to produce and highly versatile, they can be molded, pressed, squeezed and shaped into just about any form and for any purpose. Although the majority of plastics are manufactured from fossil fuels such as crude oil and coal, scientific advancements in recent years have made it possible to produce them from sustainable, plant-derived sources (or feedstocks), including sugarcane, potato starch, cellulose (wood), corn, soy, waste vegetable oil and other food and farming waste.

New processes to convert biomass into biopolymers and bioplastics rely on efficient, reliable technologies and process equipment. As a global leader in white biotechnology, GEA is at the forefront of this field and has been working with the bioplastics sector for more than a decade to develop, test and fine-tune equipment and technologies that make it possible for industry to scale-up research and pilot processes into viable commercial manufacturing streams. The production of lactic acid from plant-based sources, which is then used to make polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable and sustainable alternative to polyethylene terephthalate (PET), is a great example of this.

Importantly, GEA works with organizations to address process issues, improve efficiencies and help to turn innovative concepts into viable industrial processes to make bioplastics and other bio-based products. Each solution is designed to help save energy and water use, recycle excess heat and reduce waste and emissions when possible, so that sustainable products are manufactured using sustainable technologies.

Bioplastics. Closing the loop
Driving the green revolution

Today’s lithium batteries keep our medical, consumer and industrial electronic devices switched on and powered up; but, it’s the use of lithium-ion batteries in next-generation electric and hybrid vehicles that’s earned this light, silvery metal the moniker of “white petroleum.” There’s no doubt that the market for lithium will skyrocket to satisfy the electric vehicle market. However, the lightest metal known to humans isn’t found as a pure element in nature; it’s locked up in the rocks and mineral salts of subterranean brine lakes or extracted from spodumene, petalite and lepidolite mineral deposits that are found in igneous rocks.

To address these value chain issues, GEA has developed evaporation, crystallization and drying technologies that are key to producing lithium from brine concentrates or from spodumene. Our portfolio spans precipitation and membrane filtration systems to remove impurities, solid/liquid centrifugal separation, concentration and purification and fluid bed drying for lithium salt compounds. In addition, GEA’s expertise also includes the spray drying of battery grade powder for advanced lithium battery materials.

And even though there’s no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” solution when it comes to spray drying lithium-ion battery materials, GEA’s powder engineers tailor each solution to every application. They also do comprehensive pilot plant testing to ensure that the process generates powders of consistently superior quality.

GEA’s credentials and broad portfolio for the production and processing of lithium begins right after mining with refining the intermediate products and ends with a dried powder. We’re supporting customers around the globe with applications for lithium concentration, salt crystallization and purification, impurity removal, fluid bed and spray drying, by-product recovery and process development for lithium recycling.

Applications of lithium
Waste not, want not

Water has become a precious resource – all over the world – and how we deal with it is a growing concern for society. Many companies drill wells, pumping large quantities of groundwater to cover the demand of process water. However, governments are increasingly prioritizing the use of groundwater for drinking water and levying high taxes or denying companies access to the water table. This is not only a concern for chemical manufacturers, but is also affecting other sectors such as the waste processing, metallurgical and textile industries.

Evaporating wastewater can be expensive and energy intensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Some companies choose to evaporate wastewater because it’s the only feasible option, but solving the wastewater issue is only one aspect. Manufacturers can actually recoup their investment within 3–5 years if they reuse the condensate as process water. Given that GEA equipment is very robust and built to last a generation or more, the energy consumption of evaporation can be substantially reduced with thermal or mechanical vapor recompression (MVR).

GEA thermal separation plant

GEA thermal separation plant

A major consideration, however, is the composition of the wastewater. It must be thoroughly tested to ensure that the right physical parameters are considered and the corresponding solution can be properly implemented. Our customers benefit from GEA’s network of professionally staffed test centers, laboratory facilities and pilot equipment, which enable us to support them as they examine available solutions and compare savings against investment and energy costs.

GEA has extensive experience with separation techniques in the food, pharma and chemical industries – which have to meet rigorous standards – and is well placed to advise companies in diverse sectors. Why so important? The UN estimates that 80 percent of the world’s wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused and that 3.6 million people die each year globally from water-related diseases – 84 percent of whom are children. What’s more, water scarcity affects four out of every 10 people; and, by 2025, the UN expects 1.8 billion people to be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity.

GEA is doing everything it can to prevent this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: the company has supplied numerous biosolids decanters as part of wastewater treatment plant throughout India and for industrial effluent and municipal sewage applications; in Ireland, GEA’s dewatering technology is helping to reduce operating costs by producing sludge that is 10–15 percent drier and therefore less expensive to transport or reuse … as agricultural fertilizer; and in Mexico, GEA was brought into design and build a zero liquid discharge (ZLD) wastewater treatment plant for a power plant in Ciudad Juárez. And that’s just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg!

Oh, and remember the plastic we talked about earlier? We’re about to come full circle. Coupled with tougher recycling and production requirements, recycled PET (rPET) is now more widely available and competitively priced. Many companies who produce and use rPET rely on GEA centrifuge technology to handle their process water, enabling them to comply with quality and environmental standards while minimizing their running costs.

(Getty Images/stevanovicigor)

Fertilizer production

To use plant-based materials like bioplastics, you first have to have plants. The world’s population continues to grow; and, with that, comes the most basic requirement: the need to adequately feed more people, including those in regions where soil nutrients and rainfall are less than ideal to raise crops. Ecologically, the challenge is to produce more food, including fruits, cereals and vegetables, without increasing our environmental footprint.

Fertilizers play an important role, here, but a balance needs to be found between inputs and outputs such as groundwater nitrate levels, greenhouse gas emissions, soil pollution, etc. As such, many growers are now looking for high-purity and water-soluble formulations such as monoammonium phosphate or MAP. In the production of MAP, phosphoric acid is generally used as the starting product; but, GEA has developed and implemented a groundbreaking solution to produce high-quality soluble MAP fertilizer that eliminates the need to purchase purified phosphoric acid and/or integrate an additional purification line.
Achema Pulse June 2021


Tap into our community of experts, thought-leaders and practitioners by signing up for the Achema Pulse. The platform will be open for the entire month of June. Our experts are available for Live chats, 1:1 video calls and matchmaking, feel free to reach out to them either prior, during or after your favorite webinar. All our webinars will be made available to you on demand at the end of June 15 and 16 via GEA's video channel.

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