Martijn de Graaff MSc
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Flow chemistry is not a brand new technology, yet it is not widely implemented in the chemical industry. In a carefully designed lab project, TNO scientists, with assistance of specialists from GE Healthcare Norway, worked in Delft to recreate plant conditions and properly research the advantages of flow chemistry over batch chemistry for a specific GE Healthcare process.
GE Healthcare develops, produces and delivers a wide range of medical technologies, including pharmaceuticals for diagnostic and therapeutic systems. Odd Einar Ingvoldstad is Director Chemical Process Technology at GE Healthcare in Norway. “We wanted to challenge one of our processes, to see if flow chemistry could provide reaction conditions that traditional batch processes did not provide.” ”
Ingvoldstad hoped this project would shed light on questions such as: could the use of raw materials be improved? Would yields be increased and could reaction times be cut down? “Like many organisations, we are always looking for better ways to do our work, how to increase our efficiency and decrease costs. And before we invest in opportunities for other ways of doing our work, we need to be very certain that the new approach is better. In running chemical plants like ours, we have optimised our batch processes, made investments, purchased equipment... To consider changing that is a huge step.” And flow or continuous chemistry is not natural to most chemists. “Almost all our specialists have a background in organic chemistry and are educated in batch thinking. I was, too. Flow chemistry requires a certain bending of the mind. It’s a cultural change as well as a technological one.”
Together with TNO, GE Healthcare selected a particular process step and plant conditions to be reproduced at TNO’s lab in Delft as closely as possible. Chemical engineers from TNO and chemists from GE Healthcare worked closely together for months. “This is very unusual,” says an account manager from TNO. “In the chemical industry, the two professions rarely work as a team on the same projects. But at TNO we believe very strongly that multidisciplinary project teams produce much better results. Their difference in thinking often sparks new and interesting ideas.” He adds that involving the customer at this experimental phase is also beneficial for another reason. “There is no black box. We work with the customer, he is completely aware of what we do because we do it with him. He can observe at first hand the value of his research investment. We train their specialists in our methods and they share their knowledge with us: everyone benefits.”
The results of the project are very promising, says Ingvoldstad. “We are still digesting the outcome before we can plan our next step. Most likely we will build a smaller lab facility at our own site, so we can continue our testing. It is interesting technology and our specialists are very excited.”
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