The science of chemical engineering has travelled a long way in the last five decades. In industries, the scale of operation has increased several folds during this period. With large scale operations, every percent of improvement in efficiency results in major impact on the economic performance of any technology. Simultaneously, development and penetration of software in every technology have changed the way of working for a chemical engineer.

With digitization of society, nobody can deny the entry of digital technology in chemical engineering science. In a way, development of software for process and equipment design has facilitated chemical plant scale-up and design work. Several software programmes have evolved in the last twenty years. These programmes have made life of design engineers easy. The design work that would have otherwise taken thousands of man hours is now taking one tenth of the same. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine how engineers were designing plants in absence of these software programmes. Besides saving on time, these programmes have helped in optimizing designs and operating parameters.

Designing of chemical plants is more complex than one can imagine. About 70,000 chemicals are produced globally on commercial scale. Out of these, less than ten percent are produced by continuous process and the rest is produced by batch process. Every chemical is born in laboratory and first produced by batch process; the volume being low. Gradually production of several chemicals has migrated from batch process to continuous process. In most cases, at the initial stage, the efficiency of production is poor and industry is able to bear with inefficiency because of new product and low competition. In case of every product, efficiency improves with time and at some stage the process becomes matured in terms of cost of production. Optimization of process design, equipment design and operating parameters play a key role in this journey and design software programmes have supported this journey.

Inspite of availability of several software programmes, the technologies which can be termed as optimized, would probably be for less than ten percent chemicals. They include bulk chemicals like refinery products, petrochemicals, fertilizers and basic chemicals. Continuous endeavour is required to optimize the technologies of balance chemicals, to reduce their cost of production and their environmental impact.

Plant design for every chemical is an independent exercise. Properties of chemicals vary from each other. Their properties play a role in process and plant design. Besides availability of software, the properties of chemicals and their behaviour in presence of other chemicals have to be studied. Without the knowledge of properties, software programmes are unable to produce results. For major bulk chemicals, since their properties were known, the software programmes have been very helpful in designing plants and optimizing operations in the last two decades. However, for thousands of other chemicals, it is a long way to go to study their properties like reaction kinetics, heat and mass transfer data, flow properties, etc., to optimize their processes.

While designing plants, it is also important to have practical understanding about generation of data in laboratory, interpretation of laboratory data, plant operations and functioning of chemical process equipment. With understanding of these basics, if one uses software package for plant design, the result will be good. However, in absence of good understanding of basic and background data, there can be a risk in the interpretation of output coming from software.

It should be mandatory that a cross functional team with expertise in interpreting laboratory data, understanding plant operations and design engineering reviews the data used as a basis of plant design and output of design work. This will ensure optimization of design. In educational institutes, students will have to be trained on similar lines. It may not be necessary to do calculations manually but it is necessary to develop understanding of laboratory data and its linkage with plant designs. As chemical industry continues to grow and new chemicals continue to come into the market, chemical engineers have a great challenge to maintain linkage between laboratory data and design data to optimize chemical processes.

Shyam Bang

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