It seems to be an article like many thousands that are published each year; a scientific and technological article of the sort that scientists have got to publish for their careers. And yet, this article by Jean-Paul Lange (a Belgian engineer who works with Shell in Amsterdam) will probably change the world more profoundly than ten thousand articles, picked at random, together. For it shows a mechanism that will radically change the face of industry. Among colleagues, there is already talking of a ‘new industrial logic’. Large chemical industrial complexes are going to disappear, and there will arise a new sustainable chemical industry, dispersed in the countryside – with major effects on physical planning, spread of employment, relationship between cities and rural areas, and perhaps even broader on culture.
Unobtrusively, the article is titled ‘Fuels and chemicals manufacturing, guidelines for understanding and minimizing the production costs’, published in CatTech Vol.5, no.2, 2001, p.82-95. It aims to establish technically and economically, to what extent investment and production costs can be deduced from the basic characteristics of a chemical process. Among all relationships that the article establishes, one stands out for its major consequences: investment costs are highly dependent on heat transfer in the chemical reaction.
Even for colleagues, the ramifications of this discovery will not immediately be apparent. But we live in an era in which heat transfer in chemical reactions is continually, and considerably, being reduced. Lower heat transfer means lower investment costs, a smaller factory. Chemical factories will become much smaller, according to Lange’s law, in the decades to come. That means the reversal of a long-standing trend.
The reason for this is the switch to other resources: from fossil oil to renewables, i.e. biomass. Petrochemical reactions take place, almost invariably, at high temperatures and pressures. Because of the strong heat-effect of the reactions, heat transfer is almost unavoidable. This appears to entail major investments, the first reason to build large chemical factories. Because energy is expensive, engineers tend to locate heat producing processes adjacent to heat demanding processes: the already sizeable chemical factories cluster to huge petrochemical complexes. But in the chemical factory of the coming era, reactions will not take place at high temperatures and pressures, but in mild circumstances: often in water, hence below 100 oC.
The new chemistry, for reasons of PR also called green chemistry, does not make use of organic (toxic) solvents. Temperature and pressure are moderate, and hence also the risk for the neighbors. Chemical waste production is very low. The resource consists of biomass, often carbohydrates (sugars, starch, cellulose), in the future also proteins. Energy consumption is low, and hence also the carbon footprint. Much more sustainable than present chemistry.
There is an economic upside as well. Green chemistry often produces purer products. Hence, medicine produced by green chemistry often has a longer shelf life, which is commercially interesting. And industry will have to prepare for an era of possible shortages in oil; a transfer to biobased resources will allow the transition to take place smoothly.
All this amounts to major advantages to be reaped from green chemistry. Its ascent is inevitable: good for sustainability and the economy. But Lange’s discovery lends a distinct revolutionary flavor to this development. New chemical factories will be much smaller and much less risky, and do not need to be concentrated in areas far from habitation. On the contrary, it may be most beneficial to construct them next to the resource supplier: the farmer. Then, the divide between agriculture and chemistry will fade away. Small-scale chemical factories will be constructed in rural areas near farms or villages; a decentralization of chemical industry.
Separation immediately after harvest
Wageningen professor Johan Sanders takes Lange’s findings as a design tool. He aims to develop processes with a heat transfer as low as possible, to be performed in the countryside. He designed new ways of processing grass and sugar beet. He wants to separate these crops into components immediately after harvest: biorefinery.
Biorefinery might be successful on a very small scale. When Sanders first devised a process for grass refinery, it entailed collecting a harvest of tens of thousands of hectares in one factory; the plan failed. In the latest version of the scheme, called Grassa, a mobile installation for grass biorefinery, fitted into three containers, goes to the farmer – the ultimate small-scale process. Grassa thus prevents outward transport of tons of water (grass consists of 85% water), and inward transport of minerals (fertilizer). Grassa instead directly returns minerals and water to the land.
A new rural development
An imminent decentralization of chemical industry, a new industrial logic. It is hard to imagine. A revitalization of both industrial areas and rural areas. Small-scale factories will strengthen agricultural areas economically. The small-scale chemical factory will carry a new income to the farmer, or his village. Cities will remain the centres of intellectual activity, but economic activity might be better distributed.
This might even produce a new agrarian self-confidence: agro rock, agro literature, agro fashion. Culture which follows technology, it has been shown before. And all this as the consequence of a technical and economic article.