Dr. Prasad Apte, Director of Technology at Harper International, speaks to AZoM about the advantages of working with an experienced thermal processing partner early in development to optimize commercial scale-up.
Could you please provide our readers with a brief introduction to the industries Harper International works within?
We work within a very wide array of industries. A large fraction of our business is dealing with equipment for making carbon fibers. That is one major industry that we deal with. We also deal with ceramic industries for making everything from ceramic powders to fabricated ceramic parts.
We get involved in anything which requires high temperature thermal chemical processing equipment. It could be metal industries, ceramic industries, carbon, as in fiber, as well as non-fiber carbon. We also help our customers make materials for lithium batteries. We are also active in the nuclear industry in the manufacture of fuel pellets for nuclear reactors.
When do you believe is the right time to consider the commercial scale-up process? Does it differ from industry to industry?
Yes, it does differ between different industries. A lot of times we have customers who come in and they have done some experiments in laboratories on a small scale. Typically they have prepared a five gram or a ten gram sample. They are using a new process in order to make the material and most of the experiments are done in batch in a static environment. When they want to go to a point where they want to get the samples tested at their customers, or potential customers, that's one point where it makes sense to start working on a scale-up.
The other point is when they have already done that kind of evaluation of the material with potential customers, but now they want to go from making it in a batch process to continuous process. So those are the two logical points where it makes sense to start considering the commercial scale-up process.
What are the main factors that need to be considered when a company is planning to commercially scale-up?
The main factor to be considered is the throughput the customer requires and how soon do they need to reach that throughput. Say an estimate in market size is 100 tons per year –do you need to reach the 100 tons per year in one shot, or do you want to do that over five or six years? That's one factor.
Other factors include: the chemistry of the material that you're working with, the processing temperature that you have to take it to, the atmosphere in which material is processed. It is important to consider the gases which come out of the furnace and make sure they are handled in a fashion which makes the process safe and to ensure that all the environmental quality requirements are met.
Finally, the most important consideration is the financial cost - what are the energy requirements and what is the capital cost of the equipment? So these are all the factors which have to be considered in planning a commercial scale-up.
How does Harper help customers to reduce risk during the scale-up process?
We help them in a number of ways – let me just give you an example. Sometimes we have people who come to us; they say “we've developed this process and it requires a residence time at high temperature for this material, at ten hours”. They have done a static test, and now they want to build a continuous piece of equipment. The first thing you have to determine is whether they really need those ten hours, or can they perform the process in a much smaller time.
In our laboratory we have small-scale equipment which we can use to go from the static test to some kind of a dynamic test in order to improve a gas-solid contact, to improve the heat transfer and the mass transfer and to see if you really need those ten hours.
So now you can do the testing with only 100 grams or 200 grams. Based on that data, we now tell them to let us scale-up to a larger size where we can evaluate at the rate of say a hundred kilos per week because now you can use that information to design a proper apparatus so that you can really get a truly continuous process.
We provide all the expertise to do that kind of test but we also help people in some respects, based on the fact that for decades we have helped customers develop technology and processes for many different materials. We can make suggestions which are not specific to any material.
Let me give you an example - if you're trying to process powders, it's very difficult for heat transfer, for gas flow, and for mass transfers. So we recommend to them that if you agglomerate your powders in to small granules you can improve your throughput, reduce your cost and improve the heat and mass transfer. So it helps them reduce the risk, in terms of the cost of the process and improves the chances of success for their profit.
What is the process you typically go through when working with your customers on a successful scale-up?
The first thing we do is we recommend them to do the trials which I previously mentioned – a process which we call the Ignite™ Process. The first stage of the Ignite™ Process we develop looks at the ability to make larger batches of samples for our customer. In the second stage, we develop a continuous process to make the material.
Next we carry out an engineering study, where we use the data collected to design appropriate equipment for scaling up to the size which the customer requires. As you can imagine, as the equipment size increases, one has to calculate the stresses involved on the equipment – the thermal and mechanical stresses. The equipment has to be designed to withstand all those stresses
After that, we design and construct the equipment to manufacture the material. We install the equipment and commission the equipment to get it operational. We even follow up by providing optimization of the equipment. Sometimes we are able to help a customer increase the throughput of the material by as much as 50% over the design capacity.
What are the common issues materials developers come across when they're considering a scale-up?
One common issue is the reactivity of the material to the containment that it has to be in. For example, if the process has to be carried out at a temperature of 1,500 degrees Celsius, it automatically defines what kind of containers one can use in order to carry out a process. So the compatibility of the material to be processed and the material that it is processed in is one common issue.
The atmosphere in which the reaction has to be carried out is the second issue. Then as I mentioned, the heat and the mass transfer into the reactance and out of the reactance, for all the gases which have to be taken out and handled. In some cases the gases have to be scrubbed and flared to make sure that you do not contaminate the environment. These are some of the common issues which keep appearing with most of our customers. And finally, as I mentioned, the form in which the material is available. If it's a powder, fine powder is a lot more difficult to handle than if it is granulated.
What are the major advantages of a scale-up for customers?
The major advantage to the customer of a scale-up is of course higher production at a lower cost. If you perform the scale-up through our Ignite™ Process, we reduce the risk that you incur when you build a large piece of equipment and then have to do experimentation on the large apparatus to get the product correct.
A few years ago somebody came to us and asked us to design a kiln. They just wanted it designed and built to a relatively large – capable of handling several hundreds of tons per year. The disadvantage of doing something like that, without going through our Ignite™ Process, is that once the equipment is built and you want to do trials, you're utilizing hundreds of tons of raw material and producing a product which may not be useful at all. Whereas if you do it using our Ignite™ Process you will know that, when you have built a large apparatus, within a week or two weeks you're going to start getting the product quality that you desire.
I joined Harper after I worked for about 35 years carrying out high temperature research and development. The Ignite™ Process which Harper offers our customers is something I wish I had access to. We had to gather together our own equipment and process to do the scale-up. At Harper, we have excellent expertise and people capable of providing that assistance. It's already made and available. That is one of the very attractive things for me.
What are the primary industries that benefit from your services?
Ceramics industries, metals, fiber metals and carbon fiber industries. We also do a lot of material processing for activated carbon and for battery materials.
Are there any recent examples or case studies that you're particularly proud of?
A customer came to us with an idea they had in their mind of how to make this activated carbon. We started small-scale experiments in the laboratory. Then we developed a rotary gas fiber-based process to make it continuous. We did an engineering study to scale it up so that we can build larger rotaries. They are now successfully operating a manufacturing plant based on the equipment and the process that we developed with them. They are making large quantities of activated carbon in the north west of the United States.
Are there any markets and industries you're looking to expand into in the near future?
Three areas that come to mind: activated carbon is still an area of huge interest and battery materials are a second area. The third area is carbon fiber market for products made using our carbon fiber manufacturing furnaces that are starting to find applications in automotive car bodies. That's what we anticipate will be a huge thing.
If our readers wanted to find out some more about the company and the processes that we talked about, where would they obtain that information?
More information is available on our web site: http://www.harperintl.com
Readers can contact Harper directly on by email [email protected] , or by telephone on 716-276-9900.
About Dr. Prasad Apte
Dr. Apte is a Materials Scientist with over 25 years of experience and a proven track record of developing and commercializing new products and processes. He boasts a strong background in materials processing, structure property relationship and surface technology. He received his PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, and holds over 25 patents in the areas of ceramics, metal/ceramic composites, coatings and surface modifications.
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