Kevin Allegre, PhD, and George Sypniewski, PhD, from CABB's Jayhawk site, recently interviewed each other, shared insights into fine chemical synthesis and described their generational approach to industrial chemistry.
Dr. Allegre recently received his PhD from The University of Kansas and has just started his career at Jayhawk, while Dr. Sypniewski is Jayhawk’s Senior Research Chemist, retiring after 35 years of service.
Dr. Sypniewski begins by reflecting on his career...
How would you explain working at CABB's Jayhawk site to somebody who's never visited before?
G.S: Jayhawk is a multifaceted site that manufactures fine chemical active ingredients and intermediates on a project-basis for a diverse set of customers. It's a service business focused on complex chemical synthesis. We act an an extension of the customer's own operations under a partnership approach. With the variety of projects and opportunities here, it's simply impossible to have a boring day.
What would you say is the role of R&D in fine chemical custom manufacturing today?
G.S: That is a huge question, and as such I'm going to limit it to what R&D means here. The ‘R’ is little, and the ‘D’ is big. In other words, we don't do a lot of research, but rather develop what's given to us so that it can be commercialized in the plant.
Scale-ups are another whole world. With chemistry on a small scale, you can do all sorts of things using expensive reagents and ultrasound, for instance. But you can't scale that up in a practical manner. So we develop novel commercial processes instead. A customer will submit a request for a molecule and we have to come up with the simplest way of making it at the best cost position.
How has the industry changed from when you first began your career?
G.S: We basically had no computerization. Operators in the plant would turn valves by hand and read dials. Nowadays, we have a distributed control system, and all the valves and so on are interlocked and function automatically.
In the old days, you’d just write on a piece of paper, "Do this, this, and this," and the operator knew what valves to open and close. You didn't have to say more because the operator would have had quite a bit of experience as well, so you'd say, "Do a distillation with three cuts. Watch for these temperatures," and that was it. Today it's a lot more complicated.
Through your career, what has been your biggest challenge?
G.S: My biggest challenge was developing and bringing in a key active ingredient for a veterinary healthcare application. When we started, we initially had five people working on it in different segments, and then it was transitioned to the plant. Over the years we've always had some challenges that had to be resolved. But that's probably the biggest, most expensive project I've worked on here.
How do you address safety as an industrial chemist?
G.S: There are hazards for a lot of these chemical processes; you just have to recognize and then manage them responsibly. Chemistry is like driving a car. To be a safe driver, you must follow the rules.
K.A: There's a quote I like from Frank Danes, who was a chemistry professor at KU. He was asked how he handled hazards and his response was, "If you understand the reagents that you're working with, and if you understand the hazards associated with them, dealing with them is no more dangerous than alcohol. It's just about being responsible and understanding the risks and managing the risks."
G.S: Indeed, there are rules, and you've got to take the time to learn what those are for that compound and that series of reactions. We run tests to understand energy output, for instance, and what impurities might pose problems. The knowledge about these things is usually out there, but it's important to educate yourself and be prepared.
In short, safety is always number one. Academia tends not to highlight safety quite as much. We emphasize safety here through regular meetings that focus on a variety of critical topics - exposure, for example. Project safety analyses can take weeks while we go through every little detail. It's the industry standard and we embrace it as good stewards.
Image credit: CABB
Dr. Allegre discusses his transition from university to industry...
Why did you pick chemistry as an area of study?
K.A. Well, ever since I was a kid, I always kind of wanted to be a scientist of some kind. That changed throughout the years from astronaut to paleontologist to just about everything else under the sun. But when I was in high school, I guess what interested me most was chemistry, because I liked to think about how to build molecules and then learn about their reactivity. That aspect of science was most interesting to me.
What do you enjoy most about chemistry?
K.A. Well, the project that I spent the longest amount of time on in graduate school involved palladium-catalyzed anion relay cyclopropanation. That was an interesting project from the aspect of advancing catalysis and understanding the reactivity of palladium, and how it interacts with making complexes, which is kind of the bread and butter of the Tunge group at KU. The part that I actually enjoyed the most was once we formed vinylcyclopropanes, we started to do reactivity studies to see if they were useful for synthesis.
What attracted you to CABB's Jayhawk site?
K.A: I was really interested in the custom chemical manufacturing side of what we do here. It was something that I could handle, that I've had the training to do. It seemed like a job that would provide a variety of new challenges over the years. I knew I would be sufficiently interested in the work, be able to approach problems and find creative solutions to them. That's what I have always wanted to do as a chemist.
Having now come from academia to industry, how has your concept of chemistry changed?
K.A: I am learning the chemical engineering language, and I am just getting my head around the differences in scale; going from less than a hundred milliliters to more than a thousand gallons is a quite a big difference.
Additionally, in the academic lab, you design an experiment, you vary one thing each time you perform a reaction so that you can observe the changes, but you're not necessarily vested in the outcome. You just want to see what happens and learn from that.
The approach is different now because I've got a specific goal in mind. If I have parameters to meet, I may find it necessary to change the conditions, but I must achieve those parameters, rather than just seeing what happens. It's a higher level of precision and accuracy that I have to hold myself to.
What are your professional goals?
K.A: In the short term, my goal is to settle into my role. In terms of professional development, things that I need to do in the upcoming years include learning as much as I can about chemical engineering, the operations of the plant, and how to translate what happens in the lab to how it actually gets done in the plant.
In order to do that, I'm going to be having a lot of conversations with the engineers and try to learn their side of the manufacturing business. I also need to learn as much as I can about the business end of the company, and try to put the chemistry that we do in context, asking, "How do you take this chemical idea and actually make a profitable project out of it? Whom do you sell it to? How do you sell the chemistry?” I need to ask those types of questions.
One thing I've learned in life is that where you are now sets you on a trajectory to where you're going to be in the next couple of years. As a result, I think my professional development will include tailoring myself towards expertise in chemical manufacturing and process development.
G.S: It’s important to learn the language of the chemical engineers, and their needs, and try to fulfil them as much as you can. Although chemical is part of their title, they don’t always understand the chemistry that well. It also works the other way around in that we don’t understand the engineering aspect as like they do. You have to work together and it has to be a team effort. There are operators, too, who have been here for quite a few years and have a lot of knowledge. You need to respect their experience and listen to them and learn to ask questions.
G.S: People aren't very analytical, but Kevin is more analytical like I am. So you've got to be aware of when they have a problem but can’t explain exactly what it is. Sometimes you have extract it by asking specific questions in a very respectful way, like “Which valve?” or “How did it sound?” for instance. As you develop, you'll learn that certain problems repeat, and you’ll be able to recognize moments where you will say, "Two months or a year ago, this other process had the same issue." Then, you can bring it in and say, "What do you think of this?" The most important thing you can do is ask questions.
CABB Group GmbH is a leading custom manufacturer of starting materials, active ingredients and advanced intermediates; a major producer of high-purity monochloroacetic acid; and a supplier of premium fine chemicals. We are small enough to focus on attentive customer partnerships, yet large enough to master complex chemical synthesis. Customers benefit from CABB’s manufacturing excellence, product quality, security of supply, and collaborative approach to sourcing solutions. Custom manufacturing services are offered from three complementary multi-purpose production sites: Kokkola, Finland; Pratteln,Switzerland; and Galena, Kansas USA ("Jayhawk").
About Dr. Kevin Allegre
Dr. Kevin Allegre recently completed his PhD in Chemistry from the University of Kansas. Kevin is CABB’s new Research Chemist at the Jayhawk site and will develop new production processes, support continuous process improvement, and help troubleshoot production issues.
About Dr. George Sypniewski
For the past 35 years, Dr. George Sypniewski has served as Senior Research Chemist for CABB’s Jayhawk site. He graduated from Michigan Tech University & Grand Valley University with his PhD in Organic Chemistry. George recently retired after a storied career, setting a successful path for the Jayhawk team.
About CABB Group GmbH
CABB Group GmbH is a leading custom manufacturer of starting materials, active ingredients and advanced intermediates; a major producer of high-purity monochloroacetic acid; and a supplier of premium fine chemicals. We are small enough to focus on attentive customer partnerships, yet large enough to master complex chemical synthesis. Customers benefit from CABB’s manufacturing excellence, product quality, security of supply, and collaborative approach to sourcing solutions. Custom manufacturing services are offered from three complementary multi-purpose production sites: Kokkola, Finland; Pratteln,Switzerland; and Galena, Kansas USA ("Jayhawk")."
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