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Modern Pilot Plant - Key to Process Development
B Shankar, Managing Director, Xytel India Pvt Ltd. Indian Petrochemical Industry, Speciality Chemical Industry and Pharmaceutical Industry have a huge opportunity to gain from pilot plant route to process commercialisation. Many industries lack R&D skills to harness their wastes, low value by-products and convert them into value added products. Many industries who have R&D skills do not invest at the appropriate time in pilot plants for scaleups. If industries do not wake up in time, they will face extinction in the competitive environment.

Pilot Plant is a wellrecognised tool worldwide for research and development . Depending on the actual use, the size of the plant has to be decided. For example, a pilot plant for market testing of a new product has to be of a suitable size, which produces sufficient quantity required by the end user to certify the product. For the purpose of catalyst testing the pilot plants are of miniature size even with quantities as low as one gram could be used. Collection of data for design/scale-up, selection of optimum process conditions, establishment of technical feasibility, evaluation of catalyst performance, test marketing of a new product, developing a new recipe, testing of a new raw material as a teaching aid are some of the key benefits of a pilot plant.

Features
The modern pilot plant should necessarily consist of number of features that boost research and development activities worldwide. Depending on the process applications the pilot plant has to be custom designed. Some of the important aspects of this feature are as follows: selection of a suitable liquid feed pumping system, selection of a suitable gas feeding system, reactor design with adequate data collection capabilities and product separation and storage sampling methods. The design of the pilot plant is far different from typical commercial plant design and hence a special expertise is required in selecting, installing and servicing of sophisticated components involved. Special care is required in applications where heating is in excess of 400o C and above as the heat losses can become a limitation. The concepts used in controls are different from those followed in commercial plant.

Many times the pilot plants run unattended for many hours. Hence, the design incorporates safety measures at all locations of the plant. In special cases a hazop study is conducted and the necessary safety hazards predicted are taken care in the design.

Since the purpose of the pilot plant is to produce authentic data, the design and selection of instrumentation and controls is very critical. Generally, a dedicated PLC with custom designed software is recommended. The pilot plants are mostly used as research tools and hence the operating conditions shall vary to facilitate research. The design has to cater to wider ranges without affecting data accuracy.

The instrument and controls should allow smooth steady state operation so as to collect accurate and repeatable data valid for research. The selection of hardware is such that it provides trouble-free operation for extended duration.

The design should be such that any anticipated additional requirement could be accommodated without major shakedown. The modular construction design facilitates such changes into pilot plant. In many cases, the pilot plant reactors are subjected to pressure as high as 200 kg/cm2 and temperatures beyond 900 degree C. Hence, the fabrication and inspect ion of cri t ical components need good quality control procedures to be followed. The assembly of the pilot plant components on a skid need special skill to accommodate all components required for maintenance to be located at accessible places and yet the compactness of the plant to be maintained. The plant has to be aesthetically appealing as it is always housed in a prime location in R&D research facility.

Pilot Plant & Indian Industry Indian Petrochemical Industry, Speciality Chemical Industry and Pharmaceutical Industry have a huge opportunity to gain from pilot plant route to process commercialisation. Many industries lack R&D skills to harness their wastes, low value by-products and convert them into value added products. Many industries that have R&D skills do not invest at appropriate time in pilot plants for scale-ups. If industries do not wake up in time, they will face extinction in the competitive environment.

Many research institutions procure pilot plants for specific research needs and after the research programme is completed the plant remains idle and over a period of time it is junked. It is a serious loss of resources and effort. Effort should be made to put such plants for use with suitable modification for different applications. There is a serious lack of trained manpower for operation and maintenance of pilot plants in various R&D organisations. This results in mal-operation and irreparable damage to critical and sophisticated components, which are not available in short lead- time. Trained manpower is a boon to R&D institutions, which operate pilot plants. Organisations must strive to maintain key operational and maintenance staff to take care of routine maintenance of pilot plants.

The pilot plants are a product of expert skill and not an assembly of hardware procured in the market. Due to lack of knowledge proper cost estimates are not made and proper budget allocations are not made. There is a need to correct such things to avoid wastage of time in getting a pilot plant properly designed and engineered to achieve the expected goal.