RAPID: supporting modular manufacturing and process intensification for small-scale ammonia

By Joel Maul on March 04, 2019

A guest post by Joel Maul, Director of Client Services at ITAC.

Using greener feedstocks at low pressures and temperatures, with higher conversion rates and less greenhouse gases is considered a pipe dream. The technology and equipment simply wasn’t available … until now. The case for small-scale, energy efficient ammonia production is well documented, but access to funds may not be. Manufacturing USA and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership may offer a new path to success.

Research projects to undertake the work of producing ammonia have been underway for more than a century resulting in wins for the industry. Haber, Nernst, M.W.Kellogg have changed the ways in which the industry has operated. Nevertheless, the next steps in producing ammonia on a small scale are yet to be deployed. At issue, beyond the science, is the economic feasibility of new schemes.

The U.S. Department of Energy has funded research by way of ARPA-E. That’s a great, targeted way of approaching relevant funding. There’s of course private capital; with loans as another available option. Ralph Waldo Emerson did say “Money costs too much.” For the small company or researcher looking to obtain the capital needed to start or continue operating, alternate forms of funding are needed.

Which bring us to an important component of process development. Not many organizations realize that the US government has sponsored research institutes under Manufacturing USA. Its mission is to foster a competitive advantage for American manufacturers who want to commercialize the next generation of technology. These 14 Manufacturing USA Institutes leverage funds provided by either the Departments of Energy, Commerce, or Defense in the form of grants to academic and industrial organizations. One institute that could provide support for more research into smaller scale and more energy efficient generation and use of ammonia, is the RAPID Manufacturing Institute.

Click to enlarge. AIChE website: RAPID Institute Roadmap.

The Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) Institute is focused specifically on the chemical process industries. Technically, they are seeking to advance the combination of modular manufacturing and the deployment of intensified components. The Department of Energy provided an initial $70M for disbursement through the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) to found RAPID which further provides the funding in a public private partnership. Despite the generous offering and several cycles of project funding, there are no ammonia projects in receipt of an award. Two members of the Ammonia Energy Association are also RAPID members: BASF and Starfire Energy. Both companies are working diligently on projects that could benefit the larger ammonia industry.

The Manufacturing USA Institutes, being research-oriented for the development of sustainable enterprises, do not have the outreach capable of drilling down to the companies where the groundwork occurs. For this reason, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) has taken the lead for working with companies. The MEP network provides embedded professionals, mainly engineers or technically savvy personnel, as a loan to Manufacturing USA. The MEP evangelizes the institute and closes the gaps between the Manufacturing USA Institutes and manufacturers of all sizes, taking advantage of the reach of the MEP network. RAPID needs entrepreneurial firms to both propose new solutions, as well as build the components and modules that are created in the research by others. The MEP team wants to talk with all members of the supply chain. By delivering industry 4.0 information to companies who are willing to construct new modules, materials, or plants, the gap between the lab and field is closed. Agility in the process of technology adoption (capability and intelligence) means ammonia production in the USA is done more efficiently and effectively.

RAPID’s goal is accelerating the adoption of technologies through a mixing of public and private capital and supplying the resources to drive a solution to fruition. The mission of RAPID is in line with the goal of smaller, numbered up, and modular plants. Ammonia typically relies on large plants with sprawling footprints, RAPID is looking to modularize plants and use alternate production schemes. Removing the high pressure and heat requirements by using catalysis and membranes could yield benefit by decentralizing production. Additionally, using smarter plants which have artificial intelligent computer processing enables faster responses for plant conditions, higher yields and ultimately lower costs.

Click to enlarge. Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) website: MEP National Network.

In short, the Manufacturing USA Institutes and the MEP system can add the needed groundwork and alternatives to what was traditionally a slow and costly means of changing the way ammonia is produced. When the next wave of disrupted technology hits the ammonia industry, perhaps RAPID and the MEP network will be the nexus for its generation.

The MEP is eager to discuss how your work might into RAPID or other institutes. To find out more about these programs, contact your local MEP or e-mail me.

A guest post by Joel Maul, Director of Client Services at ITAC.