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Turnkey Pilot Plants for Alternative Energy: Pros and Cons

As the world burns through our limited supply of coal and oil, finding sustainable new sources of energy is becoming imperative. Fortune-500 and start-up companies alike are getting on the bandwagon of alternative energy R&D, developing new process technologies in labs across the country. But after a technology is established, the next phase is determining its commercial feasibility.

At this stage, companies are faced with the challenge of scaling up their process technology. The question often becomes, should you go directly from lab scale to a production sized system? Are computer simulations enough to determine a technologies viability? Is the extra expense of a pilot-scale system worth the cost?

When to Use Simulations vs. Pilot Plants

Turnkey Pilot Plant Design

With the advancements in process engineering software, simulations give you a fairly accurate idea of how a technology will technically scale. Process equipment does not scale linearly and something that is an unnoticeable effect at the small scale can have huge ramifications in a production plant. Modeling can catch some of these changes, and simulations are great tools for iteratively designing a process system to generate mass & energy balances, 3D models, and flow statistics.

But a simulation is only as good as its inputs and assumptions. There are still a lot of assumptions in even the most sophisticated of computer models. What works in a 50mL reaction will look completely different in a 5,000-gallon reactor, and host of complex inputs, outputs, flow rates, reaction speeds, mixing dynamics, etc. determine how closely the simulated system and real-world outcomes match.

You might guess right on all these factors and save your company the cost of an additional system, but we’ve never seen it done in a way that doesn’t lead to expensive re-work. Fixing an ill-performing production system costs far more than pilot plants cost and is a much bigger risk.

That is not to say simulation shouldn’t be used at all. In developing pilot modules, simulations are heavily used to design the pilot system and iteratively work through design tradeoffs and identify process technologies that won’t work at production scale before investing money into them.  After usefully data is collected from a pilot-scale system, modeling will again be used to go from pilot scale to demonstration or production scale, but with much more accurate inputs from chemicals running through real process equipment.

The Benefits of Turnkey Pilot Plants

Investing in a pilot skid demonstrates your process technology is ready for production scale, save money by catching design issues early on, and increase the likelihood of securing funding for new technologies. Alternative energy is a high risk, high reward, game. A lot of time and money is spent developing potential technologies that face many obstacles to payback. For your most promising applications, pilot modules provide the following benefits:

  1. Accurately Predict Production Outcomes – The main purpose of a turnkey pilot plant is to refine and predict mass production outcomes, so they come with lots of instrumentation and sampling points to help you calibrate recycle stream effects, product purity, process waste, yield estimates, and so on. Additional research can be conducted, as they are typically not integral in the production process of “for-sale” products and can be shut down and tampered with as needed.
  2. Controlled Testing – Pilot plants are a safe and controlled way to physically prove that a process can be scaled up from bench scale. Raw materials in mass quantities cannot be affordably purchased in the highly pure state the way they can for lab experiments. These changes in quality can have major effects on your process. In addition, commercial grade equipment behaves different and has different materials of construction (in some cases) than lab equipment. Fully exploring how this affects your process is critical to success.
  3. Cost-effective, compared to full-scale production systems. This is the case because pilot scale systems are designed for R&D, whereas production scale systems are designed for… production. In other words, while you work out scaling up your new alternative energy process the pilot plant will turn into an investment well made, and reworked equipment or failed production systems can easily turn into a $10,000,000 paperweight. The scale of investment and therefore the risk is much smaller, so changing one reactor vs. twenty makes a huge financial risk difference.
  4. Investment Building – A working pilot skid can help you convince investors of production feasibility because they can see the process working. Pilot plans can also help build a market by producing a viable product which you can start selling. Never under-estimate the power of “seeing is believing.”

Pilot Plant Drawbacks

Processes such as Fischer-Tropsch and other gas to liquid reactions are becoming very popular, as well as regenerative rumination and converting bio-renewable feedstock into fuel. The point is with so many experimental processes being developed, it is important to scale up using the right systems. The main drawbacks to pilot skids are:

  1. It’s a Hard Cost to Get Approved – The cost of turnkey pilot plants varies widely. From application complexity to materials of construction, there are many factors that drive final cost numbers so you can’t get accurate pricing without some required spend on engineering. While this cost is a fraction of what you would spend fixing a poor performing production system, it can be hard to convince management that the investment is worth it. For those brazen enough to try, here are some good tips on reducing the costs.
  2. Time Must Be Invested – Pilot modules can feel like a detour because they will take anywhere from 3 months to a year to develop, test, and properly collect data from. Is it more time overall than building a full production system and fixing issues as they come up? Hard to say.
  3. The Majority Are Single Use – most pilot plants can only be used to test a single technology because they have to be specifically designed for that technology. There are instances where you can run variations or several different technologies on a single pilot skid, but this would need to be a part of the original spec and will probably add expense. Some plants do have permanent pilot systems that are able to run various product formulations on, which can be a successful long-term strategy but is usually for more established technologies.
  4. You Need Somewhere to Put It and Someone to Run It – Once a pilot plant is built, you’ll need somewhere to put it and an operator or operators to run it. Additionally, you’ll have to make sure that raw materials and utilities can reach the pilot plant, or else it can’t run at all!
  5. It Will Become Obsolete – Pilot systems are a stage-testing system by design. Most pilot plants become obsolete after they have served their purpose, at which point you’ll have to figure out what to do with it. Leave it? Trash it? Decorate it? The possibilities are endless, but will probably cost you some money.

\Why Pilot Plants Are Needed for Alternative Energies

Alternative energy is a research and development hotbed right now. From Fortune-500 companies to small start-ups, people all over the world are looking for ways to make energy renewable, clean, and sustainable.  All the trial and error that takes place in this process means pilot systems are a cost-effective method to test your promising process solutions since they are substantially less than production scale systems.

By making the investment in a turnkey pilot plant before scaling up to a production system, your team will be able to continue researching the nuances of your alternative energy solution, while ultimately saving time and money at your facility.

EPIC can help you with your pilot plant design and development. Call 314-714-1580 or contact us today to talk to one of our pilot plant experts or get a quote.

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EPIC Pilot Plants
4134 Meramec Bottom Rd
St. Louis, MO 63129, US