At the core of the project are three case-studies, representing highly important process classes in the industry: two in the domain of reactive crystallization and one in the domain of reactive extrusion, carried out by Fraunhofer ICT. These case-studies are supported by research on the enabling technologies: US, MW and process control. In addition to technology-oriented activities, the sustainability and techno-economic impact of transitioning from a batch production to an US- and MW-assisted continuous process will be investigated.
How do we SIMPLIFY the chemical industry at Fraunhofer ICT?
The researchers at Fraunhofer ICT aim to develop a versatile and energy-efficient process for the production of hydrophobically modified ethoxylated polyurethanes (HEUR). HEUR are a wide family of polymers which are primarily used as rheology modifiers in water-based products, thanks to their specific combination of hydrophilic and hydrophobic building blocks. In the chemical industry, they are produced in large batches of several cubic meters, facing difficulties of mixing and heating of viscous products within hour-long reactions.
The innovative solution of Fraunhofer ICT is to convert the batch synthesis of HEUR into a continuous process using an extruder as a polymerization reactor upgraded with non-conventional and non-contact energy sources: US and MW.
In this approach the excellent mixing ability of an extruder allows handling of the reacting monomers, as well as the highly viscous polymerization product. This offers potential to produce a new range of viscous HEURs, not achievable by conventional batch technology. The incorporation of on-line measurements with automated process control within the REX line will assure constant quality of the final product. The input of US and MW creates the possibility for a new and flexible process window through additional actuation of the chemical reactions, resulting from intensified mass and heat transfer. The presence US and MW therefore has the potential to increase the process efficiency not only through shortening the reaction time but also through facilitating formation of final HEUR water solutions products within a single reactive processing step.
From the economic point of view, the production process benefits with additional degrees of freedom in energy supply by the ability to switch between conventional and MW and US input. Moreover, the strategic transition to alternative and renewable energies minimizes the environmental footprint and creates a viable solution for relevant processes in the polymer industry.