Digital solutions are essential to improve resource efficiency and minimize the carbon footprint of the industry’s operations.
For the next few decades, chemicals demand will increase worldwide, putting pressure on chemical producers to increase production. Yet in view of the climate and environmental crises, the industry is facing a dual challenge. Hence, there is a need for companies to adopt creative solutions and reuse or recycle materials to create a circular economy instead of a linear one. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 12 highlights the idea of “responsible consumption and production”, which many chemical companies have adopted and internalized as a guideline.
There have been various approaches to increase resource efficiency in the chemical industry. The pursuit of energy efficiency is a low hanging fruit which might not need significant capital investments. In the face of geopolitical conflicts, energy security and improving energy efficiency has become a main concern for chemicals executives. Another approach to increase resource efficiency is reusing materials as feedstock similar to what is being done with advanced recycling of plastics.
It is critical to note that in the journey towards optimal resource efficiency, bulk chemical manufacturers might adopt a different set of strategies, compared to smaller specialty chemicals manufacturers. For example, reducing Scope 1 emissions is a very pressing topic for an ethylene producer. At the same time, a specialty polymer manufacturer might focus on waste elimination and the circularity of their products. Regardless of size, nature, and priorities of a chemical manufacturing facility, digital solutions are instrumental in their journey to maximize resource efficiency. A comprehensive vision across the production value chain is needed for overall operational efficiency, profitability, and sustainability.
Effective planning and scheduling
Due to unprecedented pressure exerted on global supply chains during the pandemic, subsequent disruptions cascaded throughout the energy and chemicals industry. While the demand for plastics in healthcare skyrocketed, demand for energy plummeted. As the world transits back to pre-pandemic dynamics, the conflict in Europe added to market instability. To mitigate rapidly shifting market conditions, integrating upstream and downstream models can help chemical companies stay profitable.
Production planning and scheduling can address product demands, while conserving resources (like feedstock) to maximize production margins. For example, PTT Global Chemical, a major producer of olefin and aromatics in Southeast Asia, embarked on a supply chain planning optimization project with AspenTech, to improve supply chain visibility.
Improve energy efficiency and limit carbon footprint
While chemical producers experiment with new business models to take advantage of new feedstocks, new energy sources and new products, many have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint and become carbon neutral by 2050. Like the EU’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), other regions of the world are considering implementing carbon taxes in the form of trading markets. Deviations from these targets would impose high operational costs and cut significantly through profit margins. Free allowances are
expected to be reduced, which will in turn increase permit prices. Energy efficiency of the main process becomes just as important as reducing fuel gas and steam demand on the utility side – as both measures are now business longevity mandates. Considering market competitiveness, feedstock volatility and low margins for commodity chemical producers, slight improvements in operations to increase energy efficiency can significantly impact producers’ bottom line.
Creating a digital twin of the plant can help identify site-wide opportunities to improve energy efficiency without the need for capital investment. For example, LG Chem used Aspen Plus and Aspen Energy Analyzer to create a digital twin of their 900K ton/year ethylene plant in Daesan, Korea. An energy analysis identified about 60 savings opportunities. After reviewing commercial and operational feasibility, 20 of these opportunities were selected for further consideration and implementation. These changes resulted in 3-4 percent overall plant energy reduction, with an estimated $10M USD/year in additional profits for the plant.
It is also possible to optimize utilities, such as fuels, hydrogen and steam, to improve profitability and lower carbon footprint. One way for large chemical manufacturers to improve energy efficiency is through active utilities management. Digital solutions like advanced process control (APC) and digital twins provide visibility and control over utilities operations, emission levels, and opportunities to minimize them. APC has been used in process industries for decades to improve process efficiency. In addition to solving nonlinear problems, leveraging AI and machine learning (ML), new APC tools learn from historic performance of the plant and enable users to optimize for desired economic and operational variables in a fraction of the time. Equally, digital twins are strong tools for tracking and managing emissions while providing insights to remove process bottlenecks. Digital twins facilitate monitoring at the equipment level, locating emission sources, and helping to validate and reconcile site- wide data that can be used for reporting and decision-making purposes.
Reducing waste generation
Waste generation in the chemical industry accounts for a large portion of total waste produced globally. This waste can be in the form of liquid, solid or gaseous material. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 34.9 million tons of hazardous waste were generated by 23,700 active generators in 2019 in the US alone. Since the chemical industry consumes significant amounts of water to cool down processes or as part of the process, wastewater accounts for the largest stream of waste produced.
To minimize waste generation, the chemical industry has leveraged digital solutions in different ways. This works by balancing proactive strategies to prevent or minimize waste generation in the first place, followed by strategies to manage generated waste. Both aspects of this circular approach benefits well from the implementation of digital solutions. Flaring in manufacturing plants is an example of waste generation with environmental impacts on nearby communities. Reducing the need for further product treatment or minimizing catalyst decay are other examples of waste minimization in the chemical industry.
To meet new technological and environmental challenges, the chemical industry is using digital technology more than any other time. Digital solutions are essential to improve resource efficiency and minimize the carbon footprint of the industry’s operations. In this article, we underlined a few cases that with the help of our digital solutions, our clients improved overall reliability, productivity, and efficiency of their plants without any new CAPEX investments. Considering companies' limited resources, along with increasing customer demands for responsible production, and the competitiveness of the chemicals market, chemical manufacturers are on fast track to revolutionize operations and take advantage of additional revenue opportunities.
The combination of global chemicals demand growth and sustainability pressures, together with the complexities of a volatile market require new levels of operational agility, flexibility and insights. Chemical Industry leaders are adopting digital solutions as an essential component of industry transformation to improve resource efficiency and minimize the carbon footprint of the operations. This paper covered examples of companies improving overall reliability, productivity, and efficiency of their plants without any new CAPEX investments, using digital solutions. Digital solutions provide operational insight and create value in every segment of the chemicals value chain from supply chain to design, production, and reliability and maintenance.
By Anahita Khanlari, Ph.D., Industry Marketing Director, Chemicals, and Lawrence Ng, Vice President, APJ, Aspen Technology
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