Transparency and the Chemical Process Industry

Chemical Processing
Photo credit: GraceOda via / CC BY-NC-ND

Transparency is good in government, public service, politics, your personal life, and — of course — in business. Think of buyers and sellers…EBay, Airbnb and Uber. We all want more transparency — especially in the current turbulent times. Transparency helps in information gathering, coordination, accountability and decision-making.

But what about in the Chemical Process Industry (CPI)? On one hand, transparency is important for safety and process development. Especially important is transparency in the case of experimental errors or in process equipment.

Mistakes happen

In all of our careers, there has been a time when a mistake happens, maybe a small one and hopefully not a big one. But, if it happens, maximum transparency is critical.

  • First, identify the mistake: Did the process fail? Was the sizing of the machine wrong? Was the application incorrect?
  • Next, apologize and propose a solution.
  • Finally, take action to solve the problem.

Transparency in CPI

Looking at transparency from another angle, sometimes more is better. In an article by McKinsey & Company focused on the “dark side of transparency” and its unintended consequences. The authors outline how excessive sharing of information creates information overload, endless debate and even possibly reduced creativity as ideas are squashed before they can be fully explored.

In the CPI, there are times when more is better and also when less is better. For example, in the relationship between the equipment supplier and the process development engineer, more transparency is better. The more the supplier knows about the process, the better the process solution. This can also reduce chances of the wrong application or wrong sizing, as discussed earlier, and avoidance of the need for an apology after a mistake.

On the other hand, less transparency may be necessary when it involves corporate strategies and competitive advantage. For process equipment, a new development or improved design leading to a unique process solution benefits the client and the technology supplier, but not the competition. The same is true of information shared by the client with the technology supplier. We sign many NDA’s today to protect the client’s strategies for new processes, new compounds, new markets, and new approaches.

What do you think, more or less? Every day we face these questions. Find me on LinkedIn and let me know your ideas and the skills that you have developed to get the transparency balance correct. Keep in mind, though, your comments will be transparent and may be shared with my readers.

Trusting your Gut

process engineering consultant
Photo credit: KayVee.INC via / CC BY-NC-SA

I recently read two articles on “Trusting Your Gut” in two completely different settings. The first was an editorial for Chemical Engineering Progress by its Editor-in-Chief Cynthia Mascone. The other was in the McKinsey Quarterly, an article on “How to Test Your Decision-Making Instincts” by Andrew Campbell and Jo Whitehead. In both, there was an agreement that trusting your gut is OK within certain boundaries.

As engineers, we depend upon data and analysis. Still, sometimes we make decisions based upon instinct, intuition our past experiences. In the Harvard Business Review, Aledn Hayashi termed this “cross-indexing.” It is the ability to see similar patterns in disparate fields and to elevate intuitive skills from good to subline. Hayashi also points out that the power of cross-indexing increases with the amount of disparate material that can be applied…this comes with experience.

Campbell and Whitehead illustrate four tests that help us gain confidence that we are drawing on the correct experiences and emotions:

  1. The familiarity test: Have we frequently experienced identical or similar situations? To put it another way, how many uncertainties are there in this situation?
  2. The feedback test: Did we get reliable feedback in past situations? Are there many “yes” people that prevent this feedback?
  3. The measured-emotions test: Do we experience heightened emotions in similar or related situations? Are there biases in the situation?
  4. The independence test: Are we likely to be influenced by personal interests or attachments? For instance, the Chick-fil-a cows campaign to inspire hungry people to “eat mor chikn.”

If one of these tests fail, then more data or more challenge is necessary. We should never ignore our gut. The key is to know when to listen to what it’s telling us. In process development and in this blog, we always say “test, test, and test.”

Sometimes testing data is not available. Then, as long as there is transparency with the engineering team, client, and management, trusting your gut is OK.

Have you had any specific experiences where “the gut: has been advantageous? Let me know.

The Inspiration of Travel

During the day 20170407_162859

In mid-April, I attended GasTech 2017 in Tokyo. The focus of GasTech was Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and its impact on the world’s energy balance, carbon emissions and technology. At the same time I was focused on all the interesting characteristics of Japan itself — it was my first time visiting. I always find I am truly inspired by travel and the new experiences it brings.

Novel Experiences in Japan

As in all countries, Japan has its own unique characteristics. There is a sense oforderliness that you do not find in many places around the world. On escalators, for example, you stand on the left and walk on the right. Plus, smoking, eating, drinking, cell phone talking in public are considered impolite and are frowned upon.

However, bicycles have free rein. During our trip, we biked 13 miles throughout Tokyo; what a ride! Speaking of rides, the trains go everywhere and run all of the time and are the safest that I have used. You only need two maps (rail and subway) and then you are fine.

We were also there during the famous cherry blossom season. We enjoyed white, red, pink, weeping willows. Who would have known there were so many different types? Even if you travel there in another season you won’t want to miss the beauty of Japanese gardens. SLS Charlotte

All You Need is Arigato

Handling money and credit cards is rather interesting. There are small trays near every register and you place your money the tray. Credit cards are presented with two hands and a nod of the head. Don’t worry about tipping as there is no tipping and high quality service is the norm. Only an “Arigato,” or thank you, is necessary.

You may be familiar with Japanese food such as sushi or tempura but the taste in Japan is unique. Also try specialty ramen, soba and udon noodles. Japanese “hot pot” styles, nabemono, are common with many different types of oils and broths including tofu and my favorite vegetables of konjac and the satoimo root (sweet taro). With your meal, enjoy a Japanese beer or cold, lukewarm, or hot sake. You might even try a paired dinner with different sake for each course.

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Finally, be sure to balance your business with visits to the imperial palaces, Shinto and Buddhist shrines, and Tokyo’s 47 neighborhoods. We also enjoyed a Tokyo Giants baseball game! Check out my photos, and let’s meet in Japan for business together.

Cruising Into a Future with LNG

liquified gas Charlotte
Image source: Travel Weekly

In mid-April, I attended GasTech 2017 in Tokyo. The focus of GasTech was Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and its impact on the world’s energy balance, carbon emissions, and technology. Now, I didn’t take a cruise ship all of the way from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Japan, but there are some interesting overlaps between LNG and cruising.

Why Liquefied Natural Gas

First, we need to understand LNG and its growing market share.

LNG is an odorless, colorless and non-corrosive natural gas that has been converted to liquid form for ease of storage or transport. It takes up about 1/600th the volume of natural gas in the gaseous state (cruise ship stewards likely wish human luggage could take up 1/600th the volume too!).

The liquefaction process involves removal of certain components, such as dust, acid gases, water and heavy hydrocarbons. The natural gas is then condensed into a liquid at close to atmospheric pressure by cooling it to approximately −162 °C (−260 °F); maximum transport pressure is set at around 25 kPa (4 psi).

LNG is principally used for transporting natural gas to markets, where it is regasified and distributed as pipeline natural gas. LNG is expected to hit 10% of the global crude production by 2020.

Yet LNG is also being used to power ships worldwide. There are 100 LNG-outfitted ships today with another 72 LNG-ready and another 100 in manufacturing. This growth reflects a demand for energy efficiency and new international rules on sulfur content of fuel.

Smooth Sailing for LNG Ships

The primary use for LNG ships today is car and passenger ferries. Cargo ships rank second, and now the cruise industry is getting into the action with 11 ships already on order. According to Travel Weekly, Lloyd’s Register predicts “there will be 653 LNG-powered ships of all types built between 2012 and 2025, including 25 cruise ships.”
Soon you’ll be able to cruise to the islands with more efficiency. Talk about a win-win proposition! Although a trip to Tokyo would be worth taking, even without the cruise experience – I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the trip in a future blog (along with some photos).

In the meantime, GasTech was a great learning opportunity. I enjoyed discussions of LNG technology, gas transmissions and pipelines, infrastructure to use LNG as well as operator training. Check out the website, The conference, once again, showed how the world is tied together for energy and environmental issues. Let me know your ideas and LNG questions.

Innovating Zero Gravity Espresso

Image source:

Ambition to improve is everywhere, and not only limited to corporate labs and academia. I love to see examples of innovation in any field — from wind turbines to cloud seeding or surfing to strawberries. Those who are loyal readers of this blog know that I’ve already written about each of those. Today though I am turning to some new tech that relates to what we do every day to solve chemical engineering problems.

Despite what contrarians might say, humans long ago solved the mystery of making perfect coffee on earth. Yet building an espresso machine for the international space station was a much bigger challenge. Bloomberg last year featured an Italian engineering firm, Argotec, spent over 18 months with 11 engineers working to develop a microgravity brewing process that could meet NASA’s rigorous safety standards.

In Earth gravity, we force almost boiling water through finely ground coffee beans. The water boils, becomes less dense and the steam pushes into the air above. But hot water behaves differently in near-zero gravity. The steam does not rise; staying put it can create a dangerous vapor bubble suspended in a ball of water. So, to avoid bubbles, Argotec used a special thin-steel pipe to ensure the water couldn’t build up heat bubbles.

The next problem was pressure. NASA safety rules anything over 60 psig a concern. Espresso brewing requires at least twice as much pressure. Argotec engineers determined that they could address this by eliminating a traditional rotary pump and instead using an electric motor to drive the plunger.

What about leaks and pressure relief? This is a common problem for all chemical plants, but even more difficult in zero gravity. Argotec made it so that every piece of pipe had relief valves with piping back to a central pressure containment chamber.


That left the question of how to drink an espresso in outer space? Think, after all, of the Tang crystals that are so famous as a space drink. The espresso-loving engineers designed a mechanism to blow air through the coffee capsule into a zip-lock coffee cup.


We all know how nice it is to have a hot espresso when trying to solve a process problem. Now our astronauts have the same opportunity to get the brain cells jumping in space. This is yet another exciting example of how process engineers have to brainstorm new approaches to separation problems.

Groundbreaking Study of Filtration Technology


filtration technologies
Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn via / CC BY

This blog has long touted the importance of testing, testing and more testing. It’s probably fortunate I don’t teach — my students would be complaining about all of my quizzes and exams as I applied my mantra literally!

Still, it remains amazing to me that with the critical importance of good information about filter aids, filter media and filtration technologies, that there isn’t one comprehensive approach to filter aid usage, filter media and wrapping all of this into filtration technology selection.

Yes, you can find abundant information about each in the literature and the filtration marketplace. Industry experts and suppliers cover these exhaustively, but their writing is focused inwardly.

For instance, you might learn about specific applications such as:
applied mineral filter aids in beer filtration
separating niter when boiling sap for maple syrup
• filtering wine with diatomaceous earth filter aid (DE)

And reading these, you would not be blamed for longing for a drink or a sweet treat. Here’s one more on filtering liquid chocolate – just to be sure your mouth is watering.

Yet, no matter the manufacturing process in question, its left to the engineers to gather this information, make their own comparisons and then develop a process solution. With so many sources helping the process engineer “find the right machine,” or offering “a high performance solution you can rely on” it’s challenging to make the best choice.

BHS aims to change this. We’re right now undertaking a groundbreaking study to develop a comprehensive approach to the marketplace. Our research and testing is now underway with a completion date of August 2017, but we’d welcome your contributions and ideas!

Filtration more art than science?

filtration industry
Photo credit: Timothy Neesam (GumshoePhotos) via / CC BY-NC-ND (Yep, that’s Toronto in the background)

At BHS-Filtration, our Art and Science of Filtration (AS0F) newsletter is now in its eighth year. Instead of experiencing a seven-year-itch, we’re perhaps facing an eight year one as I started off the latest installment wondering if filtration isn’t sometimes more of an art than a science.

As we continue into 2017, the newsletter will focus on the art of filtration through case studies and creative problem solving. To start us out, issue 8.1, focuses on the challenges of continuous processing as well as batch filtration and removal/clarification examples.

Continuous Filtration and Scaling Up

In the chemical process industry (CPI) as well as new technology arena (NTA), there are inherent risks and benefits to scaling up from the laboratory / bench top through pilot, demonstration and then finally commercial scale. ASoF provides an article following the process filtration approach developed for each technology stage gate starting from batch filtration in the lab to continuous filtration for the full-scale commercial operation.

The article is the basis for a BHS-led discussion at The 2017 Process Development Symposium organized by AICHE. Join us June 6 – 8 in beautiful Toronto to exchange wisdom, knowledge, tips, and personal experiences in the development and scale-up of chemical and related processes.

In our seminar you’ll learn it’s important to consider all of the steps in process scale-up:

  • First, it is critical to obtain the correct data from all prospectives including reaction, filtration, solids handling, drying as well as all of the other upstream and downstream equipment and systems. The team must know the process, observe the testing, and deduce the solution only from what is observed (and nothing more). Partnering with suppliers with a proven track record in similar applications will shorten the technology scale-up cycle.
  • Second, always allow time for fine-tuning even after the scale-up seems complete.
  • Next, the start-up and commissioning at each step will also have unknowns associated with these activities.
  • Finally, all that matters is the premises (process definition, requirements and testing objectives) and how the testing unwinds the crucial from the incidental (what is the critical process parameter), and ending up in the logical conclusion (optimum process filtration solution).

Removing Catalyst Fines From Slurries

BHS also shares in its latest newsletter a new technical paper reviewing coarse particle filtration and existing equipment for catalyst fines removal / recovery. The article also covers new approaches of candle and pressure plate filters including testing and selection.  Three case studies are illustrated examining (1) Raney Nickel Catalyst, (2) Pharmaceutical Hydrogenation, and (3) Palladium Catalyst Filtration, Washing and Drying.

After all, many chemical, petrochemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing processes involve reactions of solid- and liquid-phase reactants to produce a slurry. The slurry typically needs to be separated into its component parts — the mother liquid and the solid. The article considers the many choices of technologies and all candle filters and pressure plate filters provide for higher quality filtration, improved yields with fully automated and contained operations.

Finally, BHS is undertaking a collaborative project to look at the relationship of filter aids, filter media, and filtration technologies. There is an abundance of information on filter aids, filter media and filtration technologies in the marketplace.   Yet there is no one overall comparison from which to develop a process solution.  BHS seeks to fill the void by undertaking research and testing to develop a comprehensive approach to filter aid usage, filter media and wrapping all of this into filtration technology selection.  Our work is targeted for a completion date of August 2017.  We’d love to hear your ideas — let me know what you think!

Relentless Ambition to Improve and Undersea Turbines

Ambition to improve is not just limited to corporate labs or academia. We also see this at work in a time-honored place — the garage. I encountered a story recently of innovation tested and perfected in the garage but conceived in an even more unlikely place: prison .

When Bloomberg featured Herbert Williams in its Energy section, the title of the article was “The Ex-Con Inventor Disrupting Underwater Energy.” In fact, Williams developed his plans for one of the first commercial-scale turbines meant to convert tidal energy to electricity while serving time in prison.

“Prison set me down, allowing me to stop and think,” Williams said in the Bloomberg piece.

Image source: Bloomberg

Where Innovation Comes From

We all strive for some quiet time to think and develop ideas, strategies, etc. My favorite time is in the sauna after exercising or doing a head-stand in my “hot yoga” class. Williams made some mistakes, but he did his time and while in prison turned to his passion for the love of boats and the sea. He learned technical drawing from a fellow inmate and started coming up with ideas: “I had to make these things to keep a sense of purpose,” he said. “Maybe I made them to show I exist.”

His sense of purpose saw Herbert combining his love of boats and tinkering in a windowless garage to overcome a tough engineering challenge… building a turbine to withstand salt water, and microorganisms as well as to handle the stress of water, 800 times more dense than air.

His innovative solutions included bolting the rotor blades to the rim of the turbine, just like spokes on a bicycle wheel. While this sounds simple, Willams (collaborating with other engineers along the way) also realized that by adding magnets and hand-wound conducive coils he could avoid the need for lubrication. To test that his design wouldn’t seize in cold ocean water, he even tested his idea out in an old aboveground swimming pool loaded with ice.

Engineering Misfits

Patents for his design sold to the Irish company OpenHydro and today massive 300-ton, 52-foot-high versions of the Williams design are deployed in Canada’s Bay of Fundy as well as in Brittany, France. He has joined the Misfits I wrote about a few months ago, those on the outside who make a real difference.

As Herbert says, “if all of the entrepreneurs and tinkerers in the country left it to GE and Westinghouse, we’d be in big trouble.”

Innovation is everywhere. Let me know what you are working on and when you have time to think.

Innovative Thinking, Sustainability & Tequila

innovation and tequila
Blue Agave Plantation. Photo credit: MaloMalverde via / CC BY-SA

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to travel and do a lot of business in Mexico. I have learned a great deal not only about our field, but also about various tequila. Customers often have different favorites, and there’s always time to discuss the benefits of this alcoholic beverage made from blue agave plants.

Nevertheless, you’re not reading this blog to find out my favorite type of tequila (although I’m happy to discuss this if you want to drop me a line). So, you’re likely wondering how I’m going to link the drink to innovation and sustainability (as the title suggested).

First, some background: the growth cycle of the agave plant used by Jose Cuervo Tequila is a minimum of seven years. Once harvested, the heart of the plant is roasted before the grinding and extracting of its juices for distillation. Jose Cuervo uses a portion of the remaining agave fibers as compost for its farms, and local artisans make crafts and agave paper from the remnants.

In an example of innovation, aiming at sustainability, Ford and Jose Cuervo have just announced a partnership to explore the use of agave fibers for bioplastics that can be used for certain car parts.

A typical Ford Motor vehicle has over 400 pounds of plastic parts. In 2000, the automaker began researching the use of sustainable materials in its vehicles. Today, the automaker uses eight sustainable-based materials in its vehicles including soy foam, castor oil, wheat straw, kenaf fiber, cellulose, wood, coconut fiber and rice hulls.

Using the agave fibers in plastic would help to reduce the waste for Jose Cuervo as well as produce lighter-weight bioplastics to improve the efficiency of vehicles.

Agave fibers have unique mechanical properties as well as durability and aesthetic qualities which make them promising candidates. Researchers are testing the material’s durability and heat resistance for potential use in the vehicle’s interior and exterior components such as wiring harnesses, HVAC units and storage bins.

This partnership may have been first fueled by sharing some tequila, but it’s a great example of innovative thinking and interesting approaches to sustainability. We engineers do this every day in our jobs. Let me know other ideas and examples to share!

2017 & Looking into the Future

Process Engineer Charlotte
Photo credit: alex mertzanis via / CC BY-NC

Welcome to 2017.

I hope everyone had a safe and enjoyable holiday season. Speaking of safety, several of my blogs in 2016 discussed safety in chemical plants, refineries and personally. Let’s all keep safety at the forefront for 2017 too!

In 2016, I also spent a great deal of time discussing my views of innovation from different vantage points including strawberries and surfing. Of course, none of these are in my realm of activities, but it just goes to show how innovation occurs, sometimes in areas not commonly thought about.

Finally, I wrote about my time at Washington University in St. Louis, Albany State in New York and John Belushi and the Blues Brothers. There are several other personal stories which hopefully you found interesting as well as my views on ethics and chemical engineering.

After all, my blog has now been up and running for over two years! While I’ve enjoyed writing these posts, it’s also been great to hear from my friends, colleagues, customers and others from all over the world.

Looking forward

2017 may be a turbulent year…but I have some suggestions.

Take Small Steps: When I wrote my book, the project manager at Elsevier told me that the Table of Contents was the most important part. By breaking the book into pieces — each chapter, section, paragraph — I only needed to write 1 – 2 pages. Then, before I knew it (well, maybe over one year later), I had completed 150 pages. I’ve tried to apply this perspective in other areas too — Take small steps and accomplish each step to reach your goal.

• Focus on the Benefits: Whether the task is at work (new process, new initiative or better time management), in the gym (longer run, more repetitions or a longer headstand), or with your family (this you can decide yourself), make sure that the small steps you take result in advantages and benefits to you or someone else.

• Develop “No Choice” Categories: What do I mean by this? There will be steps that you take which must happen for you to achieve the desired benefits. These steps are your “no choice” categories. But by looking at these as small steps as essential parts of reaching the long-term goal, you can better motivate to do what needs to be done.

I’ve already started thinking with excitement about 2017’s blog posts. Look forward to my thoughts on Ford Motor & Tequila, Famous Nathan’s Hot Dogs and another wide variety of topics. I also invite you to make suggestions! In fact, I’d welcome guest blogger contributions. Please let me know what interests you. I’d be happy to discuss it further.