President’s Corner | 2017

We Can Open Windows to New Worlds with Chemical Engineering

Mr. Taketsugu Fujiwara
President, SCEJ

Taking up keywords that have begun to pick up momentum, such as (1) big data, AI, IoT; (2) bio, health care; (3) environment, energy, etc., it is clear that they changing the world and are conducive to realizing ambitions in the chemical engineering world.

Within these three fields, the same keywords are appearing in the neighboring sciences and as social needs, and are effectuating revolutionary changes in society. For chemical engineering, the actualization of these keywords in the chemical industry has ushered in a new age in which it can take the lead in opening up new fields.

Big data, AI, IoT and Chemical Plants

① Safety

Accidents are categorized as occupational, industrial or environmental, and their causes are divided into facility-related, human error and natural disaster. Whatever the category, in order to prevent accidents, stored information must be analyzed and applied toward improvements in facility and human behavior. By fully utilizing sensor information as big data, and by incorporating environmental data collected from plants and their peripheries, it becomes possible to drastically reduce the spread of harmful effects outside of plants, and thereby create chemical plants that can co-exist with society. Operators can then switch from surveillance and emergency response, to development and preemptive operations. Such development of sensors, the construction of databases, and the construction of information sharing networks with society, are fields being pursued to meet the above needs, and it is crucial that chemical engineering take an active role in those fields.

② Facility management for significant cost reduction and safety improvement

Significant improvements in the collection of processing data and maintenance data as described above makes it possible to predict critical conditions and develop inherently safer processes that effectuate ideal response and limit usage to only those areas of optimal safety.

Furthermore, given the predictability of equipment decay and other kinds of deterioration, sudden accidents can be prevented and facility maintenance costs can be optimized. In other words, by establishing AI maintenance that goes a step beyond PM, BM, CBM, facility maintenance costs can be alleviated by 30%.

Waste and fixed costs can also be reduced through a system that circumvents ON/OFF preparedness and other irregular operations. Pertaining to plant ON/OFF operations that adjust supply-demand balance, if it is possible to rely only on the sole support of a special team formed from members of the engineering crew, the operation of so-called fixed cost earnings can be eliminated and a stable supply-demand relationship can be established.

③ Flexible multiproduct plants

Conventional chemical plants had only one target product, and the objective was to process the product as stably and inexpensively as possible. However, in more recent years, Japan has lost its competitiveness in the chemical industry. There is little added value in general purpose type mass production processes, such as those representative of petrochemicals, thus the country has switched to fine chemistry such as electronic, optical and medical materials. Such functional materials are required to continue developing and commercializing those fine chemicals which have advanced characteristics and must be processed in small amounts and with short lifespans of application. That is why simultaneous progressive plants of research, commercialization and application development are needed.

It is here that big data and AI are key.

Compound searches, prototypes, physical simulators, microreactors, micropurifiers, polymer prototypes, prototype polymer 3D processers and other tools are now being developed facilitating the easy production of small product lots. Instead of plants that can only process single products, chemical engineering system design makes it possible to create multi-use plants that can create product mixes tailored to demands. Furthermore, if these concepts can be applied to existing plants, they will surely revitalize Japan’s chemical industry having fully depreciated plants.

Biosciences and Healthcare

High expectations are held for the use of big data in drug discovery and the in clinical field, and these are the fields are being considered from the vantage point of the chemical industry.

Take for example, the utilization of chemical engineering in the field of cell regeneration medicine in which Japan is a world leader. The efficient culture of iPS cells and the production of target cell membranes with high yield require the control of biocompatibility using surface engineering, the handling of membranes, the control of preservation state and methods for shaping per each application, etc. It is process engineering itself that is ideal for precision chemistry and machinery, and rapid development and standardization are the driving forces of competition.

Environment and Energy

In the automotive world, although the releases of EV and FCV have continued to be expected for the past 20 years, it is only now that they have become clearly feasible. Initial discussions did question the validity of Well-to-Wheel analysis in terms of energy efficiency, environmental burden and cost, but more recently, the neighboring sciences and social needs have responded to those issues in the forms of renewable energy sources, advancement of CO2 capture technology, the development of efficient rechargeable batteries, and even a reduction of social burdens through changes in automobile usage itself (sharing, automatic operation, etc.).

The energy problem should not be approached by focusing on efficiency at either end of energy production or usage. Instead, we need to turn our attention to usage within the total social system. A thermal electric distribution system as a smart community, the reduction of required energy itself through smart infrastructure and social system engineering are all imperative.

Promoting a gentle transition from process engineering that produces conventional chemical products, to system engineering that creates social systems in co-existence with the environment, chemical engineering will take a leading role in creating the next society.