Industrial ecology - providing customers to transform waste to valuable coproducts

Industrial ecology is the concept of a diverse group of industrial plants, residential housing and agricultural activities all operating close to each other.

The concept of waste is important - waste is merely a product for which there is no market. Industrial ecology can provide you with waste customers.

At Kalundborg, Denmark an eco-industrial park has demonstrated the benefits of industrial ecology for decades. At its centre is a 1500 MW coal-fired power station. It acts as a cogeneration plant, providing steam to a nearby oil refinery and a pharmaceuticals plant.

Waste heat from the power station, which would usually be rejected to the environment, is used to heat thousands of nearby homes as well as a local fish farm.

Sludge from the fish farm is sold as a fertiliser.

Sulphur captured from power station’s flue gas desulphurisation unit is used to manufacture synthetic gypsum at a nearby plant.

Benefits include big energy savings, water savings, reduced imports, and reduced emissions.

It won’t work with traditional “monoculture” industrial parks. The diversity of businesses, feedstocks and products is what makes it work.

It’s a different way of thinking about industrial business. But it’s the kind of thinking we need to help solve our environmental challenges

Responding to the emissions impact of distillation

Responding to the emissions impact of distillation

Distillation is one of the most common operations in the energy and chemicals sectors. It’s also a huge energy user and emissions challenge.

It shows up in many applications such as removing water from ethanol in biofuels plants, separating crude oil into rough cuts for further processing (petrol, diesel, kerosene etc), and purifying chemicals ready for sale.

The repeated boiling and condensing of large streams requires a lot of heat (typically in the form of steam, but direct fired heaters or hot oil are also used). This is almost exclusively provided by fossil fuels. This fossil fuel use will need to diminish in coming years.

It’s time to look again at your distillation systems. Industrial heat is not yet widely available from renewable sources.

So what can you do?

  • Modern AI systems can efficiently model energy performance at the facility level, allowing whole-plant energy efficiency improvements through better control and optimisation.
  • Consider an alternative separation technology for specific applications: e.g. adsorption systems can be driven by electricity and thus made renewable.
  • Can you minimise or eliminate the need for a separation entirely?
  • Heat integration (with other equipment or other facilities) is more viable than in the past.

Share what you have learned

Share what you’ve learned.

I’ve been writing online for quite a while. Late last year I hit a mental block.

I just couldn’t think of new original content any more.

Then I realised something. Everything you write doesn’t need to be new, novel or original.

Chances are that there will be at least a few of your audience who will learn something from your experience if you’re willing to share it.

Be willing to open up the fundamentals of your hard won career. It may not be news to industry insiders, but if you’re a consultant like me those insiders aren’t your likely customer base.

Share what you know. I’d love to hear what basic yet fundamental things are most important in your work or industry.

We can do so much better

It’s time to stop looking at the end of the pipe.

Many decades ago, people started trying to address our environmental challenges by treating pollution outflows - the streams that enter our waterways, our land and our air.

This is a least-best option. It’s treating a symptom rather than addressing root causes.

We need to consider the entire system that leads to pollution - markets, financing, materials science, product design, consumer demands and the profit motive.

The waste management hierarchy (reduce, reuse, recycle, disposal) is an excellent starting place for better thinking. For example:

  • Do we need to make the product in the first place? Are alternatives available? If we switched, what would the consequences of that new option be?
  • Can we adjust the chemical or physical makeup of our product or process? Sometimes new chemical pathways or reactor design will eliminate a waste product entirely. Or perhaps clever design or manufacturing can allow us to use less material in the product or packaging.
  • Can our product be more robust or repairable? How do we encourage manufacturers to make more robust products when planned obsolescence is good for sales?
  • To avoid waste entering the environment, what product stewardship strategy can be implemented?

We can do so much better.

Don't be a blacksmith. Start retooling

It’s easy to get caught up in the news when it comes to dealing with our environmental challenges.

You’ll read today’s story about emissions rising for the nth month in a row. Or about another company closing down its old, inefficient operations.

But behind these stories are broader trends sweeping the globe.

Trends like the rapid falls in the cost of renewable generation and batteries. Trends like politicians unable to keep up with the market and with the public mood. Trends like the electrification and automation of the vehicle fleet. Trends like the growth of AI and the InternetOfThings and their impacts on industrial plants

The firms that succeed won’t be distracted by the day to day. They’re preparing for the long haul. They’re watching the long term trends and making sure their businesses are set to be competitive in a decade, not just next quarter.

The firms who try to adapt by lobbying government are missing the point. The world is changing and moving on, regardless of what governments want.

Over a century ago, the best blacksmiths found themselves out of horseshoe customers as the automobile destroyed their livelihoods. The same thing is happening across the world in many sectors.

Don’t be a blacksmith. Start retooling for the new world that’s emerging.