energy, refining, chemicals, oil and gas, digital transformation

Process Simulation driving Innovation and Sustainability

Interview with an expert: A Q&A with SENAI CETIQT

September 14, 2021

Jeiveison Gobério Maia, researcher and process engineering lead at SENAI CETIQT Institute for Innovation in Biosynthetics and Fibers (ISI B&F) shares his experience in process simulation with Fúlvia Borges, Principal Solution Consultant, AspenTech. SENAI CETIQT (Centro de Tecnologia da Indústria Química e Têxtil do Senai, Center for Technology in the Chemical and Textile Industry) is a research and training institute in Brazil that combines education, technology and innovation. It promotes competitiveness and the addition of new technologies to the Brazilian industry through the transfer of knowledge, applied research and innovation.


Fúlvia Borges: What is the history of process simulation in the trajectory of ISI B&F so far?

Senai: From the beginning, ISI B&F developed simulations of industrial chemical processes to address the needs of companies on SENAI’s Technical Advisory Board. This was expanded with the vision from our manager Paulo Coutinho, who reinforced the need and importance of technical, economic, financial and environmental feasibility assessments in the early stages of innovation. In almost six years, the process engineering group doubled its revenue annually, and with the support of AspenTech engineering solutions, our current portfolio includes 46 projects, over 80 conceptual designs, more than 200 simulations of complete plants in different processes and hundreds of technical-economic-financial-environmental feasibility assessments. Process simulation is key to support innovation, and we have been taking advantage of AspenTech certification program to enhance the skills of our staff. 


FB: What can you tell me about the economic aspects of feasibility assessment in early project stages? 

Senai: The development and innovation of chemical or biochemical processes must include economic-financial analysis and environmental assessment from the early stages of research to increase the chances of successful industrial implementation. We use a methodology that includes engineering tools, such as Aspen PlusR, combined with technical-economic analysis streamlined in Aspen Process Economic Analyzer (APEA), financial analysis and life cycle assessment, which focuses on key variables with the highest economic and environmental impact.

This methodology contributes to successfully identifying viable and economic process operating conditions to support research and development of new technologies.


FB: Since SENAI CETIQT is already using Aspen Hybrid Models, can you share your thoughts of the potential of this technology?

Senai: Aspen Hybrid Models are key for operation and optimization of industrial chemical plants. Hybrid models take advantage of rigorous thermodynamics to simulate the process as accurately as possible and improve the results with empirical models built from operational data; and make it possible to continuously update the digital twin, to prevent accuracy losses over time, commonly observed when pure phenomenological models are used.

Particularly, I see great potential of hybrid models in developing process models, where using machine learning techniques to describe phenomenological parameters that are difficult to understand, such as pre-exponential factors of the specific rate of a chemical reaction or a transport coefficient between phases. We have been using these tools in RD&I projects to address customers’ requirements to increase margins and productivity through support of day-to-day operational decision-making. The Aspen Hybrid Models have helped in operations optimization, rapid debottlenecking, reduction of utilities consumption, and analysis of sustainability metrics through virtual sensors.


FB: SENAI CETIQT is one of the pioneers in the application of rigorous simulation modeling in diversified processes, such as Pulp and Paper. Can you tell us more about how it started? 

Senai: Brazil stands out for having an enormous availability of biomass, in addition to forest-based industrial structures that are competitive at a global level. However, we still do not occupy a leading position in the bioeconomy scenario due to the lack of technological self-sufficiency in strategic sectors. To support this and in alignment with circular economy strategies, the Brazilian Technical Association of Pulp and Paper (ABTCP) requested ISI B&F to evaluate biorefining opportunities linked to the pulp and paper industry.

The ISI B&F team used Aspen Plus to model the processes (pre-treatment of lignocellulosic biomass, enzymatic hydrolysis of residue and glucose fermentation) and Aspen Process Economic Analyzer to estimate investment and operation costs. With input and feedback from companies in the sector, the digital twin met the reality of the Brazilian pulp & paper industry and provided an alternative representation of the chemical composition and physical properties of eucalyptus as a feedstock. The preliminary results showed that, in addition to technological bottlenecks in processing eucalyptus wood, the evaluated processes are not yet fully mature. This is true even in a scenario with industrial-scale processes with different feedstock, for example, sugarcane straw. 


FB: Can you share more with us regarding additional projects for pulp processes? 

Senai: Since the companies were interested in further evaluation, the scope of the project expanded to evaluate biorefining opportunities through the simulation of Kraft processes, driving collaboration and Open Innovation.

In the second phase of the project, in addition to a bleached Kraft pulp production plant from eucalyptus wood, ISI B&F, developed, in collaboration with the sector's sponsoring companies, simulations of four biorefining processes: lignin precipitation, gasification, pyrolysis and hydrothermal liquefaction of the sludge. As a result, we developed a unique world-first Aspen Plus-based virtual plant for the entire production process of bleached eucalyptus Kraft pulp.

The process simulations provided the participating companies from the forest sector with tools to support decision-making at a strategic level of investment, helping them to understand the main challenges and bottlenecks of a possible integration while evaluating the most appropriate or advantageous opportunities for their individual realities.

In addition to this, we recently started a RD&I project with Eldorado Brasil Celulose. This project is focused on a digital twin to support operational decision making and optimization of KPIs in the industrial Kraft pulp production plant. The initial results are very encouraging, and we are looking forward to the next steps.


FB: How do you see its application in future innovations? 

Senai: The technological revolution from Industry 4.0 allows companies to be more efficient and flexible in meeting new market requirements and demands. With continuous and disruptive transformations, computer simulations of processes are an opportunity to improve productivity and transform all sectors. The state-of-the-art chemical industry is already investing in technology automation and robust information systems, but also in increasing the performance of all manufacturing, sales and marketing, development and innovation processes. During innovation and implementation of new technologies, process simulation plays a key role in integrating projects, processes and decisions, aiming to optimize economic indicators, reduction in consumption of water, energy and raw materials and effective maintenance.


For more information, read the white paper: Hybrid Modeling, AI and Domain Expertise Combine to Optimize Assets. 


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