Interview Dr Jean-Pierre Brunelle

Dr Jean-Pierre Brunelle, Rhodia-Solvay, Process R&D Director  and Chairman of the Strategic Advisory Board of EUROPIC, interviewed by the EUROPIC Management Team:

How large is the total R&D effort (financial and human resources) in your company?
JPB: Total R&D effort of Rhodia, member of the group Solvay, amounts to 2% of its 2011 turnover, which corresponds to approximately € 120 M.

What part of the R&D effort is devoted to processes in comparison to product ?
R&D devoted to incremental & step change improvements of processes is estimated to 35 %.

Can you give your personal definition of Process Intensification?
Process Intensification aims to drastically increase productivity and/or decrease resource & energy consumptions and capital intensity of processes. But also to generate new products, thanks to technologies able, either to cut out energy & mass transfer limitations, or to decrease the number of steps of these processes. What we can sum up with the sentence: “faster, better, simpler, cheaper”.

In any case, PI is not restricted to micro- or milli-reactors! Likewise, PI does not include new chemical routes or new catalysis, even if these topics could also be key for process step changes …

How large R&D effort in your company (financial and human resources) is devoted to Process Intensification? Could you say that PI represents an important element of your strategy ?
JPB: Process Step Change projects, among them PI projects, represent approximately 20% of R&D budget. PI is really one of the tools of our Sustainable Development strategy.

Rhodia has been involved between 2005-2009 in Process Intensification programs of the  Competitiveness Cluster Axelera in Lyon.

Rhodia is also one of the industrial partners of the European project F3-Factory (2009-2013) which objective is to demonstrate the economical interest of continuous and modular conception of intensified and flexible processes.

Does your group perform a permanent scientific technology scouting in the field of PI?
JPB: Updated knowledge of prior art coming from academic and industrial fields has always been a key objective for us. It offers an interesting source of inspiration and of open innovation for researchers. In addition to that, we have had scouting programs on some PI technologies for several years in order to identify potential interest and opportunities of valorization of them within the Group.

Could you precise what is exactly expected from Process Intensification in the R&D strategy of your company? What are the major expected outcomes ?
JPB: Process Intensification is one of the tools, but not the only one, we use to remain or become the cost leader in all our strategic value streams. In other words, PI aims to improve competitiveness and sustainability of our value streams, but also in some cases to generate new businesses thanks to new products.

Do you have any example of successful implementation of PI technologies or methodologies in your company? Which types of implementations?
JPB: We have today several industrial applications of PI technologies like homogeneous reactive distillation, static mixing or membrane separation.

As far as methodology is concerned, we launched in 2005 a new R&D facility in Bordeaux dedicated to high-throughput acquisition of data based on microfluidics tools (LOF – LaboratoryOf the Future).

Could you  specify the nature of the benefits obtained ?
JPB: For the examples here above, productivity improvement and capex & energy savings correspond to the main gains obtained.

Could you say that PI plays yet a significant or satisfying role in the current development of your company ?
JPB: Yes, PI plays a significant role in the current development of our step change projects. We are now expecting more ideas of development of new products thanks to PI technologies.

To your opinion, what are the major barriers to PI implementation in your company considering the whole aspects (technological, economical, educational, psychological, etc) ?
JPB: Barriers come mainly from cultural, economical & marketing sides. We still have to increase the number of people who are PI minded. Cost of some PI technologies could be a barrier. Our experience has shown that smaller does not always mean cheaper!

PI technologies implementation generally require new capacities in order to have a chance to have profitable investment files. As a consequence, PI technologies implementation is focused in priority on value streams which supply growing markets.

What kind of actions do you plan in order to facilitate within the next 3 years the PI development in your company ?
JPB: We are used to organize scientific days every year around PI topics like mixing, distillation, membrane, process synthesis. These internal events offer very efficient opportunities to disseminate the PI culture. We will obviously continue to organize these events during the coming years within the New Solvay. Success of some current PI projects will help us also to better convince our global organization of the interest of Process Intensification.

What should be now added or improved in EUROPIC’s approach ?
JPB: PI experts reports have been an excellent initiative of EUROPIC. Project of EUROPIC training course for PI beginners is also another good idea to disseminate PI culture.

More advertising on Industrial PI successes from petroleum, chemical & pharmaceutical industries would also help us to convince and enroll more people to Process Intensification.

Last, any way to ease access to PI equipment suppliers information would be also welcome.