Most of the time this is not a human error on the part
of research and development or the engineers, rather it is the
process itself. When the scale is larger, the process is different.
Consequently, forecasting problems is usually too complex. This
is why a pilot plant can be of immense use, because it allows the
lab-scale experiment to be studied in a representative model of
the large-scale production plant.
In addition to the more detailed data that can be gained,
the pilot plant performs several other functions.
1. COMpaRES COMMERCIaL GRaDE
Ra W Ma TERIaLS aND Ca TaLYSTS
aGaINST THEIR LaBORa TORY-GRaDE
COUNTERpaRTS aND IDENTIFIES aNY
In a lab scale study, raw material and catalyst usages are very
small, so a high purity grade is affordable. At a production plant,
using such high purity material is often not economically feasible, and a commercial grade material must be used. The difference in raw material quality can result in longer reaction
times, poorer product quality, and even the generation of by-products—all of which can create nasty surprises for a plant
2. pRODUCES SMaLL qUaNTITIES OF
pRODUCTS FOR USE aS Ra W Ma TERIaL
FOR SUBSEqUENT pROCESSES OR
Pilot plants are particularly useful for processes that involve
several reaction steps, because they can be used to produce the
large quantities of intermediates that are needed to study the
next reaction process.
They are also an ideal way to market test a product, as
samples of a product can be produced and distributed to customers for feedback prior to launching mass-scale production.
And, because pilot plants come in a variety of sizes (from 10 L
to 1000 L), a good fit can usually be found.
3. TESTS THE CONSTRUCTION Ma TERIaLS.
In lab-scale trials, small quantities of reactants are used in
non-reactive laboratory glassware, whereas the reaction
vessels, equipment, and/or piping in an industrial plant may
be constructed from materials that are incompatible with the
chemicals. This can result in corrosion, polymerization, and
sometimes even decomposition.
Pilot plant trials will quickly indicate if a material is incompatible with a process, allowing expensive construction mistakes to be avoided.
4. aLLOWS THE qUaLITY OF
BY-pRODUCTS aND WaSTE TO BE
Lab-scale trials may not highlight the waste that is generated
or produce enough by-products to test the feasibility of selling
Pilot plants can produce sufficient by-products so that
their quality and sell-ability can be assessed. The waste generated from the process can also be studied to determine if any
waste treatment is necessary. Such assessments provide insight
into the economics of the process.
5. GENERa TES a MORE DETaILED
MaSS BaLaNCE aND OBTaINS BETTER
ESTIMa TES OF YIELD.
A lab-scale experiment usually generates erroneous mass balances, because the quantities at production scale are several
6. pRODUCES SMaLL-SCaLE qUaNTITIES
OF SpECIaLTY CHEMICaLS FOR SMaLLER,
NICHE MaRkET SEGMENTS.
Pilot plants can also be used to produce small-scale specialty
chemicals that serve smaller, niche markets. For example, in
the surfactants industry there are certain specialty chemicals
that only highly niched formulators use. Dedicating large-scale
plant facilities to produce such chemicals is not practical, but
a multi-purpose pilot plant can supply such niche market segments perfectly well.
Overall, a pilot plant can move lab-scale research to full-scale production faster and with less risk. It will help put the eco-nomics in focus and help one develop a feasible process for a
production-scale plant. In addition, most pilot plants are multi-purpose; this allows one to carry out several types of reactions
and to study the marketability of various products.
Aseem Ebrahim is a consultant and subject matter expert
in the field of surfactants manufacture. He has consulted
for several large companies including P&G, SABIC, Malaysia Palm Oil Board, IOI Oleochemicals, and many more. He
has helped to design, set up, and commission several pilot
plant facilities in the surfactants industry. He is currently
with Inventa Technologies Singapore and can be reached at