Continuous reactor promises production 'revolution'

By Pete Mansell

- Last updated on GMT

Alfa Laval has introduced new plate technology for the continuous
production of pharmaceuticals, fine chemicals and speciality
chemicals that has "the potential to start something of a
revolution in the chemicals industry", the Swedish company
claims.

The Alfa Laval ART Plate Reactor addresses some of the drawbacks seen with conventional batch reactors, such as temperature control and difficulties replicating the mix of reactants when scaling up from laboratory and pilot level to full processing. At the same time, Alfa Laval points out, there is growing demand for safer, cleaner and more energy-efficient manufacturing processes that shorten the timelines between research and development and market introduction. The ART Plate Reactor ticks all of these boxes, providing faster scale-up, more generous yields and better control of production than the classic stirred-tank reactors, the company says. With the potential to reduce "dramatically​" the development process from laboratory to full-scale production, a pharmaceutical company using the reactor could realistically save up to €1 million ($1.53 million) a day, Alfa Laval believes. The new reactor brings together the properties of a continuous chemical reactor and those of a plate heat exchanger. It contains flow-directed reactor plates that are sandwiched between heat transfer plates, the two components held together by pressure plates to create a modular reactor unit. Ports along the reaction channel provide access to the reaction mixture for measurement, sampling and reactant addition. The ART Plate Reactor comes in three sizes with capacities ranging from 0.25 l/h to 1,000 l/h (0.06 gal/h to 264 gal/h), covering all the steps from laboratory-scale research and development to full production. All units can be supplied as ready-to-run complete systems with ancillary hardware such as pumps and instrumentation, as well as software for operation, control and data collection. In addition, a special calculation and simulation tool, which mimics the reaction in the plate reactor and supports optimisation of design parameters, has been developed to facilitate the scaling-up process. ART stands for Advanced Reactor Technology, integrating many of the attributes of micro-reactors, plate heat exchangers and tube reactors. The high heat transfer of a plate heat exchanger combines with efficient mixing to optimise control over the reaction process, delivering cost and environmental benefits. Superior control allows the ART Plate Reactor to operate with highly concentrated reactants, reducing energy consumption by as much as 70 per cent and minimising the volume of by-products, Alfa Laval says. A high level of automation also lowers labour costs. By contrast, in batch production satisfactory control of the reaction process calls for a large amount of solvent to dilute the reactants. Further energy then has to consumed evaporating the solvent, the company points out. Using a continuous reactor also improves yields, with "exact dimensioning of valuable raw material usage​" and consistently high product quality, Alfa Laval claims. Safety is of critical importance in many chemical applications, given the sensitivity of certain reactants to heat and pressure, it adds. The continuous flow of reactants in the new system minimises these risks by reducing the volume of reactants by up to 99 per cent compared with a batch reactor. As Alfa Laval explains, the ART Plate Reactor has its roots in the company's long experience of heat and mass transfer, starting as a pioneer of plate heat exchanger development in the 1930s. In the early 1950s, Alfa Laval made a breakthrough with plate heat exchangers for the process industry; previously the main application had been in pasteurisation (e.g., milk or beer). Fast-forward 50 years, and the Swedish company was developing and testing prototypes of the ART Plate Reactor in collaboration with leading European universities between 2002 and 2004. The project was also backed by a €1 million grant from the European Commission's LIFE unit, which co-finances environmental initiatives in the European Union and certain third countries. This funding was shared between Alfa Laval and its long-term project partner, the French chemical company Arkema. ART Plate Reactor prototypes have since undergone extensive testing at a number of customers, including AstraZeneca and Perstorp. The version now on the market, Alfa Laval predicts, will "fundamentally change the process of developing new syntheses or modifying existing ones in the area of speciality chemistry and pharmaceuticals​".

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