Chemistry on Wheels

Evonik's EcoTrainer is flexible, clever and smart: a single container can house a complete chemical production complex.

A brief look back at the summer of 2010 in Rheinfelden: Evonik's facility near the Swiss-German border awaits a heavy goods vehicle, but this one is not delivering raw materials for production in the chemicals plant. It's delivering the EcoTrainer – a complete, functional, production complex. A crane lifts the 24-ton container and positions it at its new job site. Initial operations can commence.

Less than a few weeks later the first product - semi-conductor quality hexachlorodisiliane (HCDS) - that meets customer specifications is being bottled. This raw material, which contains silicon, is used to produce the latest generation of memory chips. These can be found everywhere where extreme memory density is required: in smart phones, digital cameras, MP3 players and USB sticks.

Quite a few years would have been required

As Evonik's Dr. Christian Götz, head of the growth field semi-conductor chemistry, said, "we had a great new product and wanted to get it to the market as soon as possible." However, planning and building a conventional production facility would have taken quite a few years. At the time the suggestion that we use the small-scale chemical factory that Evonik had developed was spot on. A mini chemical plant like this can be built in a short time period - if required even on the experts' doorstep. In just a space of 3x3x12 meters it contains everything a chemical production plant needs: reactors, product preparation, processing technology, an IT module, materials storage space and much more. Since it is configured to fit into a shipping container it is even transportable. And although everything is much smaller than usual, Evonik has not reduced its emphasis on safety and environmental protection in the EcoTrainer.

Less time from idea to market

Such a small facility can be flexibly installed at any desired location. Thus the EcoTrainer's mobility makes it an alternative to the conventional small or pilot facilities that are constructed for the production of new chemical products. As a rule the initial investment costs are lower when using the EcoTrainer and thus the business risk is smaller. Additionally, as a chemical plant on wheels, the EcoTrainer can quickly be positioned wherever economic conditions are especially favorable - in a region with exceptionally rapid growth in demand for a specific specialty chemicals product, for example.

Above all, a small, mobile production facility reduces the time period from idea to marketability because laboratory tests, process development, and the subsequent initial production can take place in one and the same facility. Moving? No, thanks. This is how it was possible to bring Siridion® HCDS 500 E, Evonik's name for ultra-pure hexachlorodisiliane, from development in the laboratory to continuous production in less than three years. The EcoTrainer's advantages are highlighted when it comes to the rapid and flexible production of small quantities. And it can also make the transition from a small facility to a large facility simpler, quicker and safer than was the case with conventional production options.

Dr. Frank Stenger, head of the Small Scale Processes Group in Evonik's Process Technology & Engineering Business unit, explains, "The EcoTrainer is intelligent infrastructure: it's mobile and the most compact form of a facility designed for continuous production. Even the process control system meets the standard for such a system in an industrial size facility." In the meantime a second, normal production facility was built and placed in operation in Rheinfelden. In 2013 Evonik delivered the majority of its production to Asia. Looking back, Götz said, "The speed achieved using the EvoTrainer was most certainly one of the decisive elements in the product’s success."

Model for success and a second premiere

The EcoTrainer itself is a success model for Evonik. Experts are constantly developing it further. An additional, but still empty "can-do-anything box" is ready to go in Hanau. It's a second premiere. "Evonik and a pharmaceuticals manufacturer will create the infrastructure for the production of a highly effective cancer medication in the EcoTrainer. The European Union is sponsoring the project," explains project head Dr. Jürgen Lang. Production must comply with strict Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) guidelines. Lang doesn't see any problems with that. The EcoTrainer was practically created for such work thanks to its high level of automatization and its hermetically sealable production space.

Specialists for small scale items are confident: the demand for flexible technology for the production of chemical products is bound to grow because small-scale fittings in the EcoTrainer make it possible to bring a new product to market more quickly - and thus gain a leg up on the competition. The advantages for the user are obvious: not just quicker access to more fascinating and high-performing electronics, but also to new medications.

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