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Celebrating 20 Years of Service to Industry

Center for Process Analytical Chemistry has thrived by evolving to meet needs of industry

May 17, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 20

CPAC Director Koch listens to presentations at the annual sponsors meeting, held earlier this month.
CPAC Director Koch listens to presentations at the annual sponsors meeting, held earlier this month.

The concept of making analytical measurements of an industrial process on the production line in real time was practically unheard of in academia before the 1980s. But Bruce R. Kowalski, an analytical chemistry professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, saw the potential of combining microprocessors and mathematical methods with analytical instrumentation to improve the efficiency of manufacturing processes, particularly in the chemical and petroleum industries. His vision grew into the Center for Process Analytical Chemistry (CPAC), which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.

Process analytical chemistry involves the application of instrumentation and data processing techniques to help provide companies with real-time (or near real-time) information about what's going on in their manufacturing processes. Effective monitoring can help tighten specifications, catch problems early, and avoid wasting money on unacceptable products.

Kowalski had been looking for ways to strengthen the analytical division in the chemistry department. He had taken several other ideas to Alvin L. Kwiram, the chairman of the department, but none had been compelling enough for Kwiram--until the idea for CPAC was outlined.

When Kowalski pitched the idea for CPAC, Kwiram thought it was an "imaginative" way to address a need within industry. "It represented an approach and a strategy that, as far as I knew, no one else around the country was addressing and thinking about," Kwiram says. The rest of the chemistry department supported the idea as well.

The National Science Foundation had recently launched the Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers program to foster interactions between industrial and academic groups. The group at Washington decided that was the best route to take for funding, but the financial support of industrial sponsors was a prerequisite to obtaining government funding.

THAT INDUSTRIAL INTEREST was slow to come at first, Kwiram says. He and Kowalski approached people they knew in industry, but their telephone conversations didn't seem to spark more than polite interest. "There was no 'Gee whiz, I'll come right out and work with you guys,' " Kwiram says.

Kwiram decided to tap his network within the Council for Chemical Research (CCR), which had been founded only a few years earlier to foster interactions between universities and industry. He challenged people associated with CCR to spend the money on airfare to come and hear the pitch for CPAC. About a half-dozen people from major companies accepted the challenge. "Once they sat down and listened for the better part of a day, they pretty quickly saw the potential and became very excited about it," he recalls. That initial group included such companies as DuPont, Exxon, and Dow Chemical and quickly expanded (about 40 sponsors by 1988) to include a variety of industries and government laboratories.

One of CPAC's first successes was the development by James B. Callis of a near-infrared spectroscopic method for the measurement of the octane number of gasoline. His method required only a few milliliters of gasoline and took only a few seconds, compared to the liter of gasoline and hours required for the traditional engine test. The method was commercialized by Perkin-Elmer in collaboration with Amoco in the early 1990s.

CPAC's sampling and sensor initiative provides a standard platform for sampling and analytical devices from different vendors.
CPAC's sampling and sensor initiative provides a standard platform for sampling and analytical devices from different vendors.

Melvin V. Koch became the director of CPAC in 1996, but his involvement with the center dates back to his time as director of analytical sciences at Dow Chemical. Since he took over as CPAC director, Koch has emphasized the multi-industry and multidisciplinary nature of the center. As many as 10 academic departments in a half-dozen universities are involved with CPAC.

"I've learned by being in industry that when industry is willing to say they've got a problem, they're not saying they hope some academic group will start thinking about it. They need an answer pretty quickly," Koch says.

When Koch first joined CPAC, he wanted to assemble lists of the needs of the different industries represented in the center's membership. He had come with a list of about 10 needs from the pharmaceutical development group at Dow. He wanted to develop similar lists for other industries. He thought that each industry would have its own set of needs and challenges, but that he would be able to find shared concerns.

"I had the intention of going to each industry and developing a list and then seeing if there were commonalities in order to prioritize what we worked on," Koch says. "That list has been the same, regardless of industry. It turns out that the products change with every industry, but the needs are the same."

CPAC has sped up the process by which it addresses industry's needs by enlisting researchers at other universities through subcontracts. "We wanted to provide full service to our sponsors, so we wanted the best and brightest individuals working on the problems that were identified by industry as of interest to them," Kwiram says. "Obviously, a given institution, a given department, doesn't have all the resources necessary. We decided to identify people wherever they were, in whatever institution, and bring them onto the team so that we could really provide the service to industry."

In recent years, CPAC has started focusing on bringing microscale technologies to process analytical chemistry in a platform called Versatile Micro-Analytical Systems. "We projected that analytical was going to go the way of computing and so many other things--that you could miniaturize it and still get the same results," Koch says. At first, industry "pooh-poohed" the idea and voted against it, he says, because they couldn't imagine their 10- 3 20-foot sampling systems being interfaced with such small analytical devices. "They voted against miniaturization because they couldn't envision how they'd use it," Koch says. "They're now pushing us to find a way to make everything portable, due to advances that could replace those large sampling systems."

The New Sampling & Sensor Initiative, or NeSSI, has been one of CPAC's recent success stories. NeSSI uses a plug-and-play approach to provide a standard platform for sampling systems that has now been accepted as an industry standard by the Instrumentation, Systems & Automation Society. Components such as valves and filters can be mounted on the base.

BUT NESSI is evolving to be about more than just sampling. "NeSSI was originally structured as a way to miniaturize, standardize, and make sampling portable. The sampling system was serving as an interface between the process and the instrument, often where the instrument was the size of a refrigerator," Koch says. "When NeSSI started to be used in some of the major petrochemical plants, the engineers all of a sudden said, 'Why does the analyzer need to be so big?' It was a tremendous event because those same companies were voting against miniaturization of analytical [instruments]." Now, more than half of CPAC's funded projects are geared toward developing miniature devices.

In fact, some members joined because they appreciated the value of the miniaturization work CPAC was doing. "We saw the value of using microanalytical devices in-line to be able to generate real-time data about our processes and be able to make adjustments on the fly," says Robert L. Magaletta of Kraft Foods. He was with Nabisco, which was subsequently purchased by Kraft, when he first became involved with CPAC.

Magaletta is currently the chair of CPAC's Industrial Advisory Board, a group made up of a voting representative from each of CPAC's full members. The board provides guidance to CPAC about what projects should be funded. "Sometimes, academics tend to go off in directions that are interesting but aren't necessarily useful to industry," he says. "The board is charged with doing a sort of reality check that these are the things that are of interest to industry."

Magaletta divides the advantages that CPAC provides its members into tactical and strategic areas. He defines the tactical level as "leveraging existing analytical instrumentation." Members can learn from one another and from the academics at CPAC and get recommendations about what works best.

"What I think is a bigger area for CPAC is the strategic area, defining the next generation of analytical instrumentation that is going to be used," Magaletta says. "The reason I'm so interested in being part of that discussion is that I want to make sure that instrumentation is applicable to my problems. If they're developing instrumentation for the petroleum industry, I may not be as interested unless I can adapt that to the food industry."

Magaletta would like to see a better way of moving technologies from the research stage to commercialization. He believes that CPAC's associate memberships help in that regard. The associate membership "gives the small instrument vendors the opportunity to join, people who can't afford to spend $40,000" for a full membership, he says. "It gets them connected to the research, so that we can build some sort of bridge [to ensure] that this great research actually gets made into a commercial product. We're not going to be making our own sensors. We want someone to commercialize them for us and then maintain them and improve them over time."

When CPAC started, nobody knew how long it would last. "When we got the NSF grant, we knew CPAC would at least be there for five years. I thought the problem was sufficiently large and demanding that it would be around for at least 10 years," Kwiram says. "What one couldn't anticipate is the wholesale dismantling of research in American industry and the decline in emphasis in that general area on the one hand and on the other hand the tremendous amount of outsourcing and merging that has gone on. The traditional chemical industry, and especially the research arm, is in a sense a shadow of what it used to be." CPAC has dealt with such issues by expanding its membership to other industries such as pharmaceuticals and biotech.

CPAC has survived for 20 years by evolving to continue to meet the needs of its industrial sponsors. "It's a tough sell to convince someone who's been in for 20 years that they're still getting new stuff," Koch says.

But CPAC must be doing something right because most of its original members remain associated with the center. "These are sophisticated companies with very sophisticated scientists in their various divisions," Kwiram says. "They're not going to spend a lot of time, certainly not over a period of 20 years, participating in a program that is not yielding real benefits to them."


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