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Firms Advance Flow Chemistry

Technology: Companies see business opportunity in continuous processes

by Michael McCoy
May 24, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 21

Credit: SBI Fine Chemicals
SBI is testing a continuous biodiesel manufacturing process.
Credit: SBI Fine Chemicals
SBI is testing a continuous biodiesel manufacturing process.

Two companies are teaming up and a new one has formed to advance flow chemistry, the practice of running smaller chemical reactions continuously in microreactors, rather than in batches. The new business efforts are signs that flow processing is growing beyond a laboratory curiosity and into an accepted method of conducting chemistry.

ThalesNano, a leading supplier of benchtop flow-chemistry reactors, is combining its technology with Mettler Toledo’s ReactIR, a reaction analysis instrument that allows chemists to observe what is happening in real time. The companies say the combination will “support the further development of one of the fastest growing areas in chemistry.”

Based in Hungary, ThalesNano is among a handful of companies, all less than 10 years old, offering flow systems to chemists. Others include the British firms Syrris and Uniqsis. Bayer and Corning, which developed a glass flow-chemistry microreactor at laboratories in Fontainebleau, France, are larger players in the market.

They are being joined by Cambridge, Mass.-based i2Chem, which launched earlier this year as a U.S. alternative to the Europeans. I2Chem CEO James N. Little, a chemist and entrepreneur who worked for the instrument maker Waters for many years, explains that the firm is commercializing microreactor technology developed by MIT chemical engineering professor Klavs F. Jensen.

Little says i2Chem is pursuing a hybrid business model that combines flow-chemistry equipment with process development services and contract production. Lonza and DSM, also European firms, are two more-prominent examples of companies that are using flow chemistry in specialty chemical production.

Despite its young age, i2Chem already has two customers and other potential ones, according to Little. “There are enough papers, conferences, and buzz on flow chemistry that almost everyone is thinking about it,” he says.

Meanwhile, a Canadian firm, SBI Fine Chemicals, is out to prove that continuous microreactor techniques can also be used on a larger scale. CEO Inder Pal Singh says SBI is building a biodiesel demonstration plant in Edmonton, Alberta, that can make 20 L of the fuel per minute from a variety of vegetable oils. Singh is looking for partners on a 150 million-L-per-year commercial plant.



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