Residual streams are an inevitable part of manufacturing processes and sustainable solutions are being sought in a wide range of fields. Among these, the chemical sector presents some of the greatest challenges as its residual streams are typically highly complex and often also contain costly raw materials.

As a result, there is great demand for sustainable alternatives to the conventional techniques that are currently in use, such as distillation and incineration. A stepping stone will be the Flemish Moonshot projects that will help Flanders become carbon circular and low in CO2 by 2050.

This is the context in which the CATALISTI cluster launched the EASiCHEM strategic basic research (SBO) project in June 2019. Chemical companies are currently faced with highly challenging liquid separations involving molecules that are very similar to each other. The trend towards more biobased and/or custom chemicals will increase the demand for solutions further still. This type of separation requires efficient methods for affinity separation (AS). Technologies are already available for this, including liquid-liquid extraction in which a solvent is used to extract and separate compounds. Another example is liquid chromatography, which separates compounds based on differences in their affinities. However, both liquid-liquid extraction and liquid chromatography have certain limitations.

The aim of EASiCHEM is to address these through the development of more effective and sustainable AS processes based on membranes. The first route focuses on membrane-based AS processes, which incorporate the selectivity of chromatography in membrane separation systems that include functionalised ceramic membranes. The second route is through continuous chromatography using a concept at microreactor scale based on a membrane contactor. VITO’s task is to tailor the functionality of the membranes to an application. The ultimate goal is to develop an effective decision tree which identifies the optimum AS process for each specific separation issue. EASiCHEM is a consortium of seven partners, who will be working on the project until the end of 2022.

In the SuMEMS project, which is part of the Sidestream Valorisation programme run by Catalisti, all attention is focused on the pharmaceutical industry. The residual streams in the pharmaceutical industry are some of the most complex around. Currently these residual streams are sent for incineration. This places a burden on the environment, uses a great deal of energy and is not sustainable. Moreover, residual streams from the pharmaceutical industry contain costly elements that could be recovered and reused (an example is palladium). This project is led by pharmaceutical companies Janssen and Omnichem and OEM InOpsys.

VITO and KU Leuven complete the consortium. SuMEMS aims to identify an innovative solution for residual streams containing solvents that are specific to the manufacture of fine chemicals and pharmaceuticals. These residual streams contain substances such as active pharmaceutical ingredients, solvents and/or salt and metals that are very harmful, including for the environment. This prevents the use of biodegradation processes. The remaining option is incineration, which is expensive, energy-intensive and environmentally harmful. It also means compounds are burned that could in fact be recycled.

SuMEMS’s aim is to engineer a breakthrough using membrane technology, which, for example, could allow purified water to be treated locally in existing water treatment plants whilst simultaneously recovering valuable compounds such as precious metals. The project looks at a wide selection of membranes, ranging from commercially available membranes to membranes being developed by KU Leuven and/or VITO, and includes a systematic performance study and pilot projects to demonstrate the most effective processes. This project will continue until 2020.

Membrane filtration is of crucial importance to the pharmaceutical industry. A safe and effective method to carry out purification of API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients) as part of the process would make a world of difference. With a view to this, a bilateral project was launched in 2019 which involves small-scale tests to carry out membrane screening at lab scale. This project started at a small scale and has been successfully scaled up at lab scale. It has been determined that the efficiency of this system exceeds that of the alternatives processes and that VITO’s ceramic FunMem membranes are better suited to the task than the polymer membranes that are currently available on the market. The project has in the meantime been continued at pilot scale, replicating the highly promising results at lab scale.
The pharmaceutical industry’s interest in this process has resulted in a unique project in which four pharmaceutical companies have decided to combine their strengths in a single overall project led by VITO. This project is due for completion at the end of 2020.

The Flemish Moonshot projects...

Although Flanders is not literally aiming to fly to the moon by 2050, the region does want to help Flemish industry transition to a low-carbon circular economy using four thematic research trajectories. To this end, Flanders is partnering with universities, research centres and industries. New technologies allowing climate-friendly processes and products to be created must be on point by 2040 so that Flanders can make the leap to low-carbon circular manufacturing in the following decade. The four thematic research trajectories that must lead to these technologies are Biobased Chemistry, Circularity of Carbon in Materials, Electrification & Radical Process Transformation and Energy Innovation.  

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