Getting value from research: NSERC Environmental Design Engineering Chair at cole Polytechnique
July 1, 2008 By Pulp & Paper Canada
The NSERC Environmental Design Engineering Chair at cole Polytechnique is entitled Process Integration in the Pulp and Paper Industry. Process Integration (PI) is the holistic analysis of products an…
The NSERC Environmental Design Engineering Chair at cole Polytechnique is entitled Process Integration in the Pulp and Paper Industry. Process Integration (PI) is the holistic analysis of products and processes with the goal of improving their design and performance. PI emphasizes multidisciplinary decisionmaking that incorporates process, environmental and financial criteria based on relational data. PI might be considered as advanced process design, since its methodologies relate to classical multidisciplinary process design practice. In another sense, PI is a set of advanced tools for examining sustainability. In its Design and Development Program, the cole Polytechnique Design Chair combines a broad range of PI tools; for example, data processing and reconciliation, process simulation, plantwide optimization, lifecycle analysis, and supply chain modeling.
While the basic PI and design competency has remained the same for both the first (2000-2006) and second Chair terms (2007-2012), the program underwent a significant redirection. Consistent with the forest industry culture at the time of the first Chair term, the projects (developed collaboratively with our forest industry partners) concerned identification of hidden value in mills at the plant-wide/ product-wide levels, e. g. opportunities to incrementally improve paper machine and energy efficiencies for minimum capital cost. Since 2000, the pulp and paper industry paradigm has changed, and correspondingly, the Design Chair changed its focus – seeking to assist industry transformation to the forest biorefinery. One common definition of the forest biorefinery is “the full utilization of incoming woody biomass for the production of wood products, pulp and paper products, energy including biofuels and other organic and specialty chemicals that can be derived from wood.” Another, perhaps more practical definition of the forest biorefinery that our Design Chair uses and forestry executives adhere to, is “to maximize the economic value from trees in a sustainable manner, implicating a new business model and the associated enterprise transformation.” This latter definition clearly represents a multidisciplinary product and process design problem that can be addressed using PI tools.
Do universities have the resources and skills to play a role in facilitating the implementation of the forest biorefinery? More specifically, after succeeding reasonably well in the first Chair term at identifying incremental process improvements, is the design research model we use in the Design Chair a good one for assessing something as broad and strategic as an industry transformation to the biorefinery?
University research has strengths and weaknesses. Our graduate students are talented and dedicated. They join our research team equipped with a strong engineering competency, however must acquire knowledge in pulp and paper processing and technology, and, as well, learn the process integration tools that their research project will employ. We use a case study approach. Our student “laboratories” are operating mills and their “experimental data” are taken from the mill process and accounting systems. Our graduate students typically spend a four-month term at the collaborating mill, during which they must understand and interpret real-time process data, and must work closely with mill and corporate personnel. Coupled with a limited ability for mill personnel to support graduate students in their work, this is a model that has challenges but is worth pursuing, in that it leads to more realistic research outcomes.
Our multidisciplinary approach places an emphasis on classical Chemical Engineering principals but also beyond – business models, capital and operating costs, and business decision-making. Our students must seek to understand the financial constraints facing our industry in the context of their graduate work, and understand that the biorefinery technology strategy must “serve” the business strategy. An important part of filling the knowledge gap is related to the Design Chair’s precious collaboration with our forest industry Chair partners, with other research groups such as the process integration team at Natural Resources Canada, with leading university research teams from around the world such as CPBIS at Georgia Institute of Technology, and “friends” of the Chair – those wonderful industry executives and managers who, once retired, enjoy sharing their wisdom by interfacing directly with our graduate students.
Has focusing on the biorefinery been a good risk to take for our Design Chair? Yes. Is the Design Chair model for highquality graduate work successful? I think so. Our research team is currently exploring four biorefinery programs, each one consisting of several projects. We are using our product and process design toolbox to establish promising biorefinery strategies –including for example developing novel supply chain strategies that incorporate manufacturing flexibility to mitigate against product price volatility, and evaluating the environmental performance of biorefinery product pathways using life cycle assessment (LCA). The best value the Design Chair can deliver to our Chair Partners is our graduate students: out-ofthe-box thinkers and, hopefully, our future industry leaders. It is all very exciting and, while we can always do better, I think that we are working in the right direction. PPC
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