In an article recently posted on its website, Imperial College London announced a groundbreaking consortium, spearheaded by Imperial and BASF. This partnership is poised to transform the chemical manufacturing industry, making it more efficient, resilient, and sustainable. At the core of this transformative alliance is the Innovative Continuous Manufacturing of Industrial Chemicals (IConIC) initiative, led by BASF. Included in this partnership are esteemed organisations spanning the chemicals value chain, such as Almac, AM Technology, CPI, METTLER TOLEDO Autochem, Siemens Process Systems Engineering, and Sterling Pharma Solutions.
According to the article, the consortium has secured a substantial £17.8 million in funding from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and industry partners under the council’s Prosperity Partnership programme. The goal is to generate the expertise and intellectual property required to effectively implement continuous processing at smaller scales. These include research and development labs, pilot facilities, and the production of high-value chemicals, such as pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, and speciality chemicals.
This collaboration brings together leading industrial innovators from across the chemical value chain and Imperial’s world-class research capabilities in chemistry, engineering, and computing. The consortium members will use their expertise to advance flow chemistry, a modern production technique that allows continuous operation for chemical reactions, instead of traditional batch processing. This technique could potentially revolutionise chemical manufacturing, much like assembly lines did for car manufacturing in the 20th century, the article claims. By embracing flow chemistry—using equipment from reliable suppliers like Syrris—manufacturers can achieve greater consistency in their products, improve energy and material efficiency, and introduce higher levels of automation.
Professor Mimi Hii from Imperial’s Department of Chemistry, the lead investigator of IConIC, expressed enthusiasm about the project’s potential: “Flow chemistry is inherently more sustainable than batch processing because it makes better use of heat and materials. It can also provide a powerful tool for automating production and the research and development of more sustainable processes. However, there are technical bottlenecks that are holding back its full implementation. Through this new consortium, we will be in a strong position to address these challenges.“
According to the article, the first challenge is achieving net zero in the face of climate change. The IConIC consortium aligns with Imperial Zero Pollution, a major College-wide initiative aiming to transition to zero carbon and reduce pollution by creating sustainable societal and industrial systems. This is followed by the need to build resilient supply chains post-pandemic. The third challenge is addressing the shortage of natural gas by exploring alternative feedstocks. To overcome these hurdles, the consortium will innovate novel production processes for future value chains in the chemical industry.
Professor Ian Walmsley, Provost of Imperial, is said to have expressed delight in this partnership, the article claims. He said that it will drive progress in industrial chemistry, help the UK government’s industrial strategy, and improve the productivity, resilience, and sustainability of the chemical sector.
Dr Helmut Winterling, Senior Vice President for Digitalisation, Automation, and Innovation Management, Group Research at BASF, emphasised that the collaboration builds upon a successful track record of working with Imperial’s leading data scientists. The consortium will drive advancements in products and processes within the chemical industry, leveraging an integrated workflow that showcases the interdisciplinary and holistic approach at the heart of the strategic partnership.
Dr Darren Budd, Commercial Director at BASF UK and Ireland and an IConIC principal investigator, stressed the significance of their research. “By making more advanced and efficient manufacturing methods available even at smaller production facilities, we aim to make the chemical industries more resilient to the supply chain shocks and increases in energy and material costs that we’re becoming increasingly familiar with,” he stated.
The research aligns with the ‘Artificial Intelligence and Data’ and ‘Clean Growth’ challenges in the UK’s Industrial Strategy. It holds the potential to benefit the UK economy by creating new high-skilled employment opportunities and driving investment into Scotland and the Northern Powerhouse regions. These regions, renowned for producing industrial chemicals, can significantly benefit from the consortium’s innovations as they lack large-scale ‘Verbund’ sites commonly found in other countries.
The article states that this partnership will leverage Imperial’s advanced infrastructure, including state-of-the-art automated chemistry facilities such as ROAR, ATLAS, DigiFAB, the AI centre I-X, and the prototyping community Advanced Hackspace. These facilities are part of the White City Innovation District, an emerging hub for deep science and innovation, uniting startups, major businesses, and academic researchers.
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