By Cynthia Cheung, Member-at-Large for the GCI
As a chemist, do you ever think about how to scale up your chemical reactions, or your chemical processes? For most of us, the answer is no. However, this idea of industrial scale is something that is constantly addressed in the Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry department. Consequently, the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry become fundamental to scale up a reaction from the bench top in a research lab to mass production in a chemical plant (Figure 1).
For me, the biggest difference I have found moving from the Chemistry department to the Chemical Engineering department is that the principles of Green Chemistry are not concepts that Chemical Engineers often have to think about or address, because these principles are integrated and engrained into their work as objectives and limitations. A process can be thrown out simply because it uses columns for purification (which cannot be done on a large scale, because you would need truckloads of solvent) or because one of the reagents is toxic.
As a chemist, we do what works and worry about alternatives after we have established what we targeted. So pause and think about it for a second: can you continue what you’re doing and upscale it from milligrams to tonnes? Even theoretically speaking, if you could produce that much product, would that process make sense? For example, would that Stille coupling reaction be safe when you’re using tonnes of tin2, or could you afford to be using or making catalysts when you need tens of kilograms of it? So how to do you go about engineering your process so that it would be suitable for industry? Rather, how do the engineers do it?! Well, broadly speaking (and from asking around) a few of the main considerations that seem to be in common are:
How much are all of the reagents and solvents going to cost, and where are there substitutes for cheaper alternatives?
Rate of Reaction
How long is this reaction going to take? Because time is money.
How much waste is produced, what type of waste and is it recyclable? Also to keep in mind is if the waste is hazardous, then what alternatives can be used from the beginning to avoid any hazardous waste generation? In addition, if there’s pollution, then that also has to be reduced or eliminated altogether.
This consideration is often tricky, as most organic labs usually use techniques that are not scalable (I’m looking at those purification columns). In addition to that, side products and by-products are also something that often can give engineers a headache. Atom economy is very important for industry, as it lessens the amount of waste produced, and also aids in producing a good product yield.
How much energy is required for a reactor and for a chemical plant to run is also part of the cost analysis for a process. It would definitely be preferential to be using less energy (so lower temperature reaction conditions and reactions that generate no heat). Essentially, if all reactions could be at room temperature, that would be perfect.
So with these considerations in mind, could you re-engineer your synthesis?
 Stille, J. Palladium Catalyzed Coupling Of Organotin Reagents With Organic Electrophiles. Pure and Applied Chemistry 1985, 57.