The University of Pittsburgh and Lubrizol, an Ohio-based chemical company, have set out to change the chemical manufacturing industry for the better. Now the two entities are closer to that goal thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The Department of Energy awarded the Pitt Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering and Lubrizol a collaborative grant for research into so-called clean energy chemical manufacturing. The grant, along with contributions from Pitt and Lubrizol, will total $7.5 million over four years.
The funding is part of the Rapid Advancement in Process Intensification Deployment (RAPID) initiative, a partnership between the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and the DOE. Pitt and Lubrizol are among the 45 members of the $70 million initiative focused on improving energy efficiency and productivity in the chemical industry.
Cliff Kowall, a Lubrizol technical fellow and corporate engineer, says Pitt and Lubrizol received the grant because of their years of work to advance process intensification and modular manufacturing. While the two design approaches are common in Europe, they have yet to become the standard for U.S. chemical manufacturing.
If successful, Kowall believes Pitt and Lubrizol will be the first group to “demonstrate that this can be used very effectively at very large industrial volumes.”
“It will spread, I believe, throughout the chemical industry,” says Kowall. “We’re going to make some fundamental changes and increase the competitiveness of the chemical industry in the United States. That’s kind of the end goal.”
Kowall explains that, compared to conventional methods, the combination of process intensification and modular manufacturing would make chemical manufacturing cheaper, cleaner, safer and more efficient. He uses the example of skids, a practice in modular manufacturing where chemicals are produced with smaller units as opposed to in a single large plant. The approach offers plenty of benefits — for one, a plant requires long periods of inactivity for cleaning and maintenance, whereas using multiple skids allows for continuous production and are easier to fix.
“The downtime is really minimized,” says Kowall.
Established in 1928, and acquired by Berkshire Hathaway five years ago, Lubrizol produces a variety of chemicals and materials including motor oil and transmission fluid performance additives, thickening agents for consumer products like shampoos, and coatings for things like athletic shoes. Through the efforts of Kowall, the company started a partnership with Pitt around the time when he says the university was “really energized to develop industrial relationships.”
“It was a perfect fit,” says Kowall, who also serves as an adjunct instructor at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering.
The partnership, which began in 2014 with a $1.2 million strategic alliance agreement, resulted in a mutually beneficial arrangement that allows Lubrizol to tap into Pitt’s talent and resources while adding value to the university. The funding went toward the creation of undergraduate courses focused on chemical product design and developing entrepreneurial skills. At the same time, students can gain hands-on experience by working on research projects tailored to Lubrizol’s business operations.
The partnership also brought about the University of Pittsburgh Physical Property Internship, a nine-month internship targeted at chemical engineering students who graduate in December and intend to go to graduate school in the fall.
Last month, Lubrizol renewed the partnership by pledging to invest roughly $1 million in Pitt over a three-year period.
“Lubrizol is embedded here,” says Kowall. “Everybody knows Lubrizol. And there’s a Pitt presence at Lubrizol.”