12 January 1995 00:00 [Source: PCE]
Swiss firms are among the world leaders in supplying chemical engineering technologies. Alan Tyler reports on the recent projects of the main players.
In addition to manufacturing a wide range of fine and speciality chemicals, Swiss firms are also among the leaders in supplying chemical engineering technologies, with Krebs Swiss, Sulzer Chemtech and EMS Inventa among the leaders in the field.
Among the main players, Krebs of Zurich is active in chlor-alkali, salt processing and hydrogen peroxide industries. Krebs Swiss has completed projects around the world but is now particularly active in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.
The company recently won a contract in the Asia-Pacific, to supply know-how, basic engineering and proprietary equipment for a grassroot chlor-alkali plant for Thai Organics Chemicals.
Advanced membrane cell technology from Asahi Glass Co of Japan will be used and the plant will have a capacity of 100 tonne/day of caustic soda. Krebs is supplying a similar plant, with the same Japanese partner, to Travancore Cochin Chemicals of India.
Another key sector is salt technology. Krebs' advanced Salex-RT is an advanced salt purification technology for solar salt-works, caustic/chlorine and soda ash plants, salt mines and refined table salt production. The company has installed plants in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Eric Merz, managing director of Krebs Swiss, says the chlor-alkali market is mature. Improvements tend to effect such areas as the membrane cells. He says Krebs is focusing more on salt, where returns were higher, although the market is smaller.
The North Sea conference - where environmental matters are discussed by ministers from countries bordering the North Sea - has called for all mercury cell technologies to be replaced by 2010 with membrane cells, which use less power.
There are 110 chlor-alkali plants in Europe (including Turkey) but it is unlikely that many will find it economic to convert even though power costs would be lower because most plants which operate at 200-300 tonne/day capacity are fully depreciated in company accounts, and, particularly at low chlor-alkali prices, conversion imposes high depreciation charges. In this case many may close down.
Among the Swiss projects undertaken in recent years, Krebs has supplied equipment for the storage of hazardous chemicals to Ciba, Hoffman-La Roche and Rivella, as well as temperature controlled modular storage structures to Siegfried Chemie.
Krebs adapts its business to changing market circumstances. Whereas it closed down its waste water treatment business last year, others are in development.
One such is Krebs' pervaporation (permeation/evaporation) technology, which is an improvement on the standard process of distillation. Membrane processes such as micro-filtration, nanofiltration, ultrafiltration or reverse osmosis behave in a similar way to conventional filtration only for particles of small diameter. Pervaporation is more comparable to extraction than filtration, as it uses selective permeation through non-porous membranes to separate liquid mixtures.
The process is to be used in applications such as: dewatering solvents to reduce energy consumption compared to rectification; separation of azeotrope mixtures or of substances with close boiling points - achieved in a single process step with a low energy requirement compared to rectification; the recovery and concentration of valuable substances from industrial waste waters where it is justified by a reduction of production costs. Krebs is developing a module on which the pervaporation module can be attached. 'The system is up to three times more efficient than the laboratory data on basic membranes,' says Merz. 'It is a product with excellent growth potential.'
Another major Swiss chemical engineering company is Sulzer Chemtech, based in Winterthur. Its two main divisions are mass transfer and environmental technology.
Sulzer's mass transfer is showing strong growth in China, Singapore and Canada. European markets include Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
The mass transfer department supplies: separation columns for distillation, rectification, extraction, absorption and desorption; systems for separation tasks; for separation by fractional crystallisation; mixing and reaction equipment incorporating static mixers; and catalyst carriers and systems.
'Turnover is about SF400m with the mass transfer market contributing most,' says Heinz Schmid of Sulzer Chemtech. Much of the work involves the revamping of refinery and distillation plants, particularly for projects in the Asia-Pacific. The opening of a division in Singapore has allowed the firm to benefit from lower costs. Schmid adds that the vast majority of the systems sold in Switzerland and to export markets (80% of the total) are custom designed.
The environmental technology business caters for local chemical businesses in Switzerland and Germany. The business supplies treatment systems for water, waste water and sludge, including sludge drying; Incinerators for industrial and hazardous waste; systems for the cleaning of flue gases, including NOx; plant for the evaporation of process waste water, and the recovery of salts by crystallization; and fluid bed technology for drying, cooling and pelletising.
EMS Inventa, of Dottikon, supplies plant to polymer and synthetic textile manufacturers. For the past decade most of its new projects have been in Asia and since 1991, 32 out of 50 projects have been in mainland China.
'There is a danger of relying too much on one market, but when the market is there we have to supply it,' says the company's sales manager Wolfgang Hofmann.
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