Tandon Researchers Investigate Small-Scale Reactors with Big-Scale Potential
The industrial use of polyolefins — a class of polymer ubiquitous in food packaging, consumer goods, and other items — requires an enormous amount of time, space, and energy. In order to discover a new polymer, chemical engineers must laboriously screen hundreds of catalysts, with a typical campaign taking up to an entire year, and the chemical industry’s massive commercial facilities consume more electricity and generate more waste than almost any other sector in the nation.
Professor of Chemical Engineering Ryan Hartman, who runs Tandon’s Flow Chemistry with Microsystems Laboratory, and doctoral student Benjamin Rizkin are investigating ways in which the discovery process can be scaled down using Artificially Intelligent Autonomous Microreactors (microAIRs), which they predict will be much quicker, safer, and cleaner than current technologies.
The work is being funded by a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation.
“We foresee it taking just a few minutes for an AI system to analyze the reaction process and determine an optimal catalyst, rather than the several months it can take a human chemical engineer, broadly accelerating the timelines for materials development and polymer commercialization,” Hartman says, “and the volume of waste generated by the approach could be decreased by a magnitude of eight, making this a very green and sustainable method of catalyst discovery.”
“Brooklyn has been evolving as a major hub of technology, and soon it could become a major hub of efficient, clean, safe, sustainable chemical manufacturing through artificially intelligent process intensification.”
— Professor Ryan Hartman
Artificially intelligent, autonomous microreactors could not only address the technical challenges currently limiting next-generation catalyst discovery and deeply impact the vital field of polymers manufacturing, they could also help advance how humans work together to engineer catalytic manufacturing processes and create new challenges in other science and engineering disciplines, including, for example, robotics and automation.
Since the microreactors will be so small, manufacturing would require R&D and pilot facilities only about a tenth of the current size; they could thus be placed even in urban settings where space is tight, like — as Hartman points out — Brooklyn. “Brooklyn has been evolving as a major hub of technology,” he says, “and soon it could become a major hub of efficient, clean, safe, sustainable chemical manufacturing through artificially intelligent process intensification.”