|Braskem pilot plants consolidate their long-standing function
of grooming specialists and making technological leaps possible:
a decisive contribution to the company’s competitiveness
Designed with a focus on new products
|written by ◦ Luciana Moglia
photos by ◦ Eneida Serrano
The old saying “good things come in small packages’ sums up the importance that pilot plants have for Braskem. Nearly all Braskem plastic resins undergo test runs in these facilities before the formula and operating conditions for each product are delivered to the full-scale industrial plants. The pilot plants ensure excellence and make all the difference for a company whose critical factors for success are innovation and technology.
Braskem owns and operates six pilot plants for polymers and one for catalysts. It is the only company in Brazil that has pilot plants using the Spheripol, Unipol and Spherilene technologies. The size ratio of these facilities to the “mother plants’ is 1:200-500. A full-sized plant can produce over 35 to 40 tonnes per hour, whereas a pilot plant’s maximum hourly output is 150 to 200 kilos.
Braskem’s first pilot plant was equipped with PVC production technology and began operations in 1988. But the watershed year was 1987, when a new polypropylene technology appeared on the scene: Spheripol. The company then called PPH, which underwent successive mergers with Odebrecht’s Chemicals & Petrochemicals subsidiaries and, later on, with Braskem, decided to adopt this process and signed a technological agreement with Himont (now Basell) to build an industrial plant, research and development labs and a pilot plant. The seeds had been sown for the Spheripol Polymerization Pilot Plant project.
That same year saw the beginning of the industrial plant project, which would begin operations on March 15, 1991, eight months after the pilot plant went online.
Grooming a team of specialists
The challenge had been set. In the beginning, everything was new. The company had to find people who were open to dealing with a process that was completely different, and taking on daily challenges. They had to think on their feet and, most importantly, be willing to learn. Sixty-seven people were hired to work at the pilot plant during that period, most of them under 30.
Roberto Jiménez, who was the officer responsible for the pilot plant back then and now manages the Quality and Productivity Area, took charge of the selection process. “We prioritized hiring young, versatile people with a capacity for abstract thinking,’ recalls Jiménez, who took a one-year internship at the Himont technology center in Ferrara, Italy.
Jonatas Martins Sanches and Antônio Bragança also shared the mission of absorbing this new technology and passing it on to the operators and engineers who would be working at the new plants.
“When we returned to Brazil, we saw that the results being obtained through this new technology on the pilot-plant scale could be utilized at the industrial plants,’ says Bragança, who has also been responsible for managing the pilot plant and is now Responsible for Strategic Technology Partnerships at Braskem. “At the pilot plant we can test the limits of this process as far as we dare.’
Several new talents have emerged at Braskem’s pilot plants. In addition to developing new products, they also drive new professional careers. A case in point is Ana Teresa Oliveira Ballvê, who joined the company in August 1989, when the pilot plant was being installed, 11 months before it began operations. “I was the first professional to work in Braskem’s technology sector,’ says Ana Teresa. She was a bit nervous on her first day. “I didn’t have the slightest idea how a pilot plant worked. We were going to work with a technology that had just been introduced in Brazil. We had to adapt the pilot plant to our company’s needs,’ the engineer recalls.
Himont used pilot pants to create new technologies. However, Braskem wanted to improve its processes and develop new products. “There was a lot to learn, including Italian, to facilitate communication about this technology,’ says Ana Teresa. But the biggest challenge involved finding the best process conditions. After all, a pilot plant is the ideal place for conducting tests. “We tested new ideas, improved production conditions for products and then transferred them to the industrial scale under optimum conditions,’ she concludes.
The Spheripol pilot plant marked 15 years of operations in July 2005. All of the over 60 polypropylene resins that Braskem now produces have gone through that facility. Innovations like polypropylene cups, more transparent grades for major appliances like washing machines and refrigerators, and a number of new products for the automotive industry were all tested at the pilot plant before going into production.
“All our polypropylene resins have been modified and adapted to our clients and markets,’ observes Enio Rubbo, the Process Manager for the pilot plants. Enio has a degree in chemical engineering and a specialization in petrochemical processes and petrochemicals from Sogesta, Italy. He has been with the company for 22 years and now heads two teams, one in Rio Grande do Sul and the other in Bahia. “We have to discover and develop new products. It is key to develop strategies as a team and discover the best way to do that,’ he says.
When Antonio Carlos Gonçalves de Lima started out at as a junior operator in 1998 he was 24 years old. Now, 17 years later, he is a specialist operator and the head of a shift. Before he began his career in petrochemicals, he had no idea how to operate a plant. But he soon realized that working at a pilot plant is an intense job: “You’ve got to study all the time. We learn something new every day. We have to get to know the product and process that will be carried out. Each of them involves different feedstocks, catalysts, temperatures, pressures and reactions.’ Based on his extensive experience, Antonio Carlos has helped install and start up several pilot plants. He never loses sight of products that have left the pilot plant fully fledged for production in the industrial plant. “I like to keep track of the performance of plastic resins once they’re on the market. After all, we feel attached to all the new innovations Braskem produces, just as if they were ours.’
For example, the Utec resin was entirely developed at the Slurry Pilot Plant in the state of Bahia’s Camaçari Petrochemical Complex. And whenever a new idea needs to be tested, it goes back to the plant’s reactors to improve its properties and broaden its range of applications. “You have to tests their limitations to determine the best operating conditions,’ observes Enio Rubbo.
The talent factory at the pilot plants is still producing new talents. Engineer José Isaias Camaratta da Costa, 30, coordinates the operations of Braskem’s pilot plants at the Triunfo Petrochemical Complex in Rio Grande do Sul. Eight years ago, he joined the company as an intern on a shift operating the industrial plant. Luck was with him. Four months after he graduated from college in April 2003, a job opening appeared for a Process Engineer at the pilot plants. The offer came through Braskem’s Intranet. He applied and got the job.
“The pilot plants’ operations are based on a philosophy focused on developing products and processes. We need fast answers. There are a lot of unknowns in our work and sometimes we don’t know how products will behave. We use new formulas, new process conditions, products, raw materials….’
And who says lightning doesn’t strike twice? This year, the company had an opening for an Operations Coordinator. And Isaias was right there, ready to compete for that new opportunity. “The fact that I already had plant operations experience has made my relationship with the operations team much easier,’ he says. In August 2005, he was promoted to Coordinator. Isaias knows that there is no better school than a pilot plant. “The best place to learn, grow and improve on our process technology know-how is right here.’
Timeline: startup dates for Braskem pilots plants