AM Technology is the trading name of Ashe Morris Limited which was founded in 2000 by Robert Ashe, a chemical engineer, and David Morris, an electrical engineer. Having worked in contract process engineering for a number of years, Robert and David had worked together a number of times designing and installing new chemical plant and control systems based around traditional batch technology. The company was originally founded to develop a new batch reactor control system in response to a recognition that the traditional batch reactor was very wasteful and inefficient and the control systems were far from “intelligent”. The outcome of this phase of innovation were two products: a lab scale version which was licensed to Radley’s and formed the basis of their Lara Controlled Lab Reactor; and the pilot and plant scale version, CoFlux, which was licensed to Pfaudler.
During the development of this technology, it became clear that batch technology would always be limited in the extent to which it could be improved to be more energy and material efficient. At the same time, other innovators were looking at the principles of continuous manufacture and seeking technologies to apply this to high value, low volume manufacture. This collection of emerging technologies quickly became known as “flow chemistry” solutions with many being based on micro-fluidics. With their considerable experience of designing and installing commercial production systems, Robert and David became interested in the scale-up challenges posed by this technology. Micro-reactors are very good at the micro-scale but lose much of their performance advantages as the channel size increases beyond a few millimetres – for commercial quantities of chemicals, the channel sizes need to be 20 – 100 mm. The challenge then was to design a tube based flow reactor that would provide the mixing, heat and mass transfer advantages of a micro-reactor but at the tube diameters needed for large scale fine chemical manufacture.
One of the key advantages that a batch reactor does offer is its versatility. A batch reactor is very process adaptable and can be quickly reconfigured from running one process to another. This does result in the process being compromised – it needs to fit the equipment rather than the equipment fits the process. So the batch reactor is the exemplification of “Jack of all trades, master of none”. One of the reasons for this versatility is the active mixing of a batch reactor by using a impellor attached to an overhead motor. In thinking about developing a similarly versatile flow reactor, the design goal was to introduce some sort of active, dynamic mixing into the tube reactor. Other flow chemistry technologies rely on passive mixing – it is the flow of the fluid through the device that causes the mixing.
The inspiration for the Coflore dynamic mixing came from aerosol cans of paint. If left standing on a shelf, the paint pigment will settle out so the manufacturers place a ball bearing into the aerosol paint can and the user is instructed to shake the can rapidly before using. The random rattling of the ball bearing in the can is providing the dynamic mixing of the contents and this is the same principle that was adapted for Coflore.
The mixing principle was first applied to a lab-based system launched in 2008 which consisted of 10 “cells” each connected by a small process fluid connection. Into each cell was placed a small solid cylinder and when the body of the cell was shaken, these cylindrical agitators would rattle about and so provide the mixing.
These cells were then extruded into tubes and a tubular agitator developed. The first 1L ATR system was built in 2011 and the range was extended to 10L within a few years.
Coflore systems are now being installed around the world and are used to manufacture chemicals for markets as diverse as flavours and fragrances, functional food ingredients, waste valorisation, performance chemicals, pharmaceutical intermediates and polymers.