Chemical Factory in a Suitcase?

microreactor_clip.jpg You have probably heard a lot about nanotechnology, but have you heard about microreactors? This revolution in chemical technology offers tremendous advantages in efficiencies: the high surface area to reactant ratio makes processes with high heating and cooling demands significantly more energy efficient. The instantaneous mixing which is possible at micro-volumes has the potential to speed up production, which also reduces costs. Also, the predictable qualities possible under microreactor conditions can contribute to reduction in the waste generated relative to traditional manufacturing. Where could this technology make a difference? First, microreactors are the ultimate reasearch and development tool. Speeding up the rate at which we find technological solutions for the problems facing us may be important: especially due to our human propensity to wait until almost too late before really reacting. Technologies which are developed in microreactors in the lab can be scaled up with little delay: the process does not need to be adapted to new devices, but merely run in many more microreactors in parallel.

The energy efficient microreactors could make processes like the organometallic reactions needed to manufacture LCD flat screen much more ecologically friendly, by improving the efficiency of heat exchange required for these reactions. TreeHugger regulars have already seen the potential for microreactors in biodiesel, where the process speed and energy efficiency could reduce production costs by 30-40 cents per gallon, according to a recent press release by University of Texas. Decentralized production is enabled by microreactors: the ability to safely generate hydrogen directly at the point of use could be an option to batteries for replacing conventional automotive fuels.

Although microreactors have been around for over 20 years, the number of applications being tested and advantages being recognized is growing, perhaps getting close to the "tipping point" where traditional industries will start investing in the new methods. So tipsters, keep your eyes on the microreactors: let us know where you think they show green potential.

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