How software can improve biofuels production
First it was United Airlines announcing plans to phase in biofuels in all flights operating out of LAX. Then KLM Royal Dutch actually launched flights from Oslo to Amsterdam using biofuels to power an Embraer 190.
This may be a drop in the bucket for an industry that now exceeds $700bn in yearly revenue, but it’s clearly a sign of what’s to come. It’s also proof that biofuels production is rapidly maturing, and this will dramatically increase expectations for quality and volume industry-wide. As this happens, biofuels lab will be under increased pressure to deliver quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively.
To meet the increasing industry demand, producers will certainly step up production on entirely different scales. As this happens, opportunities for pernicious inefficiencies and outright failures increase exponentially. Fortunately, advanced analytical technologies and software can help producers reliably monitor, analyse, report and manage production.
New technologies demand new approaches
From gas chromatography (GC), ion chromatography and Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy to inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS), labs are increasingly outfitted with highly sensitive instruments capable of unprecedented throughput. But all of this, while critical to managing profitable production, creates data on a never-before-seen scale, and all of it must be traceable.
The management and effective use of data can be daunting. From routine analysis to complex pattern recognition and reporting, mistakes with data can compound rapidly. As production accelerates, managing data, with a laboratory information management system (LIMS) for example, will be as important to scalability and profitably as any piece of capital equipment used for production. The stakes are high.
Data must not exist in isolation
For efficient and profitable production, data related to any process or transaction cannot exist in isolation. Many leading biofuels producers already rely on LIMS as part of an integrated data management platform. A true enterprise-enabled LIMS harmonises with other enterprise and lab systems, such as a chromatography data system (CDS). In the case of a CDS, next-generation biofuels labs rely heavily on gas and ion chromatographic methods to proactively monitor quality and yield, and keeping this data in isolation would be severely delimiting.
Data isolation is unwise and avoidable. Even when labs purchase analytical instruments from different manufacturers — many of which come with a proprietary CDS — they’d be wise to look for software that is instrument agnostic. Doing so can dramatically increase efficiency, streamline data handling and simplify training, validation and compliance. The goal is to aggregate data in one format for analysis and rapid reporting. In other words, it shouldn’t matter what instrument generated the data. And, with the right CDS, it doesn’t.
Benefits of automation
An instrument-agnostic CDS connected to the enterprise through a LIMS can do much more than provide analysis and reporting. A CDS can also help increase instrument uptime, especially important for labs running 24/7. A CDS can and should also be capable of running independent of the enterprise client/server network if necessary — an outage mustn’t and shouldn’t affect analyses or access to critical data needed for production. Labs must be able to support around-the-clock production.
The CDS supports 24/7, uninterrupted production by ensuring that technicians are strictly following analytical methods. Some CDSs provide an even higher level of automation by encapsulating all of the unique aspects of a chromatography workflow — such as instrument control and data processing parameters, correct injection order and reporting parameters, and guiding operators through the minimal steps required to run it. Complex steps in a process, such as testing for ASTM D6584 and EN 14105 to ensure quality, are simplified to instrument selection, number of samples and starting vial position in the autosampler to begin the analysis. The software will automatically run the chromatograph, process the data and produce final results.
Complex analyses, such as those required for ASTM D6584 and EN 14105, are challenging because they require complex and time-consuming sample and calibration prep and they must be run in duplicate to ensure analytical accuracy. But with a CDS, this complexity can be reduced to a few clicks, delivering fast, accurate results with an audit trail of all steps. This is automation with accountability.
Automation extends all the way to the often time-consuming data processing and evaluation phases of chromatography. This can take excessive time even if all data processing parameters are properly set up in the chromatography workflow. In this case, the CDS assists technicians by letting them set up intelligent run control parameters to decide if a sample passed or failed for re-analysis. Outcome response in the software then takes predefined, immediate action, such as reinjecting samples, performing a dilution or aborting a run without user intervention.
A final integration between the LIMS and CDS ensures rapid and comprehensive access to quality results. Any samples not meeting specifications established by ASTM and EN are appropriately flagged as out of specification in the LIMS and preventive action can be taken. This high level of automation enables labs to be catalysts for increased productivity without compromising critical product quality.
The rapidly growing biofuels industry will face complexity on an unprecedented scale. To deliver quality at sufficient quantity, labs will require new instruments and will generate more data that must be managed and analysed with rigour.
But this is an opportunity, not a burden, especially with modern LIMS and CDS to help drive efficiency, uptime and quality. Together, these industry-proven software platforms can support continuous process monitoring and data management when, where and how biofuels production stakeholders need it. This will be important as the transportation industry, aerospace and other industries move from pilot projects to full-scale operations that require biofuels producers to bring more high-quality product to market to meet new demand.
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