Clean water for the world: from Bitterfeld

Bitterfeld now stands for clean water - yet just over two decades ago, this seemed barely possible, as during the communist era this town was a particularly dirty place of state-owned chemicals works and widespread environmental pollution. It is now a reality, however, thanks to LANXESS AG, a world leading specialist chemicals group, which started here with a factory for ion-exchanger resins before opening a factory for membrane filters in the autumn of last year.

Today the machinery in the 30 million Euro investment produces special membranes and filter elements under the brand name LEWABRANE. With these elements, on the basis of reverse osmosis, it is possible to clean contaminated water of salts, as well as germs and unwanted trace elements. The technology is primarily used in industrial field, especially in power stations, the processing water of which has to be ultra-pure. And yet it is also possible to carry out the large scale desalination of sea water with the membrane filter elements, which separate the water molecules from salt under pressure, and do so at a comparatively low level of cost. "With our technology and our products we are in the position of being able to make a contribution to the improvement of the world wide supply of drinking water" explains Dr. Carsten Schellenberg, Manager of the Research Laboratory at the Bitterfeld membrane operations of company LANXESS. "With the help of the membrane technology it is also possible to reliably filter out viruses, bacteria and traces of pesticides."

The series production was preceded by intensive research work, primarily with the Fraunhofer Institut für Fabrikbetrieb und -automatisierung (IFF / Fraunhofer institute for factory operations and automation) in Magdeburg. On behalf of LANXESS, the Fraunhofer experts not only planned and optimised the sequences in the factory. "Reverse osmosis as a filter technology has been known as a product since space travel in the 1960s, yet it still requires considerable development in the area of large scale implementation" explains Project Manager Sebastian Möser of the IFF. In this context the IFF simulated the principle of the virtual factory with calculation models, and then implemented them at the practical level together with the team from Bitterfeld. "We now have a highly effective production system that has given us a competitive advantage" enthuses Schellenberg. Together with the IFF as well as additional partners from the world of science such as the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg and the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Mechanics in Halle, along with other projects, a major task is the further development of the design and composition of the membranes.

"The continued further development of the production processes and the technology itself will help ensure that the areas where the membrane products can be used expands on a continuous basis" explains the Leader of the LANXESS business division of Ion Exchange Resins, Jean-Marc Vesselle. "Virtual engineering is an important mainstay for us in ensuring we are always one step ahead and securing our production at our sites in Germany over the long term" concludes Vesselle. The process optimisation work together with the Fraunhofer has also provided the opportunity to test the sequences with the employees in advance, and to therefore enhance the safety and quality of the series production. The LANXESS Manager then explains how the joint research project for membrane technology supported by the state of Saxony-Anhalt has enabled the use of an excellent scientific environment in and around Bitterfeld and is a key location-related advantage that played a leading role in the investment decision.

The LANXESS new membrane and module factory for water treatment in Bitterfeld initially started with approximately 50 employees of whom roughly one fifth work in the adjoining laboratories researching and studying the application techniques of the membrane technology. Over the medium term, 200 new jobs are set to be created at the new production location. The combination of production, research and application technology is viewed as being indispensible to the specialist chemicals group - both now and in the future. "Here in Saxony-Anhalt, since all of our business functions are in just one location, it enables short distances from the idea, to the development, to production - enabling innovative solutions to contribute to our current and future success" highlights Dr. Schellenberg.
In this context, the current throughput of roughly 40 cubic meters of brackish water per element, per day - with the option of connecting several different modules together - is certainly not the end of the development, explains Schellenberg, who hails from Leipzig and after completing his university degree and doctorate went on to work in Japan and Switzerland before joining the LANXESS Bitterfeld membrane works. Their projects are enabling them to get closer and closer to solving the growing, global problem of water scarcity, especially since the required use of energy with solar technology is becoming ever cheaper, particularly in dry regions. "We are certain that membranes made in Bitterfeld will soon be improving the quality of life in many different parts of the world, enabling further economic progress" concludes Dr. Schellenberg.

Frank Grotzki
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