Next-Generation Systems--Coming Closer?

In February 2001, the Glass Manufacturing Industry Council (GMIC) hosted a workshop entitled, "Glass Melting Technologies of the Future." The purpose of the workshop was to consider the current state of glass melting technology, which, most people agree, has remained fundamentally the same for over 100 years: We place ingredients of melt in a "box" and melt the material by applying heat from above (in most cases), allowing the melted glass to sit in the box to stabilize for times varying from two to 48 hours. Significant modifications were made with the introduction of the Pilkington "Tin Bath" for flat glass and an oxy-fuel combustion system for all sectors, but basic technology has otherwise advanced in an evolutionary manner. Today, the glass industry is facing high capital expenses, low profitability and energy use across the board that is at levels somewhat to significantly above theoretical minimums.

The 2001 workshop brought together about 150 professionals who listened to a range of talks on the topics of where the glass industry had been, where it was at that point, and where it was likely to go if nothing changed. There was a general consensus among attendees that it needed to change--the question was how to accomplish this change.

Figure 1. A sketch of the concept of a submerged combustion melter for the glass industry.

Assessing the Industry

The session generated a task force composed of glass company and support industry representatives who initiated a process of reviewing current technologies, developing criteria for future melting possibilities and attempting to benchmark current technology. We realized that the first goal was too diverse to study within a body of volunteers, and that benchmarking technology was a challenge given the traditional hesitance of glass companies to divulge production and efficiency numbers.

The task force proposed that, with the help of the Department of Energy (DOE), we commission a study of the industry as it is today and where it has come from in the last 100 years; what technologies were attempted that did not succeed and why they did not succeed; what the current "business model" is for a glass company and how it needs to change if it is to lead to a successful business; and what the opportunities are for developing new technologies that might lead to "step-changes" in the industry's melting practices. The result of this proposal was a six-month Technical and Economic Assessment (TEA), with Phil Ross (Glass Industry Consulting) and Gabe Tincher (formerly of Owens Corning) as principal investigators. The findings from this project will be published this summer (2003).

Challenging Change

In parallel with this effort, the DOE, the GMIC's principal partner in research, was undergoing a major internal change. A reorganization of its Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Division led to the creation of a new concept--the "Grand Challenge." Under this concept, the DOE seeks to encourage a new direction for research--rather than supporting projects that involve one or two companies and will lead to "incremental" improvement in a small segment of a process, the DOE will encourage those that address major barriers to energy efficiency, environmental emissions and productivity, and that seek to lead to a "revolutionary" or "step change" in the entire process.

While the TEA was under way, this new concept began to permeate the industry through the interactions of GMIC members and a number of industry workshops that provided the opportunity to discuss radical change. A DOE glass industry solicitation announced in the fall of 2002 led to a surprising 20+ proposals from a variety of interested researchers. (This compares to slightly over 10 proposals submitted in the previous solicitation in 2000.) While most of these 20+ have not been publicly announced, many of the proposals that we have seen were extremely interesting and promising. Funding limitations resulted in the selection of only the three top-ranked proposals for further consideration, all of which could be classified as "Grand Challenges." Their successful completion would lead to significant change in the glass melting process and to substantial increases in efficiencies and capital cost reductions.

The three projects selected for further consideration are:

Energy-Efficient Glass Melting Technology--the Next Generation Melter, which is a true coalition of glass companies: Corning Inc., Johns Manville, Owens Corning, PPG Industries, Saint-Gobain Containers, and Schott Glass Technologies. The approach being investigated is based on a submerged combustion melter technology held by GTI, which is currently only in use in the melting of rock wool in the Ukraine (see Figure 1). If successful, the technology has the potential to require 23 percent less gas and O2, as well as a 55 percent lower capital investment; reduce emissions by 23 percent; and use 80 percent less refractory (it uses a water-cooled steel wall). Each company has committed to this project by a substantial financial and manpower contribution. To ensure its success, other organizations have contributed funds and intellectual property.

Plasmelt--High Intensity Plasma Glass Melter, which was proposed by Plasmelt Glass Technologies in partnership with Johns Manville and Advanced Glass Fiber Yarns. This project will involve developing a plasma-based melter for use in fiberglass plants and other applications. It expects to substantially increase the flexibility and productivity of appropriate applications.

Development/Demonstration of an Advanced Oxy-Fuel Fired Front-End System, led by Owens Corning. This is the first project in the glass portfolio involving the front end. Partners are Osram-Sylvania, Inc., Thomson, Inc, BOC Gases and Eclipse/Combustion Tec.

Next-Generation Melting

The next generation melting system isn't here yet, but it's likely on its way. We're optimistic about the probability of success of these projects and the likely positive impact they will have on our industry in a few years. Stay tuned!

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