Flipping the chemical engineering world upside down
Yi Jiang believes Corning’s Advanced-Flow™ Reactors (AFR) are a turning point in chemical production – so much so that he founded an academy that changes the way chemical processing is taught.
At the AFR Academy in Changzhou, China, a cluster of chemical engineering students gathers around a light blue machine the size of a small refrigerator. They watch as aqueous chemical ingredients course through transparent channels made of glass. The ingredients swirl through small heart-shaped passages, merging as one substance.
The end product is a chemical effortlessly mixed by a progressive Corning process – a long time coming in the chemical processing world.
Next to the small machine is an industrial scale G4 Advanced-Flow Reactor (AFR) system that gives students at the AFR Academy a new perspective on the future chemical industry – not just because it represents an inherently safer technology that can be used to mix potentially hazardous chemicals, but because it can reduce the reaction time, scale up the production, and increase the yield of the targeted product. Because of its high-quality mixing capability, it has improved the use of raw materials and therefore lessened environmental impact.
Up until a few years ago, chemists and engineers were trained on centuries-old chemical processing methods that churn out large batches of chemicals but can pose safety challenges and result in high accident rates. The G4, along with the full range of Corning’s Advanced-Flow Reactors, can flip that world of chemical processing upside down.
In fact, Corning’s Dr. Yi Jiang, the Academy’s founder and head professor, believes it will attract a new generation of talent into a world of chemistry built on inherently safer technology.
“We’re doing something that’s very critical to the world,” said Yi, who also serves as president and general manager for Corning Advanced-Flow Reactor Technology Co., Ltd. “What was acceptable for 30 or 50 years for the production of chemicals is not acceptable anymore. Severe accidents, environmental pressure, and a growing economy require us to rethink chemistry at scale, and how to excite new generations.”
In the industry, Yi has already seen massive change. Advanced-Flow Reactors have played pivotal roles in existing and new molecular development – including in the response to COVID-19. A major company in China uses Corning’s large-scale AFR machines to produce a key ingredient for an anti-COVID-19 medicine. Sun Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (Sun Pharma) and Corning have previously announced that Sun Pharma, the fourth-largest specialty generic pharmaceutical company in the world, has incorporated G4 SiC reactors into its facilities too, allowing for the scaled-up production of a bevy of active pharmaceutical ingredients.
To date, Corning AFR has installled more than 100 G4 and G5 reactor units globally, with the longest reliable operation just reaching the 5-year mark. Over this time, the AFR reactor units and their inherently safer technology have replaced conventional batch processes, resulting in more than 700,000 metric tons of chemical fluids processed annually through AFR’s continuous process.
But despite Yi’s unwavering belief that AFR can change the world of chemical and pharmaceutical processing, adoption of a new technology always takes time.
“To address problems in a very risk-averse industry like the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, can you imagine how hard it has been?” Yi said. “It’s similar to when Corning first introduced optical fiber into the communications industry; no one believed glass was the solution. Now it’s the basis of communication in our global society.”
“AFR is very disruptive, but it’s important that we continue to keep educating people on it. Corning believes that innovation requires significant change management on the customer side, and what we’ve accomplished with AFR technology is a great example of how to implement this type of transformation.”
Before becoming a business director, Yi was a research scholar and professor of chemical engineering in both the U.S. and China. He pursued his Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis and, along the way, collected an academia network of chemical engineering contacts.
When Yi realized the potential of AFR at Corning, he jumped headfirst into building a business around it – a business that’s celebrating 20 years in 2022. He and his global innovation teams have launched more than a dozen products in the last decade. And for years, he evangelized the possibilities of the technology to customers and universities.
To help Corning broadly educate the industry on AFR, Yi built a strong training camp for AFR continuous flow technologies – the AFR Academy. Its technical committee members and 50 lecturers are some of the greatest minds in academia, industry, and professional associations, Yi says.
The academic team invited university students to learn practical lessons using this new way of chemistry and chemical engineering. In return, this talented new generation will help the industry evolve, furthering Yi’s mission.
“There really has been a clear mismatch of the talent pool with this technology,” Yi said. “The reason I push for education: imagine how that grows that by the end of day. I’m never worried about us getting the technology right because that’s Corning’s strength. But for an innovation like AFR to be successful, we must focus on the adoption, which starts with students and academia willing to incorporate continuous flow technology into their curriculum. We need skilled, educated talent to help as companies scale up with AFR, and right now, engineers have only been graduating with textbook knowledge.”
Appealing to Gen Z wasn’t as much of a challenge as he thought, Yi says. The AFR technology uses Bluetooth and data you can receive on your phone. It’s just a matter of applying textbook knowledge with practical, hands-on methods to help them learn this new way of “doing.”
And the education system isn’t the only overhaul. Yi had to get support and trust from the Chinese government and chemical industrial leadership on the technology as well. The AFR team worked diligently on a dozen large scale industrial demonstration projects, and achieved excellent performance at clients in China.
“Those real project demonstrations at significant scales in China were a significant step. People started to believe they have found the technology to solve the safety challenge in the country,” Yi said. “We’ve been educating and pushing for so many years and now we got government and industrial belief in the technology.”
After all this change, Yi is not only reflecting on the trajectory of the field, but on his own journey.
“People keep saying, ‘The best people know themselves,’” Yi said. “My answer is the opposite. My experience is that I never know myself until I try.”
For Yi, he saw a gap – it just took a little conviction to get everyone moving to help make “the new way” the only way.
“In my heart, it’s a truly critical and important topic.”