Looking behind the scenes: The Ecology Lab at DOW in Stade, Germany
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Looking behind the scenes: The Ecology Lab at DOW in Stade, Germany
Always one step ahead
By Guido Deussing
A little less than one hour by car west of Hamburg, Germany, on the Southern banks of the lower Elberiver, lies the old Hanseatic town Stade, population 46,000. Stade is a county seat in the state of Lower Saxony. Right next doors the “old country” area, which is known for its many orchards and abundant supply of fruit and also serves as recreational area for the people of the region – as well as a flood area when the Elbe rises much above normal levels.
The Schwinge, an Elbe tributary, runs through Stade. The meadows along the upper Schwinge and those in Stade along the rivulet are protected nature reserves due to both their biodiversity and their serene beauty. Here you find plenty of agricultural land and picturesque villages with quaint names that reinforce the impression of visiting unspoiled countryside. The impression is accurate, but there is more to the story. Stade may be in the countryside, but it is an industrial hub, home to global players.
Airbus has produced airplanes here since 1959. The 2,500 Airbus employees in Stade are specialized in the production and development of carbon fiber reinforced materials for aircraft and space craft. Among other things, they produce the vertical stabilizers (fins) for all Airbus aircraft. Around Airbus, a reliable supply chain of industries has developed.
Andreas Kohler (left) and Sandra Hirsch assess a water sample extract. Before entering the Ecology Lab, clear and clearly visible signs alert you to workplace safety rules that must be followed at all times. Work safety is the highest priority at Dow. Image: G. Deussing
The Dow Chemical Company also established a presence here. Since 1972, the largest chemical producer by revenue in the world has been producing in Stade at the address Bützflether Sand, which to Germans sounds like the name of the local beach on the river. Over time, Dow transformed its huge premises to an industry park and opened it to outside companies. The conversion was part of a quest to achieve higher efficiency: Share resources, develop and use synergies, and reduce cost by spreading the burden of expenses on multiple shoulders. The concept seems to work.
Multiple companies are acting in synergy and coexisting at Bützflether Sand: Trinseo is operating a Polycarbonate facility; Olin is producing epoxides and chlorinated organic compounds; Air Liquide produces and supplies process-relevant technical gases; Air Products supplies hydrogen; Evides handles water treatment; Talke Carriers handles the central stock facilities; and the nearby Elbe Port serves as their gate to the world. Well connected to the freight depot train station and the container terminal, an almost perfect scheduling can be achieved for just in time transport of important goods, raw products and final products. These are shipped in all directions by rail, which unlike the express freeways in the area are generally unclogged.
The industrial infrastructure here has been developed and perfected over decades, including freight forwarders that are specialized in the handling of hazardous goods. These and many other aspects make the Chemical Park Stade stand out as extremely well connected, even in global comparisons, though it is embedded in the countryside.
The Ecology Lab in Stade is also in a good place: This environmental laboratory receives a lot of attention globally within the Dow organization because it, among other things, has developed outstanding methodology for monitoring volatile organic compounds (VOCs) using Thermal Desorption (TD).
I am meeting shortly after ten on a Wednesday morning. Sandra Hirsch will pick me up in her car at the visitor parking area. We cannot access the Chemistry Part Stade premises in our own vehicle.
As outside visitors, a pre-arranged permit is needed. Everything follows set rules. I need the permit and that requires time and patience. First time visitors – and those who haven’t been back within the past year – must acquaint themselves with the safety rules by watching a video while the person at the reception fills in the paperwork and secures personal information from the visitor’s ID card. After being registered in the Dow system, it is time for the test: Three questions about security procedures in the Chemistry Park must be answered correctly.
The computer delivers the result on a small piece of paper that I hand to the receptionist who checks it and hands me a permit. So far, so good. I meet Sandra Hirsch in the visitor parking lot, she greets me with a big smile and a cheerful „Moin, Moin“, a sure sign that we are now in Northern Germany and the gut feeling says we’re in good hands. Sandra Hirsch drives an American car, Dodge Charger, with ample room for all. Do you have to drive a US-made car even in Germany when you work for a US company? “I also like Jim Beam”, she responds, she clearly likes the car, it’s that simple.
The gatekeeper checks all permits and then opens. The Dodge surrounds us with a deep growl and begins moving. We are met with a surprisingly green landscape, the Elbe flows nearby at the Northern edge of the Chemistry Park and I can see the endless meadows at the river bank. “We even have deer and wild boar here”, says Sandra Hirsch. I don’t see any, but I’ll take her word for it. But where do the 1,200 Dow employees work? And where do they produce the three million tons of Dowanol, Methocel or MDI? Where is the huge plant process equipment so typical for larger industrial chemistry sites where they produce and process allylchloride, chloroform and methylene chloride, sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid, propylene and… ?
The stacks and huge cylinders that require massive amounts of power, steam and compressed air? Where hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen are produced or added to the chemical processes? Where are the pipes through which countless cubic meters of process and cooling water are pumped in and waste water discharged? No sign of Trinseo, Air Liquide or Evides, companies that generate added value here. “The area covers 550 hectares or almost 1400 acres”, says Sandra Hirsch, “things are less visible in these wide-open spaces.“
The GC Lab, part of the Ecology Laboratory within the Chemistry Park Stade, relies on GERSTEL solutions for much of its Automation. Image: Guido Deussing
The Ecology Lab, where Sandra Hirsch, Andreas Köhler, Niclas Seyen und Maren Nutbohm work is located in the ground floor of a two story building at the edge of the Chemistry Park Stade, a few minutes by car from our meeting point. Since its inauguration in 1975, the lab has regularly been expanded and updated. The laboratory deals with environmental and water analysis in the Chemistry Park Stade, including monitoring workplace air, and ensuring compliance both with maximum allowable concentrations, as per German Occupational Safety & Health rules for workplace air, and with regulations for hazardous materials.
The lab monitors water to ensure compliance with legal requirements for water quality including adherence to maximum allowable concentrations laid down in the regulations issued by the Lower Saxony State Office for Water Economy, Coastal and Environmental Protection. Every year, the Ecology Lab team analyzes around 6,000 samples, making sure that maximum allowable concentrations of various chemicals are not exceeded. 60 % of the samples are water, mainly waste water. Air samples that are required to be drawn regularly as part of routine monitoring protocols, or whenever a leak or too high workplace concentrations are suspected in the production area, make up 30 % of the samples. Soil samples are taken and analyzed, for example, whenever a new building is being planned or if doubts about earlier contamination need to be alleviated. Soil samples make up approximately 10 % of the annual sample load. “Added to all this, we get about 10 samples per month that are sent to us by the environmental protection agencies for comparative analysis.
Structure promotes efficiency. Dow Ecology Lab keeps the lab orderly following the Japanese 5S method. The areas framed by clearly visible yellow lines are designated exclusively for one instrument. No other instrument or unrelated tool is allowed to be stored within this area. Image: G. Deussing
This is done in order to check the accuracy of our analysis results. The agencies can call anytime and draw samples anywhere in the entire Chemistry Park in order to perform their legally required controls”, Sandra Hirsch explains. Laboratory routines are well established here, but it never gets boring for the three persons who run the lab. Occasionally there are even tasks outside the plant area, for example, when the Company Fire Brigade are cleaning up after a spill and need to know its chemical make-up. Or maybe the Fire Brigade from the town of Stade is handling an emergency or potential emergency, involving a road truck or a freight ship on the river transporting hazardous materials. “If they need chemical analysis, we are here to support them”, says Andreas Köhler. Occasionally, we have even had the Police Crime unit request an assessment from us as to the nature of substances found at the scene of a suspected suicide. The Ecology Laboratory takes on such tasks as technical support. Good to know: Technical analytical expertise can be found when needed. It is time for a tour of the laboratories. Sandra Hirsch and Andreas Köhler lead the way. The first stop for our small procession is the Thermal Desorption Laboratory.
The lab is remarkably orderly, it almost seems as if it had been cleaned up and made extra neat for our visit, but apparently that is the way they always work. Sandra Hirsch explains: “Searching takes a lot of time, right?” I answer: “Right!“. “And we don’t have time”, says Andreas Köhler. “And we don’t need to either”, adds Sandra Hirsch, “Because we know where everything is located”. The method by which everything is organized originally came from Japan. It is termed the 5S or 5A method. The method specifies that everything must be in its place, must be clean, and must be ready for use. A clear sign that the 5A method is in use is the clear markings on the lab benches around important tools or instruments: Yellow lines marking areas on the lab benches, on the floor, on drawers, and on cabinet doors make it easy to locate the right tool or instrument and to handle it correctly. It reminds me of the areas designated for smokers in Railway Stations. An optically clearly distinguishable element can discipline people operating in the area, even though there are of course lots of yellow lines and signs in the lab.
“And we are far below the required limits of determination specified by the authorities”, Sandra Köhler says. She and her colleagues clearly take great pride in their work and in reaching ambitious goals. To be ahead of regulations, and always stay ahead in the analytical race, drives them to great performance. This is also wise as a precaution: “We know from experience”, says Sandra Hirsch, “that rules and regulations change at short notice”. Instead of waiting and reacting, the two experts are proactively meeting future challenges with steadily lower required limits of determination in order to be ready if these are enforced. “That approach has always served us well”, says Andreas Köhler, “whenever stricter guidelines were enforced, we were prepared and ready”.
The Thermal Desorption laboratory of Dow in Stade. Sandra Hirsch: „Colleagues from other sites are sending us their samples for analysis”. Image: Guido Deussing
And the word is out within the worldwide Dow organization about the results the team has achieved. The Ecology Lab in Stade is the center of excellence for thermal desorption analysis world-wide. Sandra Hirsch: “Colleagues from other sites are sending us their samples for analysis, that is quite a recognition”. But not just Occupational Safety and Hygiene samples are received from other Dow sites. Highly labor intensive AOX analyses, the results of which must be reported to authorities, are performed by the lab, which receives samples from sites in various countries. Apart from that, Dow needed the potential to reach even much lower limits of determination as regulations grow stricter, coupled with efficient automation.
And as to the underlying quality of the analysis systems, Andreas Köhler reports that in the field water analysis, the Ecology Lab has equally been faced with steadily tightened requirements, which they have been able to meet. Waste water with its high salt content and the various polar compounds that need to be determined had posed quite a challenge to the analysis experts. Many compounds can be determined with standard headspace GC analysis resulting in perfectly adequate results in terms of sensitivity and accuracy. Other compounds are less simple to determine, especially higher boiling compounds or those that are more water soluble. “The solution came in the form of GERSTEL’s HIT technology”, says Andreas Köhler. The acronym HIT signifies Hot Injection and Trapping. “The method ensures that higher boiling compounds are kept in the gas phase during sample introduction”, Andreas Köhler explains, “they don’t condense on the syringe needle and, more importantly, are not removed and lost from the inlet when the needle is retracted following the injection”. In addition, analytes from multiple injections can be trapped and transferred together to the GC column for a single GC run. HIT has provided the Ecology Lab with a way to achieve better sensitivity, allowing them to stay ahead of the game for a long period of time. In the never-ending race for lower limits of determination, clearly, the team in the Ecology Lab takes great pleasure in being a step, or more exactly several steps, ahead of the authorities in meeting regulatory requirements. Sandra Hirsch: “one of our goals was to lower the limit of determination to 1 μg/L even though the requirements are 2 μg/L. We actually reached 0.2 μg/L“. And while others are struggling with standard headspace or liquid/ liquid extraction techniques, the Ecology Lab staff has automated their analysis quite efficiently. This means more time is available for data handling, data interpretation and reporting – or for method development.
“Or to work an daily needs in the lab”, says Sandra Hirsch, a friendly reminder that the tour through the lab is coming to an end and urgent work is waiting – I hear you.
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