As some of my readers have surmised, I developed a lifelong interest in the chemical industry. I started collecting chemical and petroleum/energy related stamps many years ago, joining a large contingent of collectors with a similar interest. At some point I bought the book illustrated above, which is absolutely magnificent. It illustrates many hundreds of topical stamps from countries all over the world with annotations. A wonderful way to reflect on chemical history in color.
Unfortunately, the book has become very expensive as it costs around $ 400 in hardcover from Amazon. However, many copies were probably sold to libraries and you might find it there as a great reference book. It would also make a wonderful gift as a coffee table book for a retired family member who spent his career the chemical industry.
Last week the manuscript for my book Primed for Success: The Story of Scientific Design Company subtitled How Chemical Engineers created the Petrochemical Industry, was sent to Springer, a well-known publisher of technical books headquartered in Switzerland. The e-book version of the book should be out in April and the hardcover version in May or June.
While the market for the book is uncertain, it is likely to receive good reviews, given nice back cover endorsements by such luminaries as Andrew Liveris and Tom Connelly, CEO of the American Chemical Society. Tom wrote, “More than a company history, Primed for Success is the story of the chemical industry in the United States. It is comprehensive in scope and detailed in its treatment – an essential read for anyone who studies the chemical industry or has been part of it.”
I wrote this book largely in recognition of the role that Ralph Landau and the engineers of Scientific Design Company played in creating an unusual company at a time of great disruption of the chemical industry when its feedstocks changed from coal, alcohol and wood to hydrocarbons. That deserved to be remembered.
As you know, I have not posted anything for quite a while. The main reason is that I really stopped finding interesting new developments I could get excited about in either the chemical or the energy arena. Fracking has not changed much, except for continuous improvement. New chemical process technology important enough to be considered “breakthroughs” has not caught my eye. (Pharmaceuticals are an exception, but I am not an expert in that area). And while I had planned to monitor the Trump administration’s agenda related to global warming and pollution in general, all I can say is that Mr. Pruitt is doing a great job in demolishing or trying to demolish the accomplishments of the last forty years with respect to air and water quality and Greenhouse gas emissions as well as chemicals toxicity. Putting the fox into the hen house to guard the chickens is a clever strategy. The latest trick is for the administration trying to keep coal-based power plants in operation for “security” reasons, perhaps with some kind of subsidy. And I thought that Republicans want the market rather than the government to make decisions of this kind.
So, it’s all too depressing. I would be very interested to hear from readers of my blog about areas I should be writing about. The picture was taken at our little chalet in Vermont where I was trying to get motivated about my blog.
With little new in the chemical industry world [believe me, I have been trying to find some interesting (to me) developments]I have been reflecting on how the landscape of U.S. chemical companies has changed since, let’s say, the end of the last century. Several forces have been at work here, including consolidations, mergers and private equity. The above graphic, taken from Chemical & Engineering News lists the ten largest U.S. chemical companies in 2016. [Note that it does not include the chemical divisions of oil companies(e.g. Exxon Chemical) or foreign chemical firms(e.g. BASF, SABIC)].
First, let’s speculate on why and how these firms have survived: Dow Chemical(almost went bankrupt after Rohm and Haas merger, then pushed for the forthcoming deal with DuPont); LyondellBasell(did go bankrupt due to excessive debt, but was rescued by private equity); DuPont and Dow (Survived private equity attack and are now merging with each other, then splitting; Praxair (Split off from Union Carbide, doing well since then, and in a comfortable oligopoly with Air Products and others); Huntsman(First private, then public company, takeover prevented by heavy inside ownership); Air Products(see Praxair, divested its chemicals to concentrate on core industrial gas business); Eastman Chemical (remained relatively unscathed); Mosaic ( Fertilizer company not of great interest as takeover candidate); Chemours( Fluorine- and Titanium-based businesses spun off from DuPont as a result of private equity pressure, not of great interest as takeover candidate; Celanese ( Spun off from Hochst, then taken over by private equity, then successfully relaunched).
Thus, private equity has had a large role in restructuring the industry, but that phase may be over. While not all of the following is apparent from the graphic, it is true that basic petrochemicals have been largely taken over by the petroleum companies, including the Middle East firms, though some “foreign companies” like Westlake, Shintech and Formosa Plastics keep making PVC here while ammonia and methanol-based petrochemicals, continue to be made in the U.S, . (Dow will eventually get out of basic petrochemicals except for its differentiated polyethylene. Fertilizers continue to be produced domestically, due to cheap shale gas, which also accounts for the rebirth of the U.S. methanol industry.
Celanese is doing outstandingly well. You could applaud the management of ex-CEO David Weidman and current CEO Mark Rohr for that. Three factors account for the company’s excellent performance. (1) Vertical integration back to methanol for much of its chemical and polymer portfolio, (2) Strong contribution from all four of its product sectors (Advanced Engineering Materials, Consumer Specialties, Industrial Specialties, and Acetyl Intermediates) and (3) Truly global sales diversification, including all continents. While Celanese’s products could largely be termed “petrochemicals”, they were mostly of the differentiated kind, allowing pricing power. And continuing research and development kept the company close to or ahead of its competitors. Eastman Chemicals has pursued a somewhat similar portfolio strategy, but at lower profitability
The current lineup of U.S. chemical companies may not change much, though its seems obvious that there are still too many firms in the Specialties sector.
President Trump has promised to restart shuttered coal mines and bring coal back as an important fuel for power plants, a move that has been met with skepticism and disbelief by energy experts who point to the favorable economics of natural gas, now at prices close to the lowest in recent history. Even those utility CEO’s who are pleased that the EPA’s edict to shut down highly polluting coal-burning power plants will probably now be rescinded will choose to burn natural gas for economic reasons. And readers of this blog know that only massive government subsidies can convert existing plants to “Clean Coal” technology involving the installation of coal gasifiers, a competely new plant “flowsheet” and a nearby depleted oil field that can use the captured CO2 for tertiary crude oil recovery.
President Trump is absolutely right in wanting to help laid-off coal miners, most of whom represent the core of his supporters. The plight of these miners is particularly well shown in the above graphic taken from a recent article in Equal Voice. Harlan County, Kentucky is the most distressed country in Appalachia in terms of loss of coal mining jobs (10,000 since 2008), though it is not possible to know what percentage is due to new regulations versus substitution of natural gas for coal, the greater use of machinery and the availability of cheaper coal from Western U.S. sources. Regardless of the cause, these out-of-work miners need to get back to work somehow and Trump will have a difficult time to accomplish that by touting a new program for coal and coal-based power plants. The economics are totally against that. Therefore, other types of work must be found.
The last Obama budget included a $50MM grant for economic development projects in Appalachia sponsored by local governments, schools and nonprofit organizations. A program (RECLAIM ACT H.R. 4456) would accelerate the use of moneys from the Abandoned Mine Fund by $ 1 Billion to promote diversification and development in economically distressed areas adversely affected by coal mining. Historically, it has been difficult to retrain miners and other affected workers for actual, available jobs, but the need is great and Trump should get his administration to help a group of people who voted for him primarily to make Appalachia great again. Funding of many areas of government not associated with Immigration or Defence is being dramatically reduced in the new budget. It is fair to wonder whether help for Appalachia is considered a Trump priority. We’ll add this item to our “Trump watch”.
A decade or so ago, Bjorn Lomborg, the famous “Skeptical Environmentalist”(title of his book) opined that it would be hopeless and a wrong allocation of trillions of dollars to get the world to transform its energy generation means and transportation equipment by switching away from coal and oil fast enough to avoid a global warming catastrophe.. He correctly assumed that politics, inertia, and lack of feasibility would not allow such a disruption of the world and its lifestyles. Therefore, a better use of at least some of this money would be (a) to spend it to eradicate major population ills (aids, malaria, plagues, etc) and (b) to finance the inevitable relocation of population and infrastructure to higher ground as ocean levels rise. (See my blog post dated July 13, 2013). Implicit in this approach would be to build structures or dykes to protect areas that cannot readily be moved. It is now becoming obvious that the second part of Lomborg’s recommendation is already underway.
While many communities along the coast are considering water level rises measured in inches (with even those already causing major problems in Miami Beach and elsewhere), Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has prepared a Master Plan detailing $ 50 billion in investments over five decades to deal with the huge amount of flooding expected that has already caused the state to lose 1800 square miles of land, equivalent to 80 Manhattans (Bloomberg Business Week, Jan 30- Feb 5,2017 – also the source of the graphic above). The so-called 100-year flood is expected to raise water levels by 3 to 14 feet(!). The report incidentally onsiders 14 feet to be the maximum practical height that a house can be raised(!).
But let’s revert to global warming, climate change and carbon. I believe that global warming deniers have largely lost credibility. Deniers of the role of Greenhouse gases are still un-persuaded by scientific evidence, but in many cases (e.g. Mid-West farmers) are actively dealing with climate change, not particularly interested or at least unable to fathom what’s causing it. You could say that Trump is in this camp. Then, there is a large group, probably the largest one, that believes it is good to reduce emission of Greenhouse gases even if that just slows down what may well be the inevitable. It may not be inevitable if the projection of GHG effects on climate and sea levels are near the low end and the pace of installation of renewable energy sources is at the high end. The Paris treaty plays into this scenario. Finally, there is the group that wants to eliminate fossil fuels as quickly as possible, but they will have little influence on policy and actions.
At this point we will have to watch and see what Trump plans to do in this area. When there are some specific actions to review, I certainly plan to comment. At this point, given Trump’s domiciles in Manhattan Mar el Lago, as well as ownership of golf courses on several coasts, I am guessing that he will be more concerned about water level rises than are the people in Colorado ad Utah.
Of course, the EPA’s effectively mandated shutdown of a number coal-fired power plants had broader goals than reduction of carbon dioxide emission: it was also intended to greatly reduce the emission of coal-based toxic chemicals in the flue gases. The EPA’s reliance on the Clean Air Act as legal justification for these shutdowns, agreed to by the Supreme Court, may make a reversal of these shutdowns difficult – particularly when some of these plants have or are switching to cheap natural gas. As for “Clean Coal” plants, a term used by Trump in campaign speeches in West Virginia and elsewhere, this will be an unlikely solution as my January 15th post has discussed. Today’s issue of the New York Times discussed a Chinese initiative to build a large number of coal gasification plants similar to Kemper and Sasketchewan in an area very abundant with coal. These will make “synthetic natural gas”, but without the benefit of capturing and using or storing the emitted byproduct CO2. Carbon pollution in this area of China will be immense. So, no “Clean Coal”. Mr Trump, are you reading this?
It now becomes important to find out what Donald Trump and his cabinet plan to do to reverse the previous administration’s effort to slow down the pace of global warming. Also, we must monitor the choices the new administration are making in enacting its energy policy. Therefore, I plan to write and comment frequently on specific actions that the new administration is taking in these two areas.
Trump’s well known pronouncements denying the effects of CO2 on atmospheric warming and his disdain for science in general are a good indication of where we are heading. Under Obama, a number of steps were taken to move the country in the direction of renewable energy, with most of these having economic justification, in some cases aided by government subsidies. Importantly, the U.S. became a signatory to the Paris agreement that outlined a path toward a lower carbon future. So, that is the starting point the Trump administration inherited as it starts to move in quite a different direction. Actions to implement Trump’s intention to undo Obama’s environmental legacy must be carried out either via executive orders or by Congressional vote. While some of his cabinet choices (e.g. Rex Tillerson at State and Ray Zinke at Interior) appear to have a different view (Tillerson proposed a carbon tax), his choice at DOE (Scott Pruitt ) seems even more adamant than Trump as a global warming denier. So, we can expect Congress to go along with Trump on much of his new agenda. But it will not be easy to change some of the current policies, as we may see. My first post in this new departure happens to be relatively uncritical of Trump.
Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines: One of Trump’s first steps was to give a go-ahead to these two projects. Much of the work on both of these pipelines has already been completed. Keystone was halted by Obama because of the high carbon content of tar sands crude oil, while Dakota was halted due to protests by local Indian tribes. Both projects will now be completed.
Looking first at Dakota, there is much in favor of this pipeline, the only negative being the potential for a leak in the section going under the Missouri River. There are many U.S. pipelines under rivers in the continental U.S. and we have long decided that this is a risk that must be borne. The fact that it may affect drinking water on tribal lands is far outweighed by the benefit of not having thousands of unsafe tank cars carrying crude oil from the Bakken wells to mid-west refineries, creating a much greater risk of water pollution – to say nothing of fires and casualties – when trains are derailed and cars spill crude oil, a fairly common occurrence. It will behoove the government to do everything possible to provide clean water to the Indians in the very low probability occurrence of a Dakota pipeline leak under the Missouri.
The Keystone pipeline situation is more complicated. The U.S. already imports a lot of crude oil from Canada and will now import more. This will back out crude imports from “less friendly” nations. Also, U.S. oil companies make some of the oil in the tar sands. The overall tar sands operation will continue with or without the pipeline, since Canada will get this oil to other destinations, mainly overseas. However, tar sands producers will now step up production bringing more of thus carbon-heavy oil oil to markets. The tar sands recovery and transformation operation in Alberta itself involves a considerable amount of carbon emissions and is therefore a less desirable method of producing crude oil. So, the net of Keystone is more CO2 emissions than if the pipeline were not built. An unknown factor are the future economics of tar sands crude versus U.S. crude. While some refineries can run heavy (e.g. Venezuela, tar sands) crude, they will preferentially buy U.S. crude if it is cheaper. If the Saudis buy the large Lyondell heavy crude-based refinery, it will be fed with Saudi crude.
Trump’s claim regarding job creation for these pipelines ring hollow. Both pipelines are nearly complete. There will initially be thousands of new construction jobs, but very few permanent jobs thereafter.
This blog has covered the long history of technologies and approaches that would allow coal-fired power plants to keep operating while the carbon dioxide in flue gases can be captured and either used or stored in some manner. The most promising of these approaches applies only to new plants that gasify the coal (rather than burn it), allowing the CO2 to be captured in an efficient manner. When such plants are built close to oil fields that can beneficially use CO2 injection as a tertiary recovery method the economics of the operation are substantially improved. The only problem is that such plants, as exemplified by the Kemper plant in Missouri, are enormously expensive (See my Jan. 2nd, 2016 post) and also have a high “parasitic” load of energy charges related to carbon dioxide recovery, that raise their operating cost substantially.
Here we segue to an interesting situation that involves an unlikely alliance, including the Kemper plant, an old “Synthetic Natural Gas” from coal plant, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitcamp from North Dakota, some Texas senators and Donald Trump. There is a current Federal tax credit of $10/ton of carbon for CO2 captured and reused for oil recovery. One of the recipients is Dakota Gasification Company, supported by DOE and built in 1984 to make synthetic natural gas from coal and now capturing CO2 (produced as a pure stream) and selling it for tertiary oil recovery. Another project built partly with DOE financing (like Kemper) by NRG Energy Company in the Houston area at a time when crude oil was $ 100 per barrel (see my Sept. 8, 2014 post) uses amine scrubbing to capture a portion of the CO2 from a coal-fired power plant and sells it via pipeline to a depleted oil field, presumably receiving the $ 10/ton tax credit. The owner of the Kemper plant, Senator Heitcamp, and other congress members are now lobbying for raising the tax credit to $ 35/ton for the first 12 years of plant operation.
So now we perhaps get a glimmer about Donald Trump’s Clean Coal fixation. While I doubt that he understands the technology behind the approach, nor the economics, nor the fact that an enormous amount of Federal money has partly financed (as first-of-a kind projects) and continues to support all three of these plants with tax credits, he can say that there is a way for coal to be used and captured since real plants are doing that. There are, however, important questions whether real companies will build more plants like Kemper, which overran its initial buget by 200 percent. Even if higher tax credits are established, the investment for these plants will be prohibitively higher than for natural gas-fired power plants. Even if Trump’s DOE under new management is willing to grant massive subsidies to new coal-fired plants using gasification instead of combustion of coal, it seems doubtful that Congress – now much more conservative and negative to government subsidies- will subsidize such boondoggles (which would no longer be first-of-a kind plants worthy of government support). However, stay tuned!
Readers of my blog have probably recognized that I write more about energy than about chemical developments. This is not by choice, but because I have over the last year found little to write about in the chemical world. Scouring, for example, Chemical and Engineering News’ annual issue of noteworthy chemical developments, I was somewhat underwhelmed, to coin a phrase, except perhaps in the pharma field, which I don’t write about. So, it was a really interesting to read about recent advances in the nanotechnology field that didn’t just announce, as is often the case, how a nanomaterial was added to a conventional material to achieve a special effect. (My skepticism appeared in a blog post dated Feb. 22, 2014 and other posts) The field of research I describe below covers a new area termed metamaterials: nanocomposite structures made up of metals or plastics that exhibit properties “not found in nature”.
The rather complex chart shown at left confirms the fact that very light materials (think aerosol foams) have little or no strength while the opposite is true at the other end. Materials selected for their tensile or compression strength tend to be heavy. The aim of this research was to find out whether it is possible to develop light materials that have much more strength than would be expected from their weight or density. At this point, if readers are interested and have the time, they might go to their computer and look at a presentation on Youtube by Dr. Julia Greer entitled Materials by Design: Three-dimensional nano-architected metamaterials.
Research has found that conventional materials like metals, glass, ceramics, etc exhibit quite different characteristics at nanoscale. Ceramics can be made stronger and much less brittle, glass fiber can be made ductile and most materials become much stronger(although they may also become weaker). When constructed into lattices, they can exhibit great strength while being essentially composed of 99+% air. Dr. Greer shows a picture of such a microlattice “brick” balanced on top of a blooming dandelion flower(!) Nanolattices can thus occupy a space on the chart well above that of materials in the lower left (Green) side of the diagram, with a strength 10 to 100 times that of materials with similar density. Preparation of these materials can involve technology similar to that used in 3D printers.
Commercial application of this technology may not be far away: promising areas include battery design, acoustical equipment, solar panels, medical imaging, etc. It will be interesting to see how quickly metamaterials find their way into our lives.