Silicone wristbands for monitoring exposure to hazardous chemicals

imagesI just came across an article in the current issue of Chemical and Engineering News magazine that caught my interest. A company called MyExposome are making available lightweight silicone wristbands that trap minute amounts of the multitude of chemicals that people are exposed to as they go about their daily activities, both at work and play. According to the article, the silicon polymer matrix “sequesters” and “concentrates” organic compounds with a chemical absorption profile similar to that of human cells. Wearers will return the wristbands to the company, which will extract the chemicals using solvents or chemical desorption mehods, with gas chromatography or mass spectrometers used to identify the chemicals. In the extended study work carried out to date, these have included endocrine-disrupting chemicals, pesticides, PCB’s, frame retarding chemicals and many others. At this time, only qualitative information is obtained, though the company is working on measuring quantitative exposure.Wristband

With a current cost of $1000 per person for groups of 20 or more, this is still a relatively expensive proposition for wearers, though the cost will come down with broad scale use. But I think it is a “breakthrough” invention. As my blog readers probably know by now, I am not very much concerned about the general population being at great risk from exposure to many of the chemicals we have been warned about, even thoug Bill Moyers and others have long discussed the many chemicals that are found in our bloodstream in very small quantities. Over the years, many chemicals have been found to have carcinogenic or other toxicilogial properties, though tests have almost inevitably shown that they are harmful only if exposure is in quantities several orders of magnitude greater than what people are exposed to on a day-to-day basis. But what I am thinking is that these wristbands – particularly if able to measure quantitative exposure- could be a very useful tool if they are worn by people who are, due to their work, potentially or actually exposed to very high levels of certain chemicals (think formaldehyde for construction workers and funeral parlor workers,  pesticides for farmers). This would, on the one hand, provide the same sort of exposure indicators that workers at nuclear power plants or in radiology labs get from wearing Geiger counters and, on the other hand, provide useful data showing that some chemicals need not necessarily be banned, but that workers needing to be exposed to them should have a record of their exposure.  OSHA should follow the results and should then provide guidelines. Where extensive prolonged experience is shown to be harmful, the use of silicone wristbands might become mandatory and the cost borne by the companies and customers involved.

Further, to the extent that pregnant women want to check their exposure to certain chemicals, use of a chemical exposure wristband would provide reassurance to worriers, though their use would probably be deemed unnecessary by their gynecologist. People with compromised immune systems would also benefit from the use of these wristbands.


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Young Liberals opposed to Fracking: Look at facts before making judgments

frackingdiagram[1]As the New York State Democratic primary heats up, it has become evident that “fracking” is becoming a political “football”. It’s not surprising that opposition to fracking, in principle, has become an election issue in New York, since Governor Cuomo, strongly supported by the environmental lobby, cravenly banned fracking in this state while its residents enjoyed the benefits of low cost natural gas resulting from fracking in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and several southern states.  Bernie Sanders’ unsurprising opposition to fracking has further energized his young liberal supporters. Unfortunately, they are unable or unwilling to look at the big picture as discussed in today’s op ed article in the New York times. Hilary Clinton has not yet been pulled strongly in this direction – she says that “fracking will/should only be carried out in some areas – and one can only hope that she will stay the course.

Incontrovertibly, fracking has made the United States much more energy-independent than before. It has resulted in substantially lower natural gas and crude oil prices and it has led to switching a number of power plants from coal to natural gas, thus contributing substantially to a decline in carbon dioxide emissions. Adding wind and solar energy to the mix has brought about a further reduction. So, why are some liberals so opposed to fracking?  This generally comes down to three reasons, namely (a) the highly publicized incidents of ground and aquifer contamination by fracking water, (b) the leakage of some methane -a Greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere during the fracking operation and (c) an inherent desire to reduce the use of fossil fuels altogether.

The Obama administration, which is strongly committed to reduction  in GHG emissions, has sensibly committed to fracking, but has recognized the need to regulate the use of this technology to lessen the associated problems of water contamination and methane emission. With respect to the former, evidence shows that the incidents of contamination have always been somewhat anecdotal and are now statistically even lower, as companies have adopted best practices and regulators are closely monitoring  their operations. As to methane emissions, while methane is a worse actor than carbon dioxide, the volume of methane estimated to have been emitted in 2013 is very much less than that of carbon dioxide so that when all GHG emissions in the U.S. that year are compared on a carbon equivalent basis, carbon dioxide emissions dwarf methane emissions, as shown on the graphic.GHG This topic is covered in more detail in a new blog post by IHRDC called “Perspectives on the Oil and Gas business” written by my Chem Systems colleague Marshall Frank.

Fracking has received broad bipartisan support, with Republicans mostly agreeing with the Obama administration’s positive position on fracking, with states deciding on whether to allow fracking and, if so, how it should be further regulated.

If a vote for Sanders is partly based on his opposition to fracking, liberals who have been strong in supporting a science-based conclusion on global warming (GHGas emissions responsible) should here also look at the facts and recognize that banning this technology will unquestionably raise carbon dioxide emissions, as power plants switch back to coal and new coal-based plants will be built to meet the country’s total power requirements.




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High End Plastics: A niche product is finally growing

PeekI just got back from Dubai where I gave a keynote speech to the Gulf Coast Petrochemical and Chemical Association (GPCA) on the history of petrochemical research and process development. Plastics started making major inroads in substituting for traditional materials like glass, paper, cardboard, wood, and metals of various kinds. Thermosets like phenol-formaldehyde (think Bakelite) were followed by thermoplastics (Polyethylene,  polypropylene,PVC, polystyrene), condensation products(polyamide, polyester resins) and, later, engineering resins ( ABS, polycarbonate, etc.) Even stronger, more “esoteric” high end plastics were synthesized and commercialized, but they were basically niche products. Now, one of these seems to be gaining a foothold.

Hardly anybody will remember that Imperial Chemical Industries(ICI), that storied British firm that lost its way and was eventually acquired by a large Dutch coatings firm, developed, in the 1970s, an extremely versatile high end plastics trade-named PEEK.  It may be the only plastic that can meet or exceed the properties of metals, ceramics and thermoset composites, according to an article in the February 29th issue of Chemical and Engineering News. Accordingly, it sells for about fifty dollars per pound! For a while, the only source of PEEK, which is made from hydroquinone and difluorobenzophenone, was Victrex, which was spun off from ICI a number of years ago.

In addition to biocompatibility, this plastic retains its strength up to about 250 Centigrade, is flame retardant and has good electrical properties. So, when the attributes desired include  corrosion or chemical resistance, structural strength and ability to operate at 150 Centigrade, PEEK ot other plastics in its family (aromatic polyketones or polyaryl ether ketones) may be the only materials suitable. And biocompatibility, together with structural strength, is helping to make this family of products a logical choice. So, for example, PEEK is now being used as a femur implant that lets bone grow around it. But the main uses for this family of polymer are in demanding applications for bearings, piston parts. pumps, valves and cable insulation in the aerospace, automotive and process industries. PEEK is readily machineable and produces plastic parts that are thermostable and electrically and thermally insulating. It is finding new uses in plastic extruders. Also, its desirable combination of corrosion resistance and structural strength is now bringing new applications in the offshore drilling market

In addition to Victrex, which is planning an expansion for its current 7000 tons/year capacity, several much larger chemical firms are becoming active in this area including Arkema, Celanese, Evonik and Solvay. And it is likely that PEEK will soon also be used in 3D printing applications. Companies are projecting a 70,000 tons/year global market, still very small compared to its predecessor plastics.




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Large scale desalination with renewable energy: Breakthrough in Saudi Arabia

imagesThe fresh water-short desert kingdoms of the Middle East have long been the largest installers of desalination technology. How large can be deduced from the fact that the Saudis use 1.5 million barrels a day of crude oil to supply energy to its distillation-based desalination units. Long term this was seen as an untenable amount of oil use, considering that even the Saudis, who use another 1.3 million B/D for other energy uses, don’t have an unlimited amount of oil reserves. A recent issue of  Chenected, the AIChE blog, reported that the Saudi firm Advanced Water Technology (AWT) teamed up with Abengoa, the Spanish renewable energy firm, to build the world’s largest desalination plant.  It will use ultrafiltration and reverse osmosis for salt removal and solar power for the energy required to push the treated salt water through a new type of membrane that is highly resistant to chlorine, salt blockage and accumulation of bacteria.Desal For an excellent representational video of the desalination plant click on the Chenected link in the previous paragraph.

The plant is estimated to cost $ 130MM and will supply 60,000 cubic meters a day to the city of Al Khafji in north-eastern Saudi Arabia. The solar array will have an installed capacity of 15MW and will be also be connected to the national power grid, though the combined plant will be entirely self-sufficient in energy.

Since Aramco sells oil to the Saudi Electricity Company at four dollars per barrel, Aramco’s income will rise of the order of $ 10 billion annually if it can eventually stop supplying oil for desalination and sell the oil for $ 30-40 per barrel to the market(!). This is also an important part of the Saudi’s strategy to become less dependent on crude oil.

Note: This post is a propos, since I am leaving for Dubai this Friday to give a keynote speech to the Third Annual Research and Innovation Summit of the Gulf Coast Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association(GPCA). My speech is on Historical Technology Development in the Petrochemical Industry.


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Fusion becoming real?

imgresRemember the time a decade or two ago when two professors announced that they had carried out a fusion reaction? Well, that didn’t work out so well and was soon forgotten. More recently it became known that a multi-national consortium including Russia, China and India as well as the European Union  are building an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in the South of France (cost: $20 billion eventually) to develop fusion energy. And now it turns out that several other startups are working in this area. So, here are some highlights on what is going on, as described in the Nov. 2nd issue of Time magazine.

First, some basics. To create fusion, you have to heat atoms so high that they want to “fuse”.(This is what goes on in the sun!)  On earth this means heating atoms up to 100 million degrees Celsius. At these temperatures, they becomes a plasma, which is neither a liquid or a gas. And you have to confine it without touching a surface, which it would immediately vaporize. The plasma therefore has to be controlled some other way and that is magnetically.It is a real “break” that electromagnetic fields can be used to contain and compress plasmas without actually touching them. This is usually accomplished by a device known as a tokamak(from Russian), a large hollow metal doughnut wrapped in huge electromagnetic coils.

The challenge for the plasma being created is to achieve a hot enough temperature long enough for fusion to take place. Tri Alpha is concentrating on the “long enough” part, which they deems more difficult than the “hot enough” part. The company now claims success with the former at 12 milliseconds.

As to the material subjected to these extreme conditions, this can be hydrogen, lithium, deuterium or other atoms. And the amount required is very small because of the amount of energy released.  If this can be successfully done, “it will transform the world as completely as any technology in the past. Scientists think that this will happen “sooner than you think “.


Courtesy:  Time Magazine

There are a number of small high-tech companies in several countries working on creating a fusion reaction, using different approaches. The apparatus being constructed by one of these, Tri Alpha Energy, is depicted above. Other companies include General Fusion near Vancouver and Helion Energy in Redmond, Washington. Investors in firms like these include Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Goldman Sachs. Tri Alpha has raised “hundreds of millions” so far. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has built one of the most powerful laser systems in the world which can deliver 500 trillion watts, about 1000 times as the power the U.S. is using at any given time.

The obvious goal for these machines is to get a reactor to put out more energy than is put in. According to the article, the developers are quite optimistic about this. For some time, people in the field used to say that fusion reaction is always 30 years away. Tri Alpha now believes that in three to four years, the risk changes from a science risk to an engineering risk and that within a decade there could be first commercial steps. Helion says that they will have a small (truck-sized) reactor commercial within six years.(!).

Since fusion energy plants by utilities will be very expensive, the “gain” (i.e. energy output divided by energy input) will have to be in the 15-20 range. ITER’s goal for “gain” is 10. To date, no fusion reactor has reached a ratio of 1.



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The chemical landscape changes: Dow and DuPont merge and unscramble

imagesimgresFor those of us who have followed the development of the U.S. chemical industry for a number of decades, the newly announced “blockbuster” Dow-DuPont deal is the latest fascinating development. Here is a synopsis of industry history (Time periods are approximate):

1900 – 1945     International cartels (IGFarben, ICI, DuPont, Montecatini, Solvay,others) dominate the industry. Few firms in each country, little competition, much cooperation, pricing in Europe controlled by cartels.

1945- 1979     The new petrochemical industry gives birth to many new commodity chemicals producers.  Tremendous advances in commodity and other organic chemicals technology. Profits good as growth allows all to thrive much of the time. A new specialty chemical industry develops with a large number of companies offering partly differentiated products.

1980- Mid-nineties   Recession, too many producers of commodity and some specialty chemicals, substantial consolidation in petrochemicals, partly due to advent of Middle East producers and to backward integration advantages of oil companies. Reengineering  causes companies to exit/sell smaller, non-core businesses. Some consolidation. Commodity producers eye specialties as more likely to be profitable, but find it difficult to “ride two horses”.

Mid-nineties to present. Very little new technology. Large chemical companies exit commodities and buy/ create large specialty businesses. Private equity buys many other specialty companies. Toward end of this period, both commodity and specialty chemicals producers experience lower growth/lower growth prospects. Even with limited number of competitors in each product area, profitability is shrinking, while companies with several specialties find it difficult to compete with leaders who have only one business area (i.e. ag chemicals)

And so  Dupont and Dow decide to merge and then split, to join their respective ag chemicals and non-polymer specialty businesses (the latter probably to be named DuPont) into two separate companies to achieve scale. Dow keeps the rest, consisting mostly of advanced, somewhat differentiated polymers, both commodity and specialty plus Dow-Aramco joint venture in petrochemicals.(This is necessarily an abbreviated description of the deal).  True commodities (e.g. polyethylene, PVC, polystyrene, ethylene glycol, ammonia, methanol) will henceforth be dominated by oil companies, fertilizer companies, and the Middle East.

Unquestionably, this merger/demerger is the result of the rising pressure of large investors who had already succeeded in causing the resignation of Ellen Kullman, ex-CEO of DuPont. Andrew Liveris, also under some pressure, had long recognized the current trend and was able to quickly make the deal with the new CEO of DuPont.

Large chemical companies traditionally owned a number of businesses, usually some commodities(usually mature businesses) and some specialties or intermediate(growth) businesses. Conventional wisdom was that the mature businesses throws off cash which is used to pay dividends and supplies capital for R&D needed by the growth businesses. The Dow/DuPont decision indicates that this strategy no longer works well and marks an end to that concept.

Will this be “it” for chemical industry restructuring? Don’t bet on it!


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Kemper power plant dooms “Clean coal” approach

KemperThe concept of scrubbing carbon dioxide from power plant flue gases has been around ever since global warming and climate change became part of our vocabulary. When it quickly became evident that flowing the huge amounts of flue gases from coal-burning power plants through an amine-based scrubber would be totally impractical and expensive, another approach was considered. A better idea would be to gasify the coal to make so-called synthesis gas using oxygen (rather burning with air, thus greatly reducing the amount of flue gas) and then burning the synthesis gas to generate electric power while capturing essentially pure carbon dioxide for sale or storage. These would have to be brand new plants, would cost more, but could be built in areas where large amounts of carbon dioxide could be sold for tertiary recovery in depleted oil fields. The theory sounded good and the Federal Government liked the idea enough to help support an immense pilot project

This brings us to the Kemper plant in Mississippi which recently started up, though not yet on coal. The location was inspired by the fact that it would be built over a huge deposit of lignite (a very low cost, very dirty coal) and not far away from oil fields that could beneficially use large amount of carbon dioxide for tertiary recovery. The DOE had been looking to help fund projects that would successfully demonstrate carbon dioxide recovery from flue gases, but had given up on direct flue gas scrubbing when an old Illinois power plant, rebuilt with amine scrubbing and DOE money, was shuttered. So, Kemper looked like an ideal location to demonstrate the potentially ideal way to capture carbon in concentrated form – though this required building an entire plant from the ground up.

The project has turned out to be far more costly than the originally budgeted $ 2.4 billion. Though not yet in full operation, the plant cost is now up to $ 6.3 billion and it looks more like a petrochemical plant than a power plant as the above graphic from Scientific American magazine shows.  And it is not yet operating the coal gasifiers and runs on natural gas for the time being. So, more funds will probably be required before the plant is fully operational.

A similar experience has dogged another flue gas scrubbing prototype at the Boundary Dam plant in Sasketchewan. Similar to Kemper, this plant gives a cost of 11,000 per kilowatt of electric generating capacity, equivalent to Kemper. This translates to an extra cost of 4 cents per kilowatt-hour for consumers, amounting to about a 30 percent increase over the average American power cost.

A number of other worldwide carbon capture projects have been scrapped over the last several years.

And here is another interesting point:  When the oil recovered from the carbon dioxide captured at Kemper is burned,  carbon dioxide will, of course be emitted from the tail gates of cards and trucks using gasoline made from the recovered oil, thus partly negating the carbon capture of the Kemper coal-fired power plant. On an overall basis, using natural gas with much less carbon emission is probably a more sensible solution than Kemper with tertiary oil recovery, given also the very much higher investment for Kemper versus a new natural gas-based power plant.




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