3D Printing advancing rapidly


As I have pointed out before, there should be more appreciation of the key role that chemistry is playing in today’s high tech world. The most obvious areas are in electronics where a multitude of polymers and other chemicals are used in the manufacture of today’s more and more complex computer chips and in television and computer monitor displays that depend on several rare earth elements and other chemicals. In the case of 3D printing, many different polymers are used, taking the place of the printing inks in the 2D ink-jet printers that preceded the newer technology.

3D printing is advancing rapidly. I first posted an article on this technology in July 2014, but it’s time to take another look at this triumph of material science and engineering! Automotive and other industrial manufacturing, Aerospace, Pharma/Healthcare, Retail and Sports are the main areas for 3D printing today.

Do you have problems finding shoes that fit? The Feetz App may be your answer. Take three pictures of each foot on this app which generates 3-G models within 2 millimeters accuracy in 60 seconds.  Fill in additional personal information and choose your color and style. Feetz designers insert the code into a printer, using durable Noogaflex printing material. The finished shoes are sent to the customer within a few days.

At the MIT Glass Lab it is now possible to print optically transparent glass by the additive 3D manufacturing process. An upper chamber heats the glass and a lower chamber heats and steadily cools the glass as it exits the device to prevent internal stress. Novel glass structures with numerous potential applications can be created.

3D printing has become almost mainstream for creating models of human heads or entire bodies.

And great advances are being made in printing actual body parts, such as substitute human ears from cell material. Printing a substitute heart seems to be not far away.

3D printers are still relatively slow, but are becoming much faster as development proceeds.  Larger nozzles for faster  polymer deposition, high speeds laser cutters, more printing heads, some using different materials, and higher speed motors will create systems capable of printing components as much as 10 times larger and 200-500 times faster than current machines! By jetting two or more materials in different combinations, and using multiple colors, much more diversity can be created. Printed parts can have 14 distinct material properties and 10 color palettes, according to a paper published by PwC Technology.

In Brooklyn, a 3D brand MakerBot now has a 17,000 square foot manufacturing center specializing in 3D printing with classes to teach you how to make a pair of bespoke bike pedals or a one-of-a-kind lipstick in your living room.



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Why taxing carbon might pass next Congress

imgresA September 6th article in the New York Times by renowned economist Gregory Mankiw caught my eye because I realized that even Republican members of Congress might decide to do something about limiting carbon emissions. It could be done in a manner that uses the funds generated by a carbon tax to reduce other taxes, resulting in a tax-neutral outcome.  This has been done for several years in British Columbia and is now on the 2016 ballot in Washington State. Use of fossil fuels has fallen somewhat in British Columbia versus the rest of Canada and economic growth has not declined.

Putting a tax on carbon or using a cap and trade approach has been anathema to Republicans. That is because these approaches have generally used the income generated from the carbon “tax” to fund or encourage investments that would also lower carbon emissions, such as wind or solar energy generation. The proposed Washington state initiative reduces state sales tax and tax on manufactured goods and provides a $ 1500 tax rebate for low income working families. The $25 tax on carbon dioxide translates to a 25 cents per gallon increase in gasoline costs. This is obviously a good time to enact this tax as gasoline prices are quite low and are expected to stay low for several years. A carbon tax, as readers surely know, encourages people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, form car pools, use more public transportation, and turn down thermostats.

It is unfortunate that this approach is not being considered at the Federal level at a time when gasoline and diesel prices are low and the highway trust fund is almost depleted. There is no courage or wisdom in Washington and that is the reason, among others, why Mr. Trump is doing so well in the polls.


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Making “Petrochemicals” without petroleum feedstocks: China successfully uses coal

China MTOEthylene has historically been the most important petrochemical building block: a highly reactive molecule made by the high temperature cracking of hydrocarbons ranging from ethane to heavy gas liquids. This is actually not a specific process in that it produces a number of other olefins and aromatics in different amounts and concentrations, depending on the hydrocarbon fed to the cracking furnace: mostly ethylene when cracking ethane, a complex mixture of ethylene, propylene, higher olefins and diolefins, benzene and other aromatics when cracking naphthas or gas oils. These “byproducts” of the cracking process are, however, quite valuable as well. And this has been the heart of the petrochemical industry since the 1950’s. Many researchers tried to find a more specific, more “elegant” way to make ethylene but up to recently have been unsuccessful.

Research by the UOP division of Honeywell and by the Chinese has now yielded a brand new way to make ethylene with fewer byproducts and using a non-hydrocarbon feedstock, namely methanol! This so-called MTO (methanol-to-olefin) technology is now commercial and is starting to produce large quantities of ethylene in China. (Chemical and Engineering News, August 31, 2015). And the methanol itself is made from coal, thus helping that country in its quest to be less dependent on importing hydrocarbons for both fuel and chemical uses.

The breakthrough technology that led to making a molecule looking like this C=C from a molecule with the formula CH3OH (methanol) involves the use of silicoaluminum molecular sieves as catalysts and a very complex mechanism. As far as I can determine, the research was done independently in the U.S. and China.

Methanol has been produced from many feedstocks including coal. It involves the production of “synthesis gas” containing hydrogen and carbon monoxide. with carbon dioxide and water as a byproduct. Of interest is the fact that the carbon dioxide comes out of the system in concentrated form, making it easy to recover it for use or storing it in caverns to avoid letting the GHG into the atmosphere.

Making ethylene this way costs more than producing it from hydrocarbons.  But that may not be the case in China, depending on how it prices coal versus naphtha and how it treats capital charges.

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Rare earths revisited: Monopoly broken but security issues remain

imagesAs readers of my blog know, I have an abiding interest in rare earth metals, since they are such a fundamental source of technology for use in computers, TV and other displays, windmills, medical imaging….the list goes on and on.  As a quick review, these elements (divided into “light” and “heavy” so-called lanthanides) are found abundantly in nature as metal oxides in different amounts and concentrations. They are almost exclusively produced in China, where they are found in large amounts and where the complex processing and separation of the oxides has long been perfected.imgres As industrial use blossomed, China’s monopolistic position allowed that country over a short period of time, to raise prices to unsustainable levels ($ 100-200 per kg) as it imposed export quotas on these metals.

An article in the July 27th issue of Chemical and Engineering News brings the situation up to date. Two companies, Molycorp in the U.S. and Lynas in Australia, decided to  invest large amounts of capital to produce rare earth metals, using the high global pricing to justify these investments. When the World Trade Organization declared Chinese export quotas to be illegal, the price of many of the metals dropped precipitously to the range of  $ 2/kg to $ 18/kg!  Molycorp, which was starting to produce at low levels, recently declared bankruptcy and Lynas is facing a similar problem, as well as local environmental opposition to its Malaysian rare earth refinery for Australian oxides, based on the fact that rare earth oxide concentrates from some ores contain some radioactive thorium and uranium.

Molycorp has the additional problem that its Mountain Pass, Ca. mine ores primarily contain oxides of cerium and lanthanum, which are used in catalytic converters and for various polishing applications and command the lowest prices. The ores also contain  neodymium and praseodynium in reasonable quantities and this metal is more attractively priced, used in electric motors, sensors and disk drives. Gadolinium, yttrium, dysprosium and terbium and europium are even more attractively priced and it turns out that these oxides are found in some Alaskan ores, apparently attracting some other investors.

So, China still has the monopoly on rare earth metals, though it is no longer able to realize “monopolistic” pricing. Instead, it has priced these metals at a low enough level (while exporting as much as possible) to try and force its competitors out of business.

The good new for the U.S. is that it is presumably building up a national stockpile of these valuable materials just in case China decides to play more games. Since the technology for separating these oxides is quite complex, it will be difficult for producers outside of China to match Chinese economics. This certainly seems like a case for protecting a domestic industry, which is certainly allowed by the WTO.


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Projecting carbon fiber composites for mass auto market: Several factors are involved

imagesThis blog has periodically posted articles on the growing use of carbon fiber composites, noting their strength and light weight, relative to steel, and their downside of high cost.  These materials are now in prime use in large airliners and in expensive cars, but have only slowly started to penetrate the mass automobile market. CarbonContinued research, both in government-sponsored laboratories and by companies such as BMW and Teijin is promising lower manufacturing costs and car companies are obviously interested in greater use of composites to meet the new CAFE requirements, reducing fuel consumption via lower weight cars.. Projections are, in fact, showing much greater use in cars over the next decade(lowest field in graphic). Research in going on in several areas, including use of lower purity (less expensive) polyacrylonitrile, other monomers, lower production costs and cycle times, etc.

Another factor is, however, at work. The objective of the fuel economy  standards is reduced total carbon dioxide emissions, which relates both to specific fuel consumption (miles per gallon of fuel) and and total miles driven. Car manufacturers get credit for the production of electric cars and hybrids, which obviously act to lower the total emissions of the entire fleet. Megatrends are also changing driving habits. Thus, using cars for personal transportation in the developed world is undergoing substantial change, and production of much smaller cars is increasing.  Also, online shopping and telecommuting will reduce the use of personal cars.  All of this this will affect the number of large passenger cars that are not hybrids or electric and will have to be taken into account as the large car manufacturers contemplate the fleet size and mix of cars they will produce by 2020 and beyond.

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Aircraft biofuel blending becoming a reality

UOP While there is considerable controversy regarding the Greenhouse gas emission-related benefits of biofuels, a number of air lines, notably United, are starting to use a “natural” jet fuel produced by a process patented by UOP. The fact that this biofuel is produced from waste rather than from crops is significant as no hydrocarbon-related fuels or chemicals are used for the specific purpose of making the fuel. While carbon dioxide is, of course, emitted into the atmosphere when the biofuel burns, this carbon can be assumed as again being absorbed into plants through photosynthesis, completing the cycle, so that no net carbon dioxide is emitted as would be the case for crude oil-based jet fuel. UOP claims that use of its bio jet fuel can reduce GHG emissions by 65-80 percent

The UOP Green Jet process had its origins in DARPA-conducted research to produce military  jet fuel from renewable sources. In the basic process. natural oil or greases  and deoxygenated and isomerized to produce green Diesel. With selective cracking, jet fuel is produced.

AltAir Fuels will retrofit part of an existing petroleum refinery to make 30 million gallons per year of advanced biofuel from non-edible natural oils and agricultural wastes. This fuel can blend up to 50% with fossil kerosene. Fulcrum Bioenergy has developed a process that turns municipal waste (household trash) into sustainable aviation fuel and will supply United Airlines, which has invested in Fulcrum’s refinery. Fulcrum’s president claims it can produce bio jet fuel for around one dollar per gallon – half the cost of what United paid for jet fuel last year.  British Airways is in a joint venture to build a biofuels refinery near Heathrow airport. Cathay Air Lines and Alaska Airlines are likewise engaged in a plan to make and/or blend natural jet fuel into traditional fuel.

A Middle East firm Petrixo Oil and Gas claims it will use the UOP process to produce one million tons per year of biofuels at a cost of $ 800 million in the United Arab Emirates. (Feedstock source not identified).

Behind these developments is a government push to reduce airlines’ carbon emissions. The Obama administration has set out guidelines to achieve key reductions, recognizing that airline GHG emissions are rising at a fairly rapid rate.

So, let’s put this in context. The good news is that it is now apparently possible to make blendable jet fuel economically from natural materials and, more interestingly, from municipal waste and crop wastes. And there is a net carbon benefit in doing this. There is really no bad news, except for the fact that there are immense logistical challenges in making biojet fuel production a major industry. While it was quite easy to develop a “gasohol” industry from corn, given the fact that corn was already available in huge quantities in silos and could easily be diverted to fuel instead of foodstuff use. This would be impossible to do with municipal waste or even agricultural waste, where many thousands of tons would have to be collected from many sources and brought to refineries. greatly increasing the production costs and the carbon emissions. For specific locations and situations, however, there is an economic and carbon footprint-related reason to build a certain amount of biojet fuel capacity.





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Tidal Power: How close to reality?

imagesProduction of electricity from the difference between high and low tide has been an area of interest since for centuries water turbines have turned in many areas of the world to drive heavy wheels used to grind wheat or make gunpowder. Electricity-producing turbines are installed in tidal basins that capture water at high tide and release it at low tide. Tidal power plants with a capacity around 250MW have been installed in LaRance, France(1966) and in Korea(2011). A similar-sized plant is completing construction in Swansea, South Wales and there is now renewed interest in this technology, which would take its place next to solar and wind as the most basic form of renewable energy. The one billion Pound Sterling plant, which takes advantage of one of the largest high tide/low tide height differentials in Europe, is based on a man-made lagoon where a seawall encloses 11.5 square miles of ocean off the coast.

The initial cost of power generation from a plant of this kind is high at around $250 per megawatt hour versus $ 210 from wind and $ 150 from fossil fuels. However, economics of scale can bring the cost down to that of wind power. If Swansea builds five more tidal lagoons the projected cost of power will be comparable to nuclear and the plant would then produce about 8 percent of the U.K.’s demand for electricity. If the cost of solar power had not been coming down so dramatically, the U.S.,with promising locations, would have been looking at tidal power more seriously as interest in renewable, zero carbon, energy has grown in recent years. Canada could long have installed tidal power at the Bay of Fundy (largest known tide differential globally with studies showing three locations that could each provide between 1000 and 3000 MW), but the country has built much lower cost hydropower generation so no reason to build high capital cost tidal power plants.

The downside for tidal power plants is possible effect on marine life, but the LaRance plant in northern France has not been a problem in that respect.


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