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.



Posted in Energy Industry | Tagged | Leave a comment

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!


Posted in Chemical Industry | 2 Comments

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.




Posted in Energy Industry | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

GHG Reduction: Fiddling while China burns

China coal                                                                Source: Wall Street Journal

The recent climate change talks in Paris should be viewed with well-deserved skepticism: Even if all the countries do what they pledged(?) to do, the rapidly increasing emission of carbon dioxide forecast for China – even considering their pledge- guarantees that the threshhold two degree Centigrade rise in the average earth’s temperature will be exceeded. By 2030, China’s emisssion will reach 14 million metric tons (16 million with no pledge), from current 12 million tons, while U.S. emissions may drop from 7 million to 4 million tons, European emissions may drop from 5 million to 3.5 million, while Indian emissions rise from 3 million to 5 million tons. About 70 percent of China’s emissions currently come from coal, a fact that residents of Beijing are painfully aware of as they stumble around in the smog.

About ten years ago, Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish professor, published The Skeptical Environmentalist and wrote articles that discussed global warming and other environmental concerns. He was and has consistently been skeptical of spending( or even thinking of spending) the huge amounts of money needed (trillions) to reduce carbon emissions enough to meet some sort of goal to allay doomsday projections. If a great deal money were even to be made available to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere- surely far less than trillions of dollars, Lomborg says that it would be better to spend this money to solve other human ills such as AIDS, malaria, poverty, etc.,   But he also strongly advocates spending large amounts of money to deal with the now certain rise in ocean levels (though we don’t know the likely number of inches or feet), a decision which he believes to be a more useful and necessary reaction to what the future holds. Many cities and other areas with coastlines are already starting to make their plans – New York understood the implications of Hurricane Sandy.

Two other approaches to try and deal with the problem have, as most readers know, been studied, but neither of them has gained much traction. Geoengineering, the release of certain chemicals to deal with Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is considered impractical, untested and dangerous. And capturing carbon dioxide with large sheets of alkaline material is even less likely to be a practical solution- it smacks of Don Quixote and windmills.

So, the “bottom” line is that we really don’t know what we will see in terms of global warming effects. We do know that we will not soon arrest the continuing increase in carbon emissions, given the relentless buildup in Chinese coal burning, though there are reasons why trying to do so here probably makes sense. And communities watching the sea level rising at their shore should be developing workable approaches (like the Dutch people and their dams) to deal with a situation that will not go away.

Florida, from where I am writing this, and Alabama have recognized the problem because the evidence is starkly in front of their inhabitants, even when much of their Congressional delegations continue to deny global warming and climate change. Practical minds will overcome ideology most of the time.


Posted in Energy Industry | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Powder River Coal: Strange Government Dichotomy

imgresTo quote Shakespeare somewhat irreverently, “there is something rotten in the state of Wyoming”. Well, it depends on your viewpoint and your political affiliation. But the Obama administration can be said to not really be serious about world GHG reduction, as it pledged to do so in Paris recently, because it is not considering the total picture.

The Powder River basin (partly in Montana) contains the most prolific and most easily mined coal in the world – a 100-foot seam of coal that accounts for about 40 percent of coal burned in the U.S. and 13 percent of U.S. GHG emissions. Almost the entire seam is on public lands and is made available to coal producers under uncompetitive coal leases (96%  of coal contracts were signed with a single bidder). And while most of the coal is burned in the U.S. an increasing amount is being exported to China, India and elsewhere. Exports will increase sharply when new port facilities now being constructed come into use. And the final point: the U.S. Government is selling this coal to producers/exporters at $ 13 per short ton when China is paying $ 69 per ton for Powder River coal(!).

So, what is “rotten”about that? Firstly, Powder River coal is greatly underpriced, even when considering its lower BTU content than that for Appalachian and other coal: Current coal prices in the U.S. are around $ 50 per ton. The government receives a royalty of 12.5% on each ton mined and sold. A recent study showed that taxpayers would have received $30 billion more over the past 30 years in royalties if Wyoming coal had been priced competitively. With exports scheduled to rise rapidly, there is no sign that Powder River coal prices will rise.

Now, this “giveaway” seems unnecessary and its implementation is totally uncompetitive. But now let’s look at Obama’s goal to reduce global emissions. He points out rightly that the U.S. has reduced emissions by switching some utility coal burning to natural gas and by increasing electricity production to unconventional sources, such as solar and wind. But pricing Wyoming coal at $ 13/ton is not only creating windfall profits for coal companies and for utilities buying the coal, but is additionally causing countries like China and India to burn more coal and increase CO2 emissions as Powder River coal reduces the average price of coal in these countries. So, we are encouraging these countries to burn more coal by selling them Wyoming coal at prices below the local market while still providing high markups to exporters.

A new leasing program is being considered by the government, in line with greatly increasing Wyoming coal exports. A study has estimated that the carbon emissions from the coal covered by this program – mostly for coal exports – will exceed the estimated carbon cuts from the new power plant rules by a factor of three(!).

Readers of this blog are strongly encouraged to comment on this strange part of U.S. energy policy.


Posted in Energy Industry | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Promising startups using novel chemistry

imgres In its November 2, 2015 issue, Chemical and Engineering News described ten new startups that show considerable promise. One of these, Bolt Threads, which has discovered how to make synthetic silk, was covered in my June 8th, 2015 post. Like most of the ten startups, Bolt has received substantial funding, in this case from venture capital firms. While few, if any of the startups are likely to become unicorns (defined as startups with billion dollar valuations before going public or being acquired), they are all quite unusual – and of particular interest to people with a fascination for chemistry.

Slips Technologies, as its name implies, develops chemicals that make surfaces slippery. With a grant from DARPA, the firm is developing marine coatings that thwart barnacles and mussels and keep ships moving more smoothly. Another application is to prevent ice formation on roofs. And medical tubing can be treated to prevent blood clotting. BASF has invested in Slips to develop Slips-coated thermoplastic polyurethanes. In another application, Slips is working on a paint additive that will allow paint to easily be poured out of its can.

Connora Technologies is working on solving the problem that carbon fiber composites cannot be recycled. This remains a major drawpoint for broadscale use of these composites in the transportation industry (In Europe, 85% of each auto must be made of recyclable material). The approach is to mix polyamino acetal-based chemicals  into the mix of epoxy liquids and amine curing agents to create acid-cleavable bonds. Thus, when a recycled carbon fiber composite-based part is immersed in acetic acid at 100 degrees C, the fiber is filtered out and recovered. The recovered polymer is a thermoplastic that can also be reused.

Then, there is Carbon3D, which was recently described by its inventor and CEO, Dr. Joseph DeSimone, who is at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This invention can be thought of as next generation 3D printing as it would greatly increase the speed of printing various objects using the current “additive” method. Instead of layering slices on a platform, Carbon3D’s printer actually grows the object in a pool of resin. (See Dr. DeSimone’s TED speech impressively demonstrating this by printing a complex shape during the 19 minutes of the speech! )  DeSimone claims that his method can print objects 100 times faster than conventional 3D printing and that both rigid plastics and elastomeric objects can be made by this technique. Carbon3D has received $ 143 million in funding from Sequoia Capital, Google and Silverlake Partners.




Posted in Chemical Industry, Manufacturing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Renewable energy keeps advancing


The Gassing Down of The Energy Industry and The Rise of Renewables

Submitted by Gemma Potter

The prices of gas and oil are at a year-long low, down 40% in the past year: these profit drops are cutting the incentive for producers to keep drilling. According to a rig count from Baker Hughes Inc, energy companies have shut down more than half of their operating oil rigs and have also cut back on the number of gas rigs they have in operation to their lowest levels since rig counting records began approximately 28 years ago.

A Reduction of Drilling Activity

The reduced drilling activity has led to a downshift in natural gas and oil production, and although this has yet to be seen within the market, it will obviously begin to have an effect on the prices of these products at a consumer level. However, it is thought that this change will take a while to trickle through the system and affect the everyday homeowner at a financial level, if it reduces to the point where homeowners notice the change at all.

Two of the companies that worked tirelessly to pioneer new techniques in shale-gas drilling across the United States, Range Resources Corp. which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, and Chesapeake Energy Corp. which is based in Oklahoma City, have both cut their growth targets for this year, and are aware that the profits they are able to bring this year will be declined because of the broad collapse in energy prices, including for oil and other similar liquid fuels, across the United States.

The Comparative Rise of Renewable Energies

Whilst the prices of gas and oil are in decline, the usage of renewable energy sources within the United States is at an all-time high. In 2014, the use of renewable sources of energy accounted for about 10% of the total amount of energy consumption in the United States and also accounted for 13% of the electricity generation in the United States. That figure is set to rise for 2015 and to continue to rise for the next decade. It is interesting that this rise in renewable energies is occurring in conjunction with the decline of oil and gas energy generation and the financial values being placed upon it.

Large multinational companies are looking to renewable energies as the solution of the future. Amazon announced this week that they have forged a new business relationship with Berdrola Renewables, LLC to realize their vision of constructing and operating a 208 megawatt (MW) wind farm in North Carolina, which will become known as the Amazon Wind Farm US East. Once construction of the wind farm is complete in December 2016, it will generate approximately 670,000megawatt hours (MWh) of wind energy every year, which equates to enough energy to power 61,000 homes for an entire year. This will be the third Amazon wind farm in the United States, and is part of Amazon’s commitment to supporting renewable energy, with a vision of ultimately becoming an entirely carbon neutral corporation. Amazon isn’t the only corporation with a commitment to finding new renewable energy sources, and this is a move that is being supported by government investment too.

Will there ever be a world where we won’t need the fossil fuels of gas and oil on which we are so reliable? At this point that seems impossible to envisage, and those much maligned fuels remain essential to the smooth running of almost every aspect of enterprise. But it is clear that these will have to work in conjunction with renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, which are continuing to grow considerably.


“The science behind the North American energy industry”, Business Review Canada, http://www.businessreviewcanada.ca/technology/1431/The-science-behind-the-North-American-energy-industry-Part-1

“Energy industry is gassing down”, Wall Street Journal, http://www.wsj.com/articles/energy-industry-is-gassing-down-1434410757

“Compare business insurance”, Quote Zone, http://www.quotezone.co.uk/business-insurance.htm

“How much U.S. energy consumption and electricity generation comes from renewable sources?”, US Energy Information Administration,http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=92&t=4


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment