Nanocrystals for tagging: A possible breakthrough

imagesResearch carried out at MIT and funded by the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office and National Institute of Health has led to the successful development  of tiny, smartphone-readable particles that, inventors say, could be used to authenticate currency (see also my Jan 13th, 2013 post), electronic parts and luxury goods, among other products. These invisible particles contain colored stripes of nanocrystals that glow brightly when exposed to near infrared light. The new particles are about 200 microns long and include several stripes of different colored nanocrystals doped with rare earth elements such as ytterbium, gadolinium and others.  These microparticles can be dispersed within the manufacturing or packaging process, incorporated into 3-D-printed objects or printed into currency notes, the inventors have stated. They can withstand extreme temperatures, sun exposure and heavy wear. To authenticate bank notes to fight fraud, the particles would be incorporated in the printing ink.  They could also be mixed into the paint used by artists, again allowing for authentication. ( P.S. note: Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie should be interested in this work)

The similarity of this approach to current bar coding techniques is striking. Using the above procedure, a very large variety of unique tags can be created. With six stripes,              1 million different color combinations can be created. If more than one particle is used, there would allegedly be enough combinations to coat every grain of sand on earth(!).

“What separates our system from other anti-counterfitting technologies is this ability to rapidly and inexpensively tailor material properties to meet the needs of very different and challenging requirements, without impacting smart-phone readout or requiring  complete redesign of the system.”

The invention is further described in the April 2014 issue of Nature Materials magazine and in the Fall 2014 issue of XCurrents, a publication of MIT’s Chemical Engineering Practice School.

We have entered a new era where coding methods are really changing our life. It is now possible to shop at stores and supermarkets like Stop-and-Shop and use a smartphone to price items as we look at them and keep a running tally of the total price of all items in our shopping cart before reaching the checkout counter. Chemistry and electronics keep making an ever larger impact.

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Finally: Waking up to the folly of biofuels

imgresThe corn-based ethanol producers in Iowa and elsewhere must be throwing money at their congressmen as their industry is starting to look more and more threatened, both short term (high corn and low crude prices) and long term(Do we need corn-based gasoline when we are awash in domestic crude oil?). And we haven’t heard much about biodiesel recently, though this is more of a European issue, where diesel is a much more important car and truck fuel.

A recent story in the January 29th issue of New York Times is very timely. It points out that in almost every way, it is very clear that growing a crop on purpose for making a biofuel does not make sense versus other alternatives to generate useful energy while keeping a low carbon profile. As far as ethanol is concerned, it has always been obvious that growing corn for the purpose of making gasoline is very poor practice, given the effect on corn price, the world’s growing need for food (70 percent more required globally in 2050) and the world’s decreasing amount of arable land. It is true that oxygenates (including alcohols, including ethanol) are in fact, needed in relatively limited quantities to blend with gasoline for producing a clean combustion mixture for cars, but technology for making ethanol from crop wastes (e.g.cornstalks), switchgrass, etc has been commercialized in Europe and is now in operation at an Ineos plant in Vero Beach, Florida that uses wood waste and non-food plant wastes and makes 8 million gallons a year of ethanol while sending 6 megawatts of power to the local community.. A 25 million gallons per day cellulosic ethanol plant using crop wastes built jointly by Poet and DSM is about to start up in Des Moines, Iowa. Others are planned, though the amount of potential feedstock is limited and logistically difficult to assemble and transport to processing units versus corn, which is already collected in large silos, giving a ready-made infrastructure. In any case, cellulosic (nor corn-based) ethanol technology should be the only process receiving government subsidies under the Renewable Fuels Standard. Renewable energy costs from solar are now quite low: the article points out that solar panels are 50 times more efficient at capturing the energy of sunlight than growing corn on purpose for making biofuel(!).

Another use of biomass is also coming under criticism. An increasing amount of wood, converted into pellets, is being substituted in Europe and the U.S. for coal as part of a strategy to replace fossil fuels. Newer thinking is that it would be better to let the trees stand to capture more carbon and again rely instead on solar and wind energy to replace conventional fuels.

Fundamentally, we are talking about sunlight or wind power converted into energy. If the world were facing a dramatic decline in crude oil and natural gas production and alternative technology were not economical or practical, biofuels might be an answer (except for coal and nuclear). But is is now obvious that “peak oil” will not be reached any time soon. So we don’t need to make biofuels from perfectly good edible corn. Some of the corn-based ethanol plants could be converted to non-corn based cellulosics.  So, let’s ease off on “gasohol” and do the right thing carbon-wise!  Congress and the Administration, are you listening?

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Desalination becoming important contributor in drought-stricken California

DroughtDesalination is a technology that has been around for a long time (a classmate of mine at MIT became one of the founders of Ionics Corporation shortly after he graduated) but it has had little impact on life in the United States. There have been a couple of fairly large plants – one notably in Santa Barbara, California – but the capital and operating expense associated with desalination plants and the general availability of drinking water in this country has kept this country from installing such plants.

A different situation has led to the construction of a large number of desalination units in the Middle East, Israel and in other regions where water supply is limited.

Now comes news of a mammoth desalination plant under construction in Carlsbad, San Diego County using an Israeli firm’s technology. The decision to build this plant should come as no surprise, given the terrible drought now plaguing California(see graphic). The plant will desalinate 100 million gallons of Pacific water daily, providing 10 percent of the county’s water supply.  It will use reverse osmosis technology. which uses considerably less energy than distillation or vapor compression, though it is still a very large energy user. It will consume 35 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 30,000 homes This accounts for the fact that the plant’s product will sell for around $2000 per acre-foot, which is 80 percent more than what Carlsbad on the average pays for water from current sources.  The plant will add $5 to $7  to the average residential monthly water bill.

With California suffering $ 1.5 billion in agricultural losses in 2014, there is no question that much more desalination will be installed, regardless of its high cost. Since treating brackish or waste water with reverse osmosis costs much less, increasing amounts of currently untreated water will also be recovered in this manner.

Reverse osmosis involves using high pressure to pump a solution of brine against a semipermeable membrane that allows the water to pass through while retaining salt and other inorganic impurities behind. The Carlsbad plant will be built with 2000 fiberglass tubes that hold the membranes. A typical membrane consists of cross-linked aromatic polyamide on a polysulfone support layer. Cellulosic polymers are also used. These membrane are fairly thick, accounting for the high pressures needed to push the water through.

With desalination becoming increasingly important (16,000 plants- many small- built world wide) research to lower the cost is being stepped up. Some nanoengineering approaches in membrane design have shown promise. Graphene membranes could cut energy use substantially, but this is looking far into the future.


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New hope for Nuclear Waste disposal?

NuclearIn the U.S. there are now 70,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel at 75 locations in 33 states awaiting disposal and this volume of highly radioactive waste will swell at the rate of 2100 tons per year as existing reactors ask to have their licenses extended and a few new plants come online.

My August 12th, 2012 post, which discussed European plans to develop a long term disposal site in Northeast France, expressed concern about the Federal government’s inability to do something about this mounting problem that requires this waste to be stored at nuclear power plants rather than shipped to a permanent “safe” storage facility. Years ago, a disposal site had been identified as a buried location inside Yucca Mountain ( see graphic below) in Nevada, where any potential, eventual leakage would not, according to estimates, have caused problems  for thousands of years due to the rock formation at that site.  Yucca

Moving to Yucca Mountain was supposed to begin in 1998, though delays were starting to occur. Then, an intervention by Nevada’s senator Harry Reid, backed by President Obama resulted in cessation of plans to proceed with this solution. Now, with a Republican senate about to take control, this issue will most likely be reexamined as key advocates of the Yucca Mountain site head key  committees  for Energy & Natural Resources, Appropriations and Environment and Public Works. Some Democrats, including Senator Patty Murray of Washington State, with its huge storage of nuclear waste at Hanford, are also pushing form action. The Republican-controlled House will shortly introduce legislation to provide funding to continue NRC’s analysis of Yucca Mountain’s license application, according to an article in C&EN’s December 15th issue.

While transporting highly radioactive nuclear wastes is potentially hazardous, there is already substantial experience (3000 shipments by road and rail) for making such transports safely.  Spent fuel is encased in massive steel casks, have walls five to 15 inches thick and containing materials that shield the environment from radioactivity. NWaste Additionally, there are regulations with railroads that prevent shipments occurring at times when other hazardous materials in rail cars would encounter such nuclear waste shipments. In Europe, nuclear wastes have long been shipped from a number of plants to a processing facility in Southwest France.

Not surprisingly, there is also the threat of terrorist attacks on shipments of nuclear waste, a subject of a National Research Council study  Of course, there is a counterbalancing concern about terrorist attacks on nuclear waste stored next to power plants.. So, this remains a complicated subject requiring a number of answers to find an appropriate solution deemed safe and agreed upon.




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Likely crude oil price “bottom”: It’s a puzzle

ScanThis update to my recent post provides more background on the costs of producing crude oil from different fields in different ways and, together with the visual below, is useful in trying to assess where the “equilibrium” crude oil price might be found. That point, according to theory, would be the cost of the “marginal producer” of shale-based crude, who is not the lowest cost producer but the producer who just stays in business at the equilibrium price that meets supply and demand. Unfortunately, this is not an exact science and is complicated in this case by complex factors such as contracts, driller debt payments, etc.

These graphs were taken from an article in Vox dated December 3, 2014. Note the green colored area, which show the rapid rise of shale-based crude, whose production rose 3.6 million barrels per day between 2008 and 2014. Other land-based domestic (except Alaska) crude oil production is shown in red, which peaked in the 1970s and then declined rapidly, Alaskan production in pale blue, and offshore production in deep blue. The other graph shows various representative production costs of different sources of U.S. and Canadian crude oil.

MoreWhile this cost curve gives the impression that each bar on the graph gives a good indication of the production cost in each of the different regions, that is actually only a “typical” cost. Actually, in the Bakken field, there are thousands of wells and their production costs vary from $40 to over $ 70 per barrel, depending on the shale formation and depth, the fracking technique employed and the age of the well. So each bar represents the kind of average production cost for shale and other crudes. Not shown in the graph is offshore oil which in my October 19th post was estimated at $ 50-60 per barrel for cost plus return on investment.

All this makes it vary hard to come up with a good answer to the question that is currently plaguing investors and crude oil producers alike as they see the price continuing to drop. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no consensus on this point. Crude oil, gasoline and diesel inventories are extremely high right now and, as my previous post points out, additional crude has no place to go. Some Bakken crude is being sold at $ 30 per barrel just to move it! It does appear that corrective moves to cut drilling and cancel new investments are starting to take place. Some oil companies are considering a cut in dividends. It seems reasonable to think that crude oil price will balance out around $ 50-60.

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Crude Oil Price: Small Imbalances create major volatility

imgresMy October 19th post on crude oil pricing outlined the basics behind crude oil supply-demand pricing and pointed to a likely “floor” price around $60 per barrel, largely based on the fact that around this price the more expensive crude oil sources (deep offshore, tar sands, fracking) are no longer profitable and start to decline. It is now obvious that the analysis was off the mark as domestic crude oil is now $50 or less, yet supply keeps on coming.

A very interesting article by blogger Andy Weissman (Energy metro desk) sheds light on this issue, with lots of facts to back up his interpretation. The main reason for the dramatic and still continuing drop in crude oil prices is based on the fact that for this commodity small imbalances create major change and it takes time for classical supply-demand factors for the price to reach equilibrium. Major volatility is caused by the fact that supply sources keep pumping while demand is relatively inelastic over the short term, rather than increasing in response to lower prices at the pump.  This is nicely illustrated in the graphic for the 2008-2009 period.Crude OilIn 2008 a supply deficit of around 1MM bbls/day drove the price from $90/bbl. to almost $ 150/bbl. in 6 months! Less than a year later, the severe financial recession caused a supply glut of the same amount and crude prices plunged to $ 34/bbl!

Weissman described the “tipping point” triggering the crash in crude oil price as resulting from these developments: (a) weakening global demand, (b) Accelerating growth in U.S. production (During the last four months of 2014 production, mainly from shale, has been rising at a rate of $ 100,000 bbl./day per month, (c) Libya, Iraq and Canada recently adding production (d) U.S. refineries reaching capacity for running light crude (mostly produced from shale) and therefore no longer able to process incremental crude to gasoline and diesel destined for exports  (e) continuing ban on U.S. crude oil exports. and (e) OPEC at its recent meeting deciding not to cut member production quotas, a stratagem that traditionally was used to match supply and demand. All this means that new production literally “has no place to go”.

It is now known that producers using hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are moving nicely down the “experience curve”, reducing production costs in different ways, including much greater amounts of proppants(i.e. fracturing sand), which can increase production by as much as 30%. This technique, just starting to be widely used, in combination with working on the potentially most prolific wells, will continue to enhance monthly production rates. Major producers are now talking about breakeven costs in the range of   $ 40-45/bbl.

No doubt, crude oil price will rise again, most likely to the $ 60-70 level as a number of the factors mentioned above rebalance themselves. Since U.S. companies have no incentive to reduce production if their costs are acceptable, OPEC will have to accept lower production volumes while world demand increases with attractive gasoline and diesel prices. To restate the general premise, the laws of supply and demand will always come up with an equilibrium price. For oil and some other commodities, it just takes a little time to get there.



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Chemicals Manufacturing: New Technologies, New Thinking

FactoryConsider this quote from a high level Chinese spokesman: As supply of capital, land and other factors is on the decline and resource and environmental restriction become more serious, the proportion of first and second industries, which consume capital, land and energy heavily and pollute the environment will fall. This is non-conventional thinking, but needs to be considered.

It is instructive to look at this in the context of the unprecedented new investment in shale gas-based new ethylene plants. 10 million new tons of ethylene need to be placed at a time when U.S. ethylene derivatives production is barely rising. The new ethylene volumes can only be accommodated if major new exports are identified, much worldwide ethylene closures occur and U.S. derivatives demand increases substantially. None of these options are sure, particularly as crude oil prices come down. So, the profitability of these giant plants is in question. It seems as if the Chinese are on to something, particularly as new technology appears on the horizon. While the concepts described below may not apply to polyethylene manufacture, new investment in giant plants may be increasingly risky (given issues of land use, pollution, resource availability and cost and, last not least profitability.)  Many companies are therefore looking at new concepts such as Bayer’s “Factory of the Future” and other initiatives being carried out by Western European companies and research organizations who are developing new approaches to manufacturing, employing novel technologies and modular designs. The goal is to use “plug-and-play” technologies to increase investment flexibility and deliver faster time to market. These are now starting to be implemented across the chemical industry, with companies such as Rhodia-Solvay, Astra-Zeneca, Evonik. BASF and Proctor& Gamble providing case studies. The chemical industry was once defined as consisting of “commodity” and “specialty” chemical chemicals. Companies are now considering how the changing world and new technologies will define their future activities.

New technologies, first trumpeted widely, then considered as unlikely to see commercial success before overcoming initial obstacles, are now starting to take over important roles, with 3D printing a prime example. GraphThis interesting graph(sorry- difficult to read, but see link)  was published by respected firm Gartner to illustrate how new technologies showing promise at innovation go through a cycle of initial enthusiasm(peak), then disappointment(trough) then, for certain ones, adoption and commercial application.

As an example, if your car needs a new bumper it may take a week or more to get it from a warehouse to your body shop. Why wouldn’t it be simpler to download the design and “print” the bumper at the shop, ready to go in less than a day.

I believe we are at the start of brand new thinking in manufacturing – new techniques that started with the use of robots and are now branching out in many directions. Chemical firms will look at the many opportunities that new technologies provide for polymers and other molecules to use in the new approaches to manufacturing.





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