Chemistry in postage stamps

 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.

Happy New Year!

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Manuscript sent to publisher


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.


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Guess What? I have been writing a book.

Over the past year, I have been busy writing about the petrochemical industry again. It is a book almost finished called:

Primed For Success: Scientific Design Company

sbhd.  How Chemical Engineers created the Petrochemical Industry


The book will be published early next year.


Thought you would be interested.


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All good things……

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.



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Update on Chemical Companies: Celanese excels

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.

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Will Trump retrain coal miners in Appalachia?

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”.

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Global Warming Consequences: Part of our “Trump Watch”

house-on-stiltsA 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?


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