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.




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Renewable energy keeps advancing ( A guest post )


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

Submitted by Gemma Hunt (

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,

“Energy industry is gassing down”, Wall Street Journal,

“Compare business insurance”, Quote Zone,

“How much U.S. energy consumption and electricity generation comes from renewable sources?”, US Energy Information Administration,


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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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