Lifeline for “Clean Coal”?

images This blog has covered the long history of technologies and approaches that would allow coal-fired power plants to keep operating while the carbon dioxide in flue gases can be captured and either used or stored in some manner. The most promising of these approaches applies only to new plants that gasify the coal (rather than burn it), allowing the CO2 to be captured in an efficient manner. When such plants are built close to oil fields that can beneficially use CO2 injection as a tertiary recovery method the economics of the operation are substantially improved. The only problem is that such plants, as exemplified by the Kemper plant in Missouri, are enormously expensive (See my Jan. 2nd, 2016 post) and also have a high “parasitic” load of energy charges related to carbon dioxide recovery, that raise their operating cost substantially.

Here we segue to an interesting situation that involves an unlikely alliance, including the Kemper plant, an old “Synthetic Natural Gas” from coal plant, Democratic Senator Heidi Heitcamp from North Dakota, some Texas senators and Donald Trump. There is a current Federal tax credit of $10/ton of carbon for CO2 captured and reused for oil recovery. One of the recipients is Dakota Gasification Company, supported by DOE and built in 1984 to make synthetic natural gas from coal and now capturing CO2 (produced as a pure stream) and selling it for tertiary oil recovery.  Another project built partly with DOE financing (like Kemper) by NRG Energy Company in the Houston area at a time when crude oil was $ 100 per barrel (see my Sept. 8, 2014 post) uses amine scrubbing to capture a portion of the CO2 from a coal-fired power plant and sells it via pipeline to a depleted oil field, presumably receiving the $ 10/ton tax credit.  The owner of the Kemper plant, Senator Heitcamp,  and other congress members are now lobbying for raising the tax credit to $ 35/ton for the first 12 years of plant operation.

So now we perhaps get a glimmer about Donald Trump’s Clean Coal fixation. While I doubt that he understands the technology behind the approach, nor the economics, nor the fact that an enormous amount of Federal money has partly financed (as first-of-a kind projects) and continues to support all three of these plants with tax credits, he can say that there is a way for coal to be used and captured since real plants are doing that. There are, however, important questions whether real companies will build more plants like Kemper, which overran its initial buget by 200 percent. Even if higher tax credits are established, the investment for these plants will be prohibitively higher than for natural gas-fired power plants. Even if Trump’s DOE under new management is willing to grant massive subsidies to new coal-fired plants using gasification instead of combustion of coal, it seems doubtful that Congress – now much more conservative and negative to government subsidies- will subsidize such boondoggles (which would no longer be first-of-a kind plants worthy of government support). However, stay tuned!


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Metamaterials: A possible nano breakthrough

xxxxximages    Readers of my blog have probably recognized that I write more about energy than about chemical developments. This is not by choice, but because I have over the last year found little to write about in the chemical world. Scouring, for example, Chemical and Engineering News’ annual issue of noteworthy chemical developments, I was somewhat underwhelmed, to coin a phrase, except perhaps in the pharma field, which I don’t write about. So, it was a really interesting to read about recent advances in the nanotechnology field that didn’t just announce, as is often the case, how a nanomaterial was added to a conventional material to achieve a special effect. (My skepticism appeared in a blog post dated Feb. 22, 2014 and other posts) The field of research I describe below covers a new area termed metamaterials: nanocomposite structures made up of metals or plastics that exhibit properties “not found in nature”.

The rather complex chart shown at left confirms the fact that very light materials (think aerosol foams) have little or no strength while the opposite is true at the other end. Materials selected for their tensile or compression strength tend to be heavy. The aim of this research was to find out whether it is possible to develop light materials that have much more strength than would be expected from their weight or density. At this point, if readers are interested and have the time, they might go to their computer and look at a presentation on Youtube by Dr. Julia Greer entitled Materials by Design: Three-dimensional nano-architected metamaterials.

Research has found that conventional materials like metals, glass, ceramics, etc exhibit quite different characteristics at nanoscale. Ceramics can be made stronger and much less brittle, glass fiber can be made ductile and most materials become much stronger(although they may also become weaker). When constructed into lattices, they can exhibit great strength while being essentially composed of 99+% air. Dr. Greer shows a picture of such a microlattice “brick” balanced on top of a blooming dandelion flower(!)  Nanolattices can thus occupy a space on the chart well above that of materials in the lower left (Green) side of the diagram, with a strength 10 to 100 times that of materials with similar density. Preparation of these materials can involve technology similar to that used in 3D printers.

Commercial application of this technology may not be far away: promising areas include battery design, acoustical equipment, solar panels, medical imaging, etc. It will be interesting to see how quickly metamaterials find their way into our lives.




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Fracking Breakthrough Substantiates A Once Questionable Forecast

frackingIt was not so long ago that a petroleum industry forecaster famously said that the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of crude oil. Now, this projection may in the not so distant future become reality as the Permian Basin in West Texas is now considered to have crude oil reserves large enough to produce oil at a rate which, together with other U.S. oil production, could easily exceed the amount that the Saudis will be pumping as their own reserves decline. And much of the new U.S. oil will be produced by hydraulic fracturing,  more-permiansince continuously improving fracking technology can yield oil profitably in the $ 45-50 per barrel range. (OPEC recently agreed to reduce its members’ production so as to bring supply and demand in balance, with oil prices now stabilizing in this price range and oil from fracking provides an ever growing amount of crude oil for the world market.)


Getting a bit more granular, here are some of the reasons why fracking in the Permian basin and to some extent in other shale-rich areas is becoming more productive and less expensive: (1)  The lateral length of wells over the last three years has increases from 4000 to 7300 feet(with as many as three wells all from one rig), (2) The amount of proppand (sand) has doubled and (3) the well decline rate, which at start of shale fracking was 90 percent after the first four months, is now 18 percent(!).

Now another development: Trump’s presidency assures that fracking will increase rather than declining due to local opposition – particularly since there is very little antipathy to this technology in Texas. And Federal lands with rich shale deposits are likely to be auctioned off over the next several years.

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U.S. Chemical Balance of Trade Will Turn Positive If New Administration Changes Tax Law

imgresAs an unreconstructed cheerleader for the petrochemical industry and its massive exports, it has always been annoying to me that our balance of trade is nevertheless negative due to our similarly massive import of pharmaceuticals.pharma-imports The line with dots represents the balance of trade, as shown in the American Chemistry Council’s Guide to the Business of Chemistry 2016. Pharma imports (in blue) are at historic highs  ( most likely due to Obamacare, though we should acknowledge that millions of people are now getting the meds they could not previously afford). Note that these high imports have nothing to do with labor costs (as, China-, Mexico- and other imports from low labor cost countries do), since labor plays essentially no role in pharma production. This is, as said earlier, largely a tax issue. The ten top global pharma companies include Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline, and have annual sales totalling $ 150 billion. These firms produce a substantial percentage of their pharmaceuticals outside the U.S., send them to the U.S.  yet are allowed by our tax laws to keep much of the profits on these sales building up in countries with lower corporate income taxes.(e.g. Ireland). It has been estimated that U.S. companies as a whole have around $ 400 billion of cash stashed overseas in profits taxed at low levels in those countries. Pharma firms lead in this area.  so two questions arise: First, if these U.S. firms are allowed to moved some of this cash to the U.S. at a relatively low tax rate, the “windfall” to the U.S. government could be used to pay for badly needed infrastructure improvements. Just as importantly, lower U.S. corporate taxes would presumably induce these companies, as well as the big European firms (Roche, Novartis, Sanofi, etc) to shift more of their production to the U.S. where their biggest market exists. again

Looking at the numbers in this graphic leads one to a few tentative conclusions relative to U.S. pharma imports, which totaled 86.1 billion dollars in 2015. Firstly, China, India and Japan export a total of only $ 20 billion in pharmaceuticals to the whole world, so we know right away that the bulk of U.S. imports come from Europe. Secondly, the largest pharma exporters by far are Germany and Switzerland. Not surprisingly, the largest global companies are headquartered in the U.S., Germany and Switzerland. Germany has already decided that the best way to serve the U.S. market with Mercedes, BMW and Audi cars is to build in the U.S.  The pharma industry is, of course, quite different (think of car styles and shipping costs for cars), but it seems reasonable to believe that global pharma companies will produce more in the U.S. and that our balance of trade in chemicals/pharmaceuticals will therefore be favorably affected under the new administration.

Looking at the broader picture, electronic imports to the U.S. in 2015 amounted to $ 332 billion!.Vehicles $ 283 billion! Apple is warehousing its cash (greater than Pfizer’s) abroad. Trump is already challenging the company to move production of the iphone to the U.S. Perhaps our infrastructure problems may soon receive some help.

(Full disclosure: I voted for Hillary, but perhaps some good will nevertheless come from the other guy’s victory, assuming Congress and the pharma lobbyists can fashion a new tax approach)


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Fish drowning in plastic garbage!

kkkkkiHere is an interesting sequence from someone who has happily chronicled the amazing growth of petrochemicals over the past sixty years: (a) Dustin Hoffman learns about  “plastics” from a Dutch uncle upon graduation (b) Ethylene becomes the largest-growing petrochemical and still is because of polyethylene packaging material (c) About a third of all plastic packaging ends up in lakes and oceans. (d) By 2050 the weight of plastics in the ocean will equal that of the weight of all fish in the ocean! Is there something we can do about that?ccccBoth graphics courtesy of Chemical & Engineering News, Oct. 17, 2016 and Ellen McArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy. Rethinking the Future of Plastics

It has now become quite clear that recycling and incineration of plastic garbage has not solved the problem of disposal of (primarily plastic) packaging material of which 70% ends up in bodies of water or landfill. Municipalities have taken baby steps to reduce the use of plastic packaging, but if we want to solve or at least mitigate this problem, much more needs to be done.

Interestingly, the plastics industry is now engaged in a campaign to increase the use of plastics packaging for produce and meats, rightly pointing out that cucumbers will stay fresh much longer on grocery shelves if they wrapped in plastic and that steaks can last weeks on shelves if packaged in more sophisticated plastic packaging than currently in use. It estimates huge reductions in food waste (important, as population grows) through greater use of plastics.

Folks (as Trump likes to say), we are heading for a messy future as by 2050 plastics share of the carbon budget will grow from the current 1% to 15% and sea levels will rise remarkably. I guess the good news is that fish and plastics will have more water to swim in.

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Burning wood instead of coal?

burnwoodThis blog has frequently commented on the now controversial use of coal as a source of energy for power plants and other industrial energy uses. Since this became a “front-and-center” issue, a lot of research and plant-scale experimentation has gone into how to keep coal as a fuel, an approach termed “Clean Coal” technology. This concept has now reached the end of the road: (a)Scrubbing flue gases with alkalis such as ammonia or caustic is too expensive and/or produces sludges that are difficult to dispose of. (b)Carbon dioxide capture (e.g. in underground caverns) is  also too expensive and only makes sense when a large carbon dioxide demand (e,g, from tertiary oil recovery is nearby(see Sept 8th, 2014 post) – not the case for a most large power plants) and (c) Gasifying instead of burning the coal, which concentrates the CO2 stream has led to the construction of two hugely expensive plants in Missouri (see January 2nd, 2016 post)and Sasketchewan that, even if and when onstream at design capacity, will never be duplicated. There is also the Skyonic approach (see June 26, 2014 post) that makes sodium bicarbonate from the CO2 scrubbed from flue gases, but this technology is nor scalable, since there is limited worldwide demand for sodium bicarbonate. China, which has much greater pollution from coal than the U.S. (particulates as well as carbon dioxide) still talks about Clean Coal, but seems willing to spend the large amount of extra money to, for example, gasify coal instead of burning it.logs

Recently, we have heard that Congress will soon pass a bill that would encourage the use of wood (and other biomass) as an energy fuel that does not add to the carbon footprint. This is conceptually true. The decay of wood releases the contained carbon into the atmosphere, in a sense similar to burning it. The releases carbon is then reabsorbed as a new tree needs the carbon to grow. So, what’s wrong with this picture? Firstly, we need to restrict CO2 release now to deal with global warming, not many decades from now when the presumably (but not guaranteed) reforested trees start to absorb large mount of CO2. Secondly, to make any impact, we would have to decimate much forested land to make any appreciable impact on replacing coal with wood, leaving aside the logistical problem of getting massive amounts of wood to power plants.   It has been pointed out that switchgrass and other such waste biomass has a much shorter carbon cycle, but this again begs the question of getting this material in huge quantities to power plants.

The push for wood as an energy source comes from legislators from states with huge forests. Need I say more? But perhaps readers of this post will cheer that they are really not polluting the atmosphere when they burn wood in their fireplace, because somewhere a tree is being planted that will reabsorb all of the carbon going up their chimney.




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New Analysis on Antarctica doubles sea level rise projections


Source: Google Images

Continuing from my last post, I want to bring readers up to date on what many scientists now project for increases in global sea level rises caused by Greenhouse Gas emissions. Before getting to Antarctica, let’s look at the latest EPA projections on atmospheric CO2 levels. Starting at 400 parts per million(ppm) in 200, CO2 levels would rise to 1300ppm(!) by 2100 at current emission levels or, more likely to 600-800ppm as countries take steps to reduce carbon burning. The corresponding rises in average U.S. temperature  vary from 12 degrees F to 3 degrees, the latter figure corresponding to a dramatic future reduction in carbon emissions.

Sea level rise comes from two sources, (a) melting of Arctic, Greenland and other ice and (b) warming and consequent expansion of the sea water. Between 1870 and now, the sea level has risen about 7.5 inches. The EPA study projects levels to rise between 1 and 4 feet (depending on scenarios) by 2100. The base case shows New York City levels to rise by 2.3 feet and Galveston, Texas by 3.5 feet. Other studies give relatively comparable projections. What climate change “deniers” point out is that you have to accept these exponential (not linear) projections of the effect of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere.

A new study of Antarctican ice has come up with a hypothesis that would accelerate the melting of the huge ice sheet there. Observations of Greenland’s glaciers have shown destabilizations termed “hydrofracture” in which water formed by the melting of snow and ice on top of a glacier causes it to break up and collapse. If this were to occur in Antarctica, massive ice sheets would crash into the sea when cliffs 100 meters or more above sea level become unstable and collapse.

Over the years of Earth’s history, there were two warm eras where seas were much higher than they are now. In the Pliocene period, about 3 million years ago, the atmospheric CO2 level was about where it is right now and sea levels were about 30 feet higher(!). In the Eemian period, about 120,000 years ago,  sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher and global temperature about where it is now. Interestingly, if the entire Antarctica ice sheet were to melt, seas would rise about 50 feet.

So, these are some numbers to ponder, particularly if you live in a coastal areas and look out at the sea.




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