Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The fine chemicals industry and petroleum: married for the foreseeable future

Not enough attention has been paid to Dr. Freddy's post on the relationship between organic chemistry and oil:
Oil dependence is bad, no point in arguing against that. Except from a number of Gulf States and Norway, and a bunch of well-paid lobbyists in DC, I suppose we are all on the same page here. Propellants for vehicles based on 200 million year old dinos is not good long-term, and the resources cannot be infinite. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are alarmingly high, but I do not wish this to be another climate change post. Forget about that aspect for a while. 
Think about the chemical we lab chemists use on a daily basis. First then solvents, of course. Then all the reagents. Are not almost all of them more or less derived from oil? The good old question: Where do all chemicals come from? 
Does anybody have a number on for example the percentage on all organic reagents in the Sigma-Aldrich catalog that were once crude oil. Is it 90 %? More? 
If organic chemistry and the oil industry were married on Facebook, I guess the time is ripe to announce an “It’s complicated.” 
I am full of questions. What do you know?
In the comments, chemblogo/Tweetosphere stalwarts John Spevacek and BranVanChemist mention that 1) it's the price of oil that determines the relationship between fine chemicals and petrochemicals and 2) the strong relationship between the two fields.

I confess that I'm really in John's camp on this one: economics will determine what kind of chemistry we tend to rely on. As long as black stuff from the ground is cheap enough (and we have the infrastructure to keep it cheap, including the 19-year-old E-2 on a destroyer sailing in the Persian Gulf), we'll continue to use it. I don't doubt that there is a raft of chemistry that would suddenly become a lot more attractive if the price of oil were to be artificially raised (i.e. a carbon tax?) Petroleum is incredibly useful stuff -- turning it into carbon dioxide in order to power internal combustion engines (instead of, say, saving the stuff for plastics and hexanes for chromatography columns) seems to be a little short-sighted, if your time horizon stretches for millenia.

Finally, to answer Dr. Freddy's question, I think there's too much nitrogen in the Sigma-Aldrich catalog for it all to have come from West Texas Intermediate. 70%? 

12 comments:

  1. Maybe Dr. Freddy would like to propose a viable alternative, since he considers himself 20 IQ points smarter than most industrial chemists.

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    1. What?? I never said anything like that. I said people in academia are smarter than in industry. Having had one foot in each camp for over a decade, I feel entitled to say so. To the best of my knowledge, I've never ever disclosed my own IQ, neither see do I see a point in doing so. Back to the topic, please.

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    2. Furthermore, Bender, if you'd devoted 10 seconds of your precious time to Google me, you'd have found out that I'm very much in the industry now, being the CEO of a small chemical company. End of discussion.

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    3. You're right, I misconstrued your statements. I apologize for derailing the conversation.

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  2. Before there was oil, there was coal. Hydrogenating coal can yield lots of hydrocarbons. There is so much coal in the world from 400 million year old dead forests that the world would suffer from no hydrocarbon shortages for thousands of years if we chose to use coal rather than oil as our source material. Technically there is no reason we can not use all our methane from fracking for hydrogenating coal.

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  3. That's why we need more work on turning CO2 into liquid hydrocarbons. If you reduce CO2 to CO, and then do Fischer-Tropsch chemistry, you can get a lot of hydrocarbons.

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    1. Think you need to attend Thermodynamics 101, Sir.

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    2. Depends where you get the energy from - it'll always cost you more energy to convert CO2 to fuel than you got burning the fuel, but if the energy source costs less CO2 to use (or none at all) than it reconverts, then you can get ahead on CO2. Also, liquid fuels are useful for transportation because of their portability and energy density, so something that converts CO2 (which could be generated from lots of sources) to transport fuel might be useful if you can get the product cheaply enough.

      Morrison and Boyd talked about saving oil for chemicals - since oil's (and coal, though there's lots of it) nonrenewable, if you use it all on things you could do with other energy sources or feedstocks, and you can't get your things another way, you're stuck. Nuclear fuels aren't renewable (mostly - we haven't wanted breeders, I thought for nonproliferation reasons) but there's not much else to do with them other than make energy (or bombs).

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    3. Its actually fairly trivial to do, just a matter of money. You can turn CO2 back into oil for on the order of $10/gallon with today's technology, either electrochemical reduction or classic reverse water-gas shift.

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  4. OT: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/books/tom-clancy-best-selling-novelist-of-military-thrillers-dies-at-66.html?hp&_r=0

    I wonder if he has any unpublished manuscripts of his own (not from the cottage industry) to put out. At least we got what we got.

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  5. Quoting from the following website: http://solarcellcentral.com/solar_page.html

    "The total solar energy absorbed by Earth's atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850,000 exajoules (EJ) per year. The earth's energy use by mankind is approximately 500 exajoules per year. This is about 0.01% of the total yearly energy coming from the sun."

    My guess is once you figure out how to capture enough solar energy such that its cost is significantly cheaper than that of oil/coal/natural gas/nuclear/other, you can start doing all sorts of chemical processes to generate feedstock chemicals that you can't/won't do now because they are just too energy (i.e. cost) intensive.

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    1. I read somewhere (can't find link now) that if you'd cover the Nevada desert with today's mediocre solar cells,you'd have enough energy for the whole planet. Electricity is difficult to store and transport, though. But I think it can be done with a little more R&D..What can't be done is deleting the oil lobby, who have infinite resources to continue assuring decision makers oil is the shit.

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