Today, most rockets are fueled by hydrazine, a toxic and hazardous chemical comprised of nitrogen and hydrogen. Those who work with it must be kitted up in protective clothing. Even so, around 12,000t of hydrazine is released into the atmosphere every year by the aerospace industry
Now, researchers are in the process of developing a greener, safer rocket fuel based on metal organic frameworks (MOFs), a porous solid material made up of clusters of metal ions joined by an organic linker molecule. Hundreds of millions of connections join in a modular structure.
Robin Rogers, formerly at McGill University, US, has worked with the US Air Force on hypergolic liquids that will burn when placed in contact with oxidisers, to try get rid of hydrazine. He teamed up with Tomislav Friščić at McGill who has developed ways to react chemicals ‘mechanochemically’ – without the use of toxic solvents.
The pair were interested in a common class of MOFs called zeolitic imidazole frameworks, or ZIFs, which show high thermal stability and are usually not thought of as energetic materials.
They discussed the potential of using ZIFs with the imidazolate linkers containing trigger groups. These trigger groups allowed them to take advantage of the usually not accessible energetic content of these MOFs.
The resulting ZIF is safe and does not explode, and it does not ignite unless placed in contact with certain oxidising materials, such as nitric acid, in this case.
Authorities continue to use hydrazine because it could cost millions of dollars to requalify new rocket fuels, says Rogers. MOF fuel would not work in current rocket engines, so he and Friščić would like to get funding or collaborate with another company to build a small prototype engine that can use it.
The UK’s efforts to move towards clean energy can be seen around the UK, whether it’s the wind turbines across the hills of the countryside or solar panels on the roofs of city skyscrapers. There is, however, a technology that most people will never see, and it is set to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in a low-carbon economy yet.
Deep in the North Sea are miles of offshore pipelines, once used to transport natural gas to the UK. The pipelines all lead to a hub called the St Fergus Gas Terminal – a gas sweetening plant used by industry – that sits on the coast of north-east Scotland.
St Fergus Gas Terminal in North-East Scotland.
This network has now been reimagined as a low-cost, full-chain carbon capture, transport and offshore storage that will provide the UK will a viable solution to permanent carbon capture and storage (CCS) called the Acorn project.
CCS is a process that takes waste CO2 produced by large-scale, usually industrial, processes and transports it to a storage facility. The site, likely to be underground, stops the waste CO2 from being released into the atmosphere, storing it for later use for another purpose, such as the production of chemicals for coatings, adhesives or jet fuel.
Carbon Capture Explained | How It Happens. Video: The New York Times
High levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have been linked to global warming and the damaging effects of climate change, and CCS is one of the only proven solutions to decarbonisation that industry can currently access.
Taking advantage of existing infrastructure means that the Acorn project is running at a much lower cost and risk to comparable projects and is expected to be up and running by 2023. It is hoped the project will bring competitiveness and job retention and creation across the UK, particularly in the industrial centres of Scotland.
Researchers have detected high levels of sunscreen chemicals in the waters of Shenzhen, China. These include beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and even tap water. In tests on zebrafish, the team showed that several of these UV ﬁlters are being transmitted through the food chain, and can have adverse effects on developing offspring.
Organic UV ﬁlters found in sunscreens, skin lotions and make-up, as well as textiles, plastics, and paints, are endocrine disruptors.
The river and rice fields to the West of Shenzhen, China. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Risk assessments for single compounds have concluded that current levels of organic UV ﬁlters pose low risk, but they don’t account for interactions of mixtures and how these interactions develop over time.
Kelvin Sze-Yin Leung’s team at Hong Kong Baptist University analysed nine common organic UV ﬁlters in surface waters of Shenzhen, a city with more than 20 popular beaches. They found seven of the nine chemicals, including benzophenone derivatives BP-3, BP-8, and BP-1, as well as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (EHMC), at public beaches, a harbour, a reservoir, and in tap water.
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Total concentrations of UV ﬁlters were relatively high at three popular public beaches – ranging from 192 to 645ngL-1 – in the summer as expected. Shenzhen Reservoir showed UV ﬁlter pollution in both seasons, while tap water was contaminated by BP-3.
If inefficient water treatment processes are to blame, then research is needed into other ways to remove these ﬁlters to protect human health, says Sze-Yin Leung.
Interested in the pharmaceutical industry and research community? Take a look at this short video to see how we bring science and business together.
The Concorde was the first commercial supersonic aircraft to have been built. Image: Wikimedia Commons
In 2011, a chance encounter under the wings of Concorde at Duxford Air Museum, Cambridge, with Trinity College Dublin Professor Johnny Coleman, would set in motion a series of events that would lead, six years later, to the development of a 20t/year graphene manufacturing plant.
As soon as we got talking, I was impressed by Johnny’s practical, non-nonsense approach to solving the scalability issue with graphene production.
Coleman is a physicist, not a chemist, and believed that the solution lay in mechanical techniques. Following the conference, Thomas Swan agreed to fund his group for four years to develop a scalable process for the manufacture of graphene.
Just a nanometer thick, graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms joined in a hexagonal lattice. Image: Pixabay
Coleman and his team initially considered sonication – when sound waves are applied to a sample to agitate its particles – but quickly ruled it out due to its lack of scalability. He then sent one of his researchers out to the shops to buy a kitchen blender. They threw together some graphite, water, and a squirt of washing-up liquid into the blender, switched it on, and went for a cup of coffee.
When they later analysed the ‘grey soup’ they had created, they found they had successfully made few-layer graphene platelets. The group then spent months optimising the technique and worked closely with Thomas Swan scientists to transfer the process back to Thomas Swan’s manufacturing HQ in Consett, Ireland.
Graphene is 300 times stronger than steel.
The plant can make up to 20t/year of high quality graphene. It uses a high sheer continuous process to exfoliate graphite flakes into few-layer graphene platelets in an aqueous dispersion.
The dispersion is stabilised by adding various surfactants before separating out the graphene using continuous cross-flow filtration devices developed with the support of the UK’s Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – a government initiative focused on fostering innovation and economic growth in specific research areas.
Using sticky tape, scientists pulled off graphene sheets from a block of graphite. Image: Pixabay
This de-risking of process development using a Catapult is a classic example of effective government intervention to support innovative SMEs. CPI not only showed us it worked, but also optimised the technique for us.
The company quickly realised that selling graphene in a powder form with no application data was not going to work. Instead, we developed a range of performance data to assist the sales team by highlighting what graphene can do if adopted into a range of applications.
The potential of graphene can be commercialised using composites. Video: The University of Manchester – The home of graphene
We also moved to make the product available in ‘industry friendly’ forms such as epoxy resin dispersions or polymer masterbatches. This move, slightly downstream from the raw material, has recently led to Thomas Swan announcing its intention to expand its range of formulated graphene materials, with a prototype product focusing on the manufacture of a carbon fibre composite.
Our application data shows that graphene has significant benefits as an industrial additive. Presenting this data to composite-using downstream customers is starting to open doors and create supply chain partnerships to get a raw material all the way to a fully integrated application.
Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of graphene. Image: Wikimedia Commons
The move downstream, to develop useable forms of graphene, is common in the industry, with most graphene suppliers now making their products available as an ink, dispersion or masterbatch. Thomas Swan’s experience with single-wall carbon nanotubes has made us aware of the need to take more control of graphene application development to ensure rapid market adoption.
Graphene applications drawing most interest include composites, conductive inks, battery materials, and resistive heating panels, although much of this demand is to satisfy commercial R&D rather than full commercial production.
Graphene science | Mikael Fogelström | TEDxGöteborg. Video: TEDx Talks
Thanks to innovations like our continuous high sheer manufacturing process, Thomas Swan believes that graphene is about to become very easy to make. Before it can be considered a commodity, however, it will also need to deliver real value in downstream applications. Therefore, the company is also increasing its efforts to understand market driven demand and application development.
As the initial hype over the ‘wonder’ material graphene starts to wane, progress is being made to develop scalable manufacturing techniques and to ensure graphene delivers some much-promised benefits to downstream applications.
Patagonia, Argentina, is the site of Vaca Muerta, a geological formation known for its oil and gas reserves. Image: Gervacio Rosales
Since taking office in late 2015, Argentinean president Mauricio Macri has prioritised investment in the energy sector to help reverse a costly energy deficit. Argentina’s abundant shale resources have attracted a growing number of major international companies, and attention has mostly been focused on the Vaca Muerta shale fields. Located in Patagonia they are one of the world’s largest reserves of shale gas.
The proposed investments revealed in YPF’s strategic plan for 2018-2022 indicate that the company intends to contribute $21.5bn directly, with the remainder coming from partnerships and associated companies.
Mauricio Macri has focused on increasing investment into Argentinian energy during his tenure as President. Image: Marcos Corrêa/PR
YPF intends to ramp up oil production and continue the development of Argentina’s huge shale resources. The company said its non-conventional production is expected to grow by 150% over the period 2018-2022, with half of its hydrocarbon production coming from shale and tight oil and gas by 2022. The lifting of shale gas output will be helped by the continued fall in development costs.
Shale gas growth will increase the availability of natural gas liquids (NGLs) for chemical production. YPF estimates that the growth in shale gas will result in a 45% increase in its supply of NGLs between 2017 and 2022. YPF indicated that it has identified opportunities to invest in petrochemicals in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Shale oil and gas is accessed though hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’. Image:
These investments would take advantage of the regional market imbalance together with shale gas growth, it said in its strategic plan, presented to investors in October 2017. ‘The region is a net petrochemical importer with room for a world scale complex,’ it added.
There is room for one or two more ethylene sites, one or two methanol sites and two or three urea sites in the region, according to YPF.
The company said it is also developing opportunities to stimulate demand for natural gas, because demand in Argentina is highly seasonal. Opportunities include power generation, exports to Chile, Uruguay and Brazil, as well as petrochemical investments.
YPF is Argentina’s largest petrochemicals producer, with a capacity of 2.2m t/year. It has three plants, located in Ensenada, Plaza Huincul and Bahía Blanca. Output includes benzene, toluene, mixed-xylene, ortho-xylene, cyclohexane, solvents, methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), 1-butene, oxo alcohols, tert-amyl methyl ether (TAME), linear alkylbenzene (LAB), linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS), polyisobutylene, maleic anhydride, methanol and urea. The Bahía Blanca site is operated by nitrogen fertiliser producer Profertil, a 50:50 joint venture with Canadian company Agrium.
Argentina’s potential for new petrochemicals investments was highlighted recently by Marcos Sabelli, president of the Latin American Petrochemical and Chemical Association (APLA).
Speaking at the Latin American Energy Organization’s Forum on Regional Energy Integration in Buenos Aires, he said development of the Vaca Muerta shale fields improves the potential for steady feedstock supplies.
‘We are proposing that we replicate the US model,’ he said. The US shale boom enabled the US to move from an importer to an exporter of petrochemicals. ‘Argentina has this potential. There is feedstock, market and companies,’ he added.
YPF said it is the largest shale operator outside North America, with a daily production exceeding 67,400 barrels of oil equivalent. The company participates in 50% of Argentina’s Vaca Muerta shale gas and oil reserves area, with more than 550 producing wells; 168 are horizontal.
The Green River Formation, Colorado, US, is one of the richest oil deposits in the world. Image: National Park Service
Conventional hydrocarbons will remain the basis of the company’s production, with the development of more than 29 projects and the drilling of more than 1600 wells, it said. YPF has three refineries, accounting for 50% of Argentina´s capacity.
The company expects its production of oil and gas to grow by 5%/year over the next five years, reaching 700,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day in 2022. Exploration efforts will continue, with reserves targeted to rise by 50%. YPF also intends to boost its electricity production, much of it through renewables, as part of efforts to become a fully integrated energy company. YPF is pledging the investments at a time when President Macri’s pro-market government is on a drive to attract investments to consolidate an economic rebound after six years of stagnation.
YPF are hoping to up its production of oil and gas as energy resources by 5% a year by 2022. Image: Pixabay
Argentina’s GDP is forecast to grow by 2.9% in 2017 and 3.2% in 2018, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The country’s shale gas boom, combined with economic growth, could make it an attractive candidate for a major new petrochemicals project.
In March 2017, the world’s largest coatings producer, Pennsylvania-based PPG – which three years ago announced it had budgeted $4bn for major acquisitions but still has nothing to show for it – laid siege to Amsterdam-based rival AkzoNobel. More recently, US hedge funds have drawn Basel-based Clariant into their sights.
While the motives of industrial investors and hedge funds differ, the tactics of forcing a company to make strategic changes that seemingly will generate more value suit both. Pursued for some time by private equity, and aware that other would-be suitors were hot on its trail, Akzo earlier in 2017 announced plans to hive off its speciality chemicals business into a standalone company. The same concerns were central to Clariant in its decision to merge with Huntsman. As it appears, neither tactic has deterred or deferred activist action.
Binnenhof, The Hague, Netherlands. The Dutch government assisted Akzo in avoiding the attempted takeover. Image: Wikimedia Commons
At Akzo, PPG wielded the battering ram into June, with even the lure of a €26bn deal making no impression. With moral support from the Dutch government, the European coatings market leader parried the thrust. Nevertheless, financial markets have it that the US rival, with support from activist investor Elliott Advisers – which owns 9.5% of the Dutch player’s share capital – will return to fight another day.
Elliott continues to stir the waters with legal challenges. It has lost two cases so far, but the tentative truce sought by the courts until Akzo holds an extraordinary general meeting in September appears shaky. Already, the defence effort has taken a toll on the Amsterdam company, which owns the assets sloughed off some years ago by erstwhile chemical industry heavyweight ICI.
Swiss chemical company Clariant, whose interests vary from transport to beauty, are also under siege from US opponents.
Down the road in Switzerland, Clariant is being pummelled by White Tale, an acquisition vehicle for US hedge funds Corvex and 40 North, which have meanwhile acquired 10% of its share capital. The funds are seeing to torpedo the merger with Huntsman, contending that the combination lacks strategic rationale and undermines the Swiss group’s strategy of becoming a pure-play specialty chemicals company.
Because of the family’s interest, the New York vulture capitalists can’t get their hands completely around the Huntsman jugular, but making the leaders of the family-led business uncomfortable about the impact on its business may generate some degree of satisfaction. The US firm has already reacted to pressure by spinning off its pigments business.
Clariant CEO Harriolf Kottmann. Image: PressReleaseFinder@Flickr
Also under obvious pressure, Clariant CEO Harriolf Kottmann, in presenting semi-annual financial results in July, announced that management was amenable to selling about a quarter of assets to appease the markets. This, he suggested, could include the divestment of the speciality chemicals group’s lower-margin Plastics & Coatings division.
The Swiss player’s largest business unit, spun off last year, which manufactures masterbatches and pigments for colouring plastics, accounts for 40% of group sales. With the proceeds from the asset sale, the investors reason, Clariant could pay a special dividend and make them more willing to stay the course without a merger.
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At least openly, no activist ‘invader’ has yet been spotted trying to overcome the well-fortified ramparts of Deutschland AG or been coldly brushed off by the Ecole Nationale-trained leaders of France’s chemical producers. However, if the raiders’ recent forays into the Netherlands and Switzerland eventually succeed and find imitators, the picture could change – especially as acquisition-hungry companies and the so-called vulture capital funds that took a wrecking ball to Dow and DuPont seem to have joined forces.
Meanwhile, there may be some relief on the horizon for CEOs currently struggling through sleepless nights. Even with deal fever still simmering, some M&A watchers believe takeovers or mergers worldwide may have reached their zenith. Not least, as global economic recovery gathers strength, rising interest rates will cool the enthusiasm for more expensive transactions, the argument goes.