PSI News: Plastic From Gas and Biomass
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In this issue:
=> Feature Story: Honeywell Converts Methane to Plastic
=> Feature Story: Plastic Bottles From Biomass
=> Employee Profile: Performing Triage with Kyle Copeland
=> Highlights from the Polymer Solutions Newsblog
=> Company News and Notes
Feature Story: Honeywell Converts Methane to Plastic
by Dale McGeehon
Exclusive to Polymer Solutions News
It may not be quite like turning lead into gold, but getting plastic out of methane, rather than from ethylene, still smacks of alchemy. And it could be just as enriching for the company that came up with the process.
Honeywell has discovered a process that would allow companies to make ethylene -- the building block for plastic -- from methane, also known as natural gas, reports Thomas Black of Bloomberg. Currently, ethylene is produced from ethane, which is found alongside natural gas, but costs three times as much.
Commercial gas-to-ethylene conversion is the industry's "holy grail," making methane more versatile when it is abundant and cheap, says Gotz Veser, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking") -- blasting water mixed with sand and chemicals into shale rock formations to release gas -- is a big reason why methane is cheaper today. Natural gas closed in late April at $1.98 per million British thermal units, compared with $13.58 in July 2008.
Honeywell's technology could take advantage of the glut of natural gas by lowering the cost of products ranging from soda bottles to paint. It could also give the company a jump in its profit stream from licensing the technique to the $150 billion raw plastics industry. Veser says:
The industry has been looking for efficient ways to turn methane into higher hydrocarbons directly for decades. Nobody has been able to come up with an economical process.
The methane-to-ethylene conversion process was developed at UOP, a wholly owned subsidiary of Honeywell International, Inc. "This will basically for the first time take natural gas and directly convert it to a chemical, not through a multistage process," says UOP Chief Executive Officer Rajeev Gautam. The process works by converting methane to synthesis gas and then to methanol, which then can be turned into ethylene.
Until now, the process has been difficult because methane molecules are extremely stable. Once the breakdown does start, however, it is difficult to stop at the desired chemical, such as ethylene, before the methane molecule degrades further to low-value carbon and hydrogen gas.
UOP's process of using natural gas would save about 40% from the cost of ethane-based ethylene production at current prices: $7.16 per million Btu. Benefits would include cost-savings across the industry and give gas producers another market for methane.
Honeywell's methane conversation method won't be marketable for several years. The company is seeking partners for a pilot project.
Image courtesy of serenitbee, used under its Creative Commons license.
Feature Story: Plastic Bottles from Biomass
by Dale McGeehon
Exclusive to Polymer Solutions News
We're excited to report on another breaking development in creating plastics from low-cost inputs. Chemical engineers have discovered a way to make plastic bottles from biomass rather than from petroleum, according to a press release from the University of Delaware, whose scientists teamed up with those at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on the project. The discovery uses a renewable way to produce the chemical p-xylene, needed to make certain plastic containers.
"You can mix our renewable chemical with the petroleum-based material and the consumer would not be able to tell the difference," said Paul J. Dauenhauer, assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMass Amherst. The research was published in the journal ACS Catalysis, a publication of the American Chemical Society.
The new process uses a catalyst that transforms glucose into p-xylene in a three-step reaction within a high-temperature biomass reactor. The academics call the process a major breakthrough because other methods of producing renewable p-xylene are either expensive or produce low yields.
"Our discovery shows remarkable potential for green plastics, particularly those used to distribute soft drinks and water," said Dion Vlachos, director of the University of Delaware's Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation. "This technology could significantly reduce production costs for manufacturers of plastics from renewable sources."
Sources: "Plants Into Plastics," University of Delaware press release, April 30, 2012.
Image courtesy of Steven Depolo, used under its Creative Commons license.
Employee Profile: Performing Triage With Kyle Copeland
By Dale McGeehon
Before Kyle Copeland became an employee at Polymer Solutions Incorporated, he was a customer.
Working as a chemist for other companies, Kyle sometimes needed outside consulting on projects. Just as all roads lead to Rome, so the path to getting expert advice always seemed to lead to PSI.
In the mid-1990s, Kyle was working for a textile manufacturer, and sometimes their filtration media collected unknown contaminants that interfered with product performance. PSI became an invaluable asset in determining the nature and source of the contamination.
PSI was brought in again later when Kyle was working as a research and development chemist for a specialty polyamide manufacturer. Kyle's job was to design polyamide copolymers for very specific applications. Often, he "needed to confirm he had made the polymer he intended to make, and had done it properly." PSI was able to provide this confirmation quickly and reliably using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a method similar in operating principle to MRI medical imaging.
In multiple instances, Kyle determined that Polymer Solutions Incorporated "had an indispensable knowledge base." He later discovered that a technical position was available at the company. Because he had positive experiences there and already knew some of the employees, he took the job.
Now, after being at the company for nearly two years, Kyle, a Senior Technical Consultant, performs client "triage." He's on the frontlines, often the first contact customers have with the company.
"When a new client calls in with a new issue," he says, "I'm the first person that they talk to. I try to figure out what their problem is and what tests are needed to solve that problem."
He then puts together a test protocol and provides a price quote for the potential client. If the quote is accepted, he hands the client's problem to a project manager. From there, the scientists perform tests and report the data sets, including suggestions and conclusions, to the client. From start to finish the process usually occurs within 10 days.
As a native of Pascagoula, a coastal town in Mississippi, Kyle appreciates the mountains around Blacksburg, Virginia, where Polymer Solutions Incorporated is located.
When he's not at the office, Kyle takes advantage of the mountain roads on his motorcycle. "If you are into motorcycles, you couldn't ask for a better place to live."
Highlights from the Polymer Solutions Newsblog
The PSI Newsblog covers breaking news in the fields of plastics analysis, plastics testing, and plastics failure. Here are a few of the month's top articles:
- Egg Shells Recycled as Plastics
Scientists at University of Leicester in England are using the proteins in egg shells, called glycosaminoglycans, to create a starch-based plastic.
- Study Links Phthalates to Diabetes
High blood levels of phthalates, chemicals commonly used to soften plastics, may double the risk of type 2 diabetes in older adults, Swedish researchers report.
- Demand Grows for Conductive Polymers
The market for conductive polymers is expected to grow by almost 11% a year until 2017, reaching $1.6 billion, according to Global Industry Analysts.
- Bipolymer Microthreads Regenerate Human Tissue
American researchers are developing a system that uses microthreads to regenerate human tissue and heal wounds.
- McDonald's Is Testing Replacement Coffee Cups
With a pending ban on polystyrene containers in California and a shareholder resolution to try an alternative material, McDonald's Corp. is testing out paper coffee cups.
Company News and Notes
Jim Rancourt Inducted Into VT Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame
Jim Rancourt, Founder and CEO of Polymer Solutions Incorporated, was inducted as a founding member of the Virginia Tech Faculty Entrepreneur Hall of Fame. Jim and five other local business leaders received this recognition in honor of their contributions to excellence, innovation, and impact of university research.
Inductees were chosen out of 50 nominees by a panel of five people. For over 25 years, Jim has grown PSI through his passion for material science and his desire to help people. Comments at the induction ceremony referred to Jim as a gold medal Olympian in his field.
"Great Science" Presented to an Excited Pack of Cub Scouts
Dr. Beth Caba and Dr. Alan Sentman presented an interactive chemistry demonstration to a pack of 20 Cub Scouts recently. Great Science emphasizes the importance of safety, teaches scouts basic science principles, and lets them experience the fun and excitement of chemistry firsthand. Especially exciting was the reaction of hydrogen peroxide and potassium iodide, commonly called "Elephant Toothpaste," and seeing a flower shatter like glass after being submerged in liquid nitrogen. For such an active group of boys, it was amazing to watch them using their minds and thinking critically!
"Feeders of Faith" Build a Rubix® Cube of Cans
Jarret Wright participated in the "Can Do!" canned food sculpture competition with his team from Fieldstone Baptist Church. "Can Do!" is part of Blacksburg's annual art and wine festival called Fork & Cork. Jarret's team, Feeders of Faith, placed first in three of seven categories after building a Rubix® Cube out of vegetable and fruit cans. More than 5,000 cans of food were collected along with monetary donations for the Feeding America Southwest Virginia foodbank and the Micah's Back Pack program.
Team "Mangia Mafia" Raises $2,500 in Donations for Relay for Life
New to PSI as a Virginia Tech summer intern, Jimmy Steiner led a team called "Mangia Mafia" at the recent Virginia Tech Relay for Life. Jimmy has been team captain for two successful years now, doubling the team's donations this year with over $2500 toward cancer research. Jimmy's heart for cancer research support comes from knowing several folks in his life who have battled cancer. Well done, Jimmy!
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Polymer Solutions News is a monthly publication of Polymer Solutions Incorporated, an independent laboratory and a strategic global resource for chemical analysis, physical testing, research and development services, and litigation services. Please email us with any corrections, comments, reprint requests, suggestions for stories, requests for quotes, or other feedback.