2020 Annual Letter

My Thoughts on 2020 and the Future

The Polymerist is a free newsletter that publishes twice a week with one in-depth article on Tuesdays and a roundup and honest analysis of what happened in the world of chemicals on Fridays. Join the subscriber list to get free updates with honest analysis from someone with a PhD in chemistry from the industry.

To the readers and supporters of The Polymerist,

I started The Polymerist for many reasons, the most important being that I am both anxious and angry. I am anxious due to the inexhaustible precarity of my job from which I derive much of my identity, all of my income, and my health insurance. The feeling of precarity does not go away when you change jobs, but rather you see the fragility of our economic system. The Polymerist is in a sense my hedged bet in the event my job ceases to exist and writing here actually allows me to focus on my job while I am at work instead of my anxiety.

I also started the Polymerist because I am angry. I am angry at the state of our world and the perception of what role the chemical industry will play in our future. Our world at times feels like it is ending. When I look at the news I see rivers drying up, wild fires raging across different continents, desertification of verdant land, the intentional cutting and burning of forests, and many of us commute by car anywhere between 1-2 hours a day to get to jobs that are precarious. All of these things make me want to live off grid in rural Maine, but I realize that this is akin to sticking my head in the sand and wishing things got better.

Global warming is the slow encroaching doom that we can all see, discuss, but may feel helpless to combat because change needs to happen at scale. I am angry that the most talented individuals often go to the highest bidders and work on things that make rich people richer or trying to figure out how to make people spend more time on platforms so they can be pushed advertising to buy stuff. I do not blame individuals choosing the higher salary over the benefit of society, but if the richest stakeholders in the world feel that their capital is best incentivized in hiring talent to make them more money then we are in trouble.

If we as a society want to be serious about combating climate change we need our best and brightest to work on really challenging problems and we need patient capital to fund both new and existing companies on combating these challenges. Some of the most pressing challenges where chemistry will play a pivotal role are the following:

  1. Reducing Cement CO2 Emissions (~8% of global CO2)

  2. Energy Storage Technology (~24% of global CO2 emissions)

  3. Lightweight Materials

  4. Developing a Circular Economy

  5. Renewable Energy (~49% of global CO2 emissions comes from generation of power such as electricity and super heated steam)

  6. Making Buildings More Energy Efficient (~11% of global CO2 via production and 28% in operation)

  7. Access to Fresh Water

  8. Finding Alternatives to the Haber-Bosch Process (~3% of global CO2)

  9. Stopping Infectious Diseases

The percentages of CO2 emissions above are really just to put in perspective the magnitude of how some of these processes contribute to global warming. Some of the challenges above overlap such as generation of electricity and operation of buildings. Solving for one challenge would help alleviate some of the other challenges and in a sense we have to build our ladder as we climb it. These problems may seem insurmountable, but I think they are all within our grasp from a technological standpoint either in the technology is available or we can develop the technology.

100 years ago the world didn’t know how to insulate electrical wires, but in the 1930s chemists invented polyethylene and since then we are able to coat wires to carry electricity and communications that spanned the length of the Atlantic ocean, throughout buildings, and across continents. The problems of 100 years ago seem trite now and my view is that the problems of today will seem trite 100 years from now too.

The Age of Modern Chemistry

Technology companies now are what chemical and materials companies were in the 1930s. In the 20th century chemical and oil companies around the 1930s-1960s had immense power and were to discover new technologies for relatively small investments into basic research, which gave us synthetic rubber, plastics, production of high purity gasoline, synthesis of pharmaceuticals, engineered wood, refrigerants, new sterilization techniques, and silicon semiconductors to name a few. Research from AT&T’s Bell Labs, IG Farben, Kodak, Union Carbide, and DuPont were able to produce astounding technical innovations by spending a few percentage of total gross revenues. The fundamental concept that drove much of the innovation of the 20th century to commercial success was based on the idea of scaling. Chemical reactions that can occur in the lab in the volume of a pint or quart can be replicated at the 10,000 or 30,000 gallon scale. Chemical engineers figured out how to make continuous reactors so that overall volumes are small, but continuous operation could yeild massive volumes of finished product. With these fundamentally new materials produced through chemical innovations we are now able to build computers and networking these computers gave us the internet. We built a ladder as we climbed it without a thought as to where we wanted to go.

The technology companies today I believe will follow the trajectory of chemical companies in the first half of the 20th century. Within the next 10 years I believe that the majority of the big technology companies will be broken up much in the way that IG Farben was after World War II and AT&T in 1982. The potential dispersion and focus on bringing new products to market in these smaller technology companies will accelerate the solving of some of our biggest problems. I also believe that technology companies will come under increased regulatory burdens much in the same way that the chemical industry came under environmental regulations. Chemical companies were essentially allowed to pump whatever they wanted into the air and dump whatever they wanted into the waterways. Technology companies now essentially operate with similar unfettered freedoms, but as concerns about privacy, use of data, and influence and power grow they will likely fall under similar regulations as the chemical industry.

The enactment of regulations to protect the interests of the broader commonwealth of human society on Earth is a good thing and should be welcomed by private and public companies. Regulations provide clear rules that protect both people and companies from causing excessive harm to each other and ultimately themselves. If we did not institute the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act I believe that human life expectancy would have peaked over fifty years ago in the United States. Technology’s own reckoning with regulation will make the internet and human interaction with it better. By “better” I mean democratic elections will be more secure, there will be vaccines against the virus of false information, and we will not be afraid to let our children have social network accounts.

The speed in which information can be shared and now potentially understood and learned by artificial intelligence and machine learning could be the steps towards solving some of the most important and complex problems of the 21st Century. Alpha Fold has figured out how proteins fold, a problem that I listened to hours of lectures about in graduate school from scientists trying to understand how proteins folded and how to increase protein and enzyme stability. Alpha Fold could give us a pathway to making industrial chemistry be less energy intensive, a better understanding of how to cure diseases, and routes to fermenting drugs that are too complex to synthesize. Imagine if we aligned our best and brightest armed with artificial intelligence and machine learned and backed by patient capital and shareholders at solving our most difficult technical challenges.

My goals in the coming year will be to write about what I consider to be the most important problems to solve in my lifetime and about how the chemical industry is trying to address them and how the chemical industry could be better. In talking to much of my audience I also hear that understanding career opportunities and finding new opportunities is important because what is the point of getting a degree in chemistry or chemical engineering if you cannot get a job in the industry? I will also put together some frameworks about what I think the modern chemist and chemical engineer will need to be successful in the next few decades.

I will also be searching for collaborations to increase my own knowledge and make this experience of a newsletter better for my audience. In the meantime all I ask of you is to share, give me feedback, and subscribe.

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Tony

The views here are my own and do not reflect those of my employer and should not be considered investment advice.