The Origins Of Stuff
A new series on how we get the stuff we depend on everyday
I was reading things yesterday and I came across Doomberg and their article about “Where Stuff Comes From.” I realized that someone else out there writing a newsletter or part of a team writing a newsletter does actually get it and this makes me feel good. I realized that I spend a lot of time thinking about where stuff comes from in my actual day job and I realized I should probably be writing about it here.
So, I’ve decided to dedicate a Tuesday out of the month to writing about where the stuff we use daily comes from and how our society is completely dependent on cheap refined carbon. I think this should complement my writing about chemical industry careers and chemical product development. I often write that polymer chemistry is a foundational pillar on which our modern society is built on and I hope to expand on this concept here in “The Origins Of Stuff.”
This newsletter and the next four are sponsored by:
Biomass Is The Origin Of Our Economy (right now anyway)
In all of my writing one of the key tenets I try to return to is that polymers are important. If you don’t know what a polymer is just think of small molecules that are chemically linked together, over, and over, and over again until they form long chains which we refer to as polymers. Having a better understanding of polymers leads to a better understanding of the world.
Having a better understanding of the world hopefully makes us better humans.
If we think about some of the plastics we use daily such as polypropylene we can infer that this plastic is made of propylene. This sort of modern term is useful because it speaks directly to the makeup of the material.
Cellulose on the other hand sounds ambiguous, but it’s really just a series of glucose molecules that are bonded horizontally (beta 1,4 linkage for all you nerds out there). This sort of horizontal regularity of cellulose enables it to have structure and order and it can form different crystalline structures which lend itself to providing strength. Cellulose is the structural backbone of most plants and it’s a major component of plant cell walls.
We can also think of proteins as being polymers. There might be specific segments or blocks of regularity within a protein, but it is a polymer of different amino acids that when folded correctly serve very specific purposes. My favorite proteins are enzymes which are nature’s catalyst to do chemical transformations.
If we think about biomass in present day terms there some large volume biomacromolecules out there and the top three are:
Cellulose (beta 1,4 glucose units)
Lignin (random polymer of three different aromatic acids)
When it comes to coal I believe it is widely accepted that it is really fossilized lignin that has been buried and compressed over time. Lignite, the worst coal ever to burn, is kind of like “young coal” in that it still has a lot of non-carbon impurities and as a result burns “dirty.”
Petroleum or crude oil origins are a bit more speculative, but it seems that the majority consensus is really old biomass, perhaps from aquatic biomass such as algae or I suspect also lignin.
Right now, our modern economy is built on extracting and refining really old biomass in the form of crude petroleum and coal.
There is some coal chemistry out there based on acetylene, but for the most part its main use is to be burned to produce heat to turn water into steam and then use the steam to turn turbines. Germany is burning more of it than ever to meet its electricity needs after having shut down their nuclear power plants is a good example of the importance of coal. We can also use steam for other purposes outside of turning turbines, such as distilling crude petroleum.
We are primarily concerned with a few different carbon fractions such as C8 or the octanes. Right now having enough refining capacity to produce enough octanes (gasoline) is important to most people because higher fuel prices means less money for other stuff–like food or baby formula. For gasoline though we need a very specific type of octane, a branched octane, which we can get through “cracking” hydrocarbons. This process is known as catalytic cracking and is dependent on catalysts (like zeolites).
Superheated steam is also useful for another type of cracking, steam cracking, which as you guessed it requires steam and refined hydrocarbons to make olefins such as ethylene, propylene, butadiene, and more. We can think of olefins as having less hydrogen than their hydrocarbon counterparts and this lack of hydrogen is what enables them to form more carbon-carbon bonds.
A typical ethylene cracker will input ethane (CH3CH3) into one end and out the other end we get ethylene (CH2CH2), which can then be reacted with itself to make polyethylene. Olefins from steam cracking are essential in getting commodity chemicals. Braskem for instance has been looking at other ways to produce ethylene such as fermenting ethanol from sugar cane and then removing a molecule of water (H2O) from ethanol (CH3CH2OH) to make ethylene (CH2CH2). This means there are alternatives being developed, but this is just one molecule of many that we need to figure out and I’m not sure there is enough sugarcane in the world to do this for everything.
A Message From My Sponsor
A new product launch is always a risky bet, and ends badly in most cases.
What are the best applications to enter? What are the market needs? How to reach the right contacts within the right companies?
These are typical challenges that a large American supplier faced after having developed an innovative copolymer.
Download their case study to learn how they accelerated their product commercialization thanks to SpecialChem Insight Solutions.
Back To Our Stuff
Right now, we are completely dependent on extracting and refining oil to make stuff that is critical to climate change efforts.
If you think electric vehicles are important in the climate transition I will tell you that we still need rubber for the tires on your EV and we make rubber from petroleum. We specifically need butadiene, ethylene, and benzene to make styrene butadiene rubber (SBR). Maybe just butadiene if we are only interested in butyl rubber, but even for bicycles we need rubber for the tires.
The reason why rubber tires are so affordable is because synthetic rubber prices are (last I checked) under $2 dollars a pound. This is because of a massive petroleum extraction, refining, and cracking capacity as well as a massive amount of synthetic rubber production. Synthetic rubber plants are concerned with selling the total volume that their plant can produce for a profit. They don’t necessarily care where the rubber gets used. Perhaps the rubber goes to tires, outsoles on shoes, or to an adhesive that keeps your Christmas lights hanging for a few months. Rubber companies want their product to go out the door and not come back.
Sure, natural rubber has its uses, but it's not at the scale and capacity that we need right now and even natural rubber farmers don’t see value in farming their own rubber. Here is a somewhat informative, but misguided CNBC video that claims there is a rubber apocalypse coming. This is misguided, but it does show some of the challenges around natural rubber farming.
If we want to drop our dependence on natural gas and oil heating or reduce electricity demand for heating then better insulated buildings are an important step in using less power. Old residential buildings here on the east coast often have suboptimal insulation and no “building envelope” to protect against air loss or water intrusion. Petrochemicals and synthetic polymers play a critical role here too.
Polystyrene foam packaging might be one of the most maligned packaging materials ever, but expanded and extruded polystyrene foam are important insulation materials. Polystyrene foam insulation is a phenomenal material from a cost, water resistance, and ease of installation both indoor and outdoors. If we want to reduce our overall energy consumption We make polystyrene from ethylene and benzene which as I explained above come from the refinement and cracking of petroleum. Sure, there are other insulation technologies that are perhaps more sustainable like blown cellulose, but this only works in some instances and isn’t a “one size fits all solution.”
It’s All About Biomass
What I want to end on is that petroleum and coal are basically just decomposed biomass that we are mining because our economy was built on the refinement and use of these carbon sources. Things do not have to be this way though and biomass is still readily abundant. Through this series of posts I am seeking to show that our economy is really built on just a few commodity chemicals that we need to produce at scale and at low cost. If we can figure out a way to go from biomass to our commodity chemicals we can cut out the need to fossilize our biomass before we can use it. This might save us a few thousand to million years on feed stock replenishment.
People would have you believe that there are “two sides” to the problem of our fossilized carbon use, but I think there is only one side.