Why so close? Chemical plants and oil refineries, and water.

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Chemicals, oil, and water are linked eternally in a faustian bargain. In order to produce most chemicals, and all petroleum products, it is necessary to have access to immense quantities of water. Thus, the infrastructure for these industries is found in the low-lying areas alongside of rivers, and within the inlets and bays along the coastline of the oceans. When the inevitable floods happen, the potential for releases of chemicals and oil, and even explosions as seen in Crosby Texas this week can and will occur.

Why is there this dependence on huge quantities of water? In order to make many chemical reactions occur, it is necessary to provide heat. That heat normally comes in the form of steam. Steam is also used to enable separations of chemicals through distillation. The tall columns seen in chemical plants and refineries are usually distillation towers, where products and wastes are drawn off at various levels in the towers. These products must then be condensed, and they are condensed in heat exchangers with water being used to cause the vapors to condense. The chemicals and the water don’t mix in these condensers, since they are found on opposite sides of the heat exchangers. But immense quantities of water are used in heat exchangers, and the water is thus warmed, reducing its effectiveness in condensing and cooling chemicals.

The water used in heat exchangers and condensers may only be used once. This is single-use water and it is necessary to have a large volume of water nearby in order to release the warmed water without adverse ecological impact. If the water is reused, then it is necessary to cool the water back down in order to use it again. This is done in cooling towers, and you normally will see the plumes of water vapor coming up from these large structures, where water is cooled through evaporation as it drips on down through the wooden framework of a cooling tower. Cooling towers increase the concentration of salts in the water, since a portion of the water is lost to evaporation and may have many cycles through the cooling tower before being discarded to a body of water.

Since it takes lots of energy to move large quantities of water, and lots of money to run long lengths of piping, most chemical plants are found just adjacent to the water. They are sited so that they are above the normal flooding levels, but when unprecedented flooding happens like with Harvey, they are supremely vulnerable to damage from water. In my career in the chemical industry, I worked at two plants (in Tennessee and in West Virginia) that were situated along rivers. The plant in Tennessee did have problems long after I left when flooding from the Mississippi caused backwater flooding that buried part of the plant, which was situated on a smaller feeder stream. Fortunately, it didn’t cause the release of chemicals, and was not a large problem, but it highlights how close proximity to water comes with its own set of risks.

I have been to plants in Texas that were totally inundated from the floods this week. One along the end of the Houston Ship channel, that immense concentration of oil and chemical plants along Texas 225. The other was in Beaumont, situated right next to the marshlands leading to the Gulf of Mexico. The facilities at these plants are designed to be safe and to be able to be shut down without causing chemical releases. But. There are limits to what you can do and still be safe. When you have feet of floodwaters covering a site, then the power of the water can do things that cannot be controlled. Water can erode pipe supports, and the dangling piping will bend and break, releasing the contents of the lines. Floodwaters can shove vehicles and boats into pumps and piping, causing them to break. Even in the normal process of shutting down facilities, excess venting and flaring of flammable and toxic compounds can happen, which can cause irritation and concern among the neighbors of these facilities.

Just as there is a faustian bargain between these facilities and water, there is another relationship that comes into play. That is the relationship between the workers and their families, and their proximity to the plant. Very often the workers for these facilities are found in the neighborhoods surrounding the plants. Entire generations of workers have grown up nearly in the shadow of the towers of refineries and chemical plants. This is especially true in the region around the Houston Ship Channel. The towns of La Porte, Pasadena, Deer Park, and Baytown have a symbiotic relationship with their industrial behemoths. Only a single road separates the residential areas from the properties of the oil and chemical companies. Quite literally, the companies and the towns are all in the same boat at times like now.

The plant that had the explosions this week was a different type of chemical plant. This plant was not adjacent to a large body of water. What it manufactured was a chemical that is essential in the manufacture of plastics, but by its own nature, it was extremely unstable. In my chemical plant in West Virginia, we also manufactured a similar material. These materials are known as polymerization initiators, and they make it possible for chemicals like ethylene (two carbons bound by double bonds) to react with each other, and form long chains that we know as plastics (polyethylene). The materials we produced in West Virginia also have to be kept refrigerated or they will grow unstable and catch fire. Part of the lore of the plant involved the time when the manufacturing line for this material had a problem, and the temperature rose to the point where the chemical decomposed and ignited. That fire was remembered long after everyone who worked during the fire had left the plant. What made the situation in Texas worse, was that the organic peroxides they made are not only flammable but are explosive when they decompose.

Part of the manufacturing process for chemical plants involves process hazards reviews. In these reviews, the participants go through a systematic review of the inherent hazards of the process and facilities, and determine if there were adequate safeguards to prevent incidents and injuries. Sometimes a significant hazard is discovered, one that had not been previously considered, and then the management of the plant faces the task of getting the fix done to remove the hazard. Since it takes time to implement new facilities (and get the authorization to spend the money to build facilities), normally there are administrative controls that are put in place to temporarily mitigate the risks. But even though I participated in many process hazards reviews in my career, I do not remember ever having considered the case of having my plant submerged in multiple feet of floodwater, and having no way to get anything working for days at a time. I imagine that the chemical and refining industries will have to go through substantial work trying to come up with new safeguards that will prevent releases and explosions such as are being seen in Texas now.

Nuclear Energy Doesn’t Have To Be Scary

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Quick – can someone tell me what potential source of energy could single-handedly provide all of the energy requirements of the US for the next 1000 years? And at the same time, foster independence in rare earth materials that are mainly sourced from China? And would not generate carbon dioxide as it is consumed?

No, it’s not coal. Coal can provide a significant portion of energy needs, and coal ash is a prospective source of rare earth metals that may be harvested, but it creates a huge amount of CO2 and has other detrimental effects, like the mountain top removal that is a blight in my home state of West Virginia. (Point of personal perspective – over 40 years ago, I had a part-time job as a chemist for a concrete company. There was a new coal fired power plant coming on line in Nebraska, and the concrete company was considering using coal ash as an extender for cement in making concrete. I performed wet chemical analysis of fly ash, going through most of the metals by reacting with reagents, then precipitating out various compounds and evaporating them to dryness in platinum crucibles. The reaction stream went all the way to sodium, which had to be precipitated with some uranium salt. I had fun doing that work, but the one thing I remember is that if you hit a fly with a stream of acetone used to dry dishware, you would cause the fly to drop out of the air instantly, and a dehydrated fly husk would be all that was left behind.)

Give up on the original question? It’s thorium, the radioactive material that has a 14 billion year half life. Thorium, along with uranium, was looked at by the US government when nuclear power and nuclear weaponry were uppermost in the minds of the government. But one factor weighing against thorium, turns out to be now a very beneficial factor. See, it is nigh unto impossible to obtain any nuclear weapon grade material out of the thorium fission reaction process. Uranium reactors will create plutonium as one of the natural byproducts of fission. If U238 (the most common uranium isotope in reactor fuel) absorbs a neutron, it becomes an extremely unstable isotope U239, which eventually transmutes into a plutonium isotope. Since U238 is the primary isotope in a pressurized water reactor, the spent fuel rods from a reactor will always contain plutonium. That is one reason why fuel rod security is required, since plutonium can be chemically separated from the toxic mix of radioactive stew found in a fuel rod.

Thorium, though, does not create plutonium. It does create the uranium isotope U233  which is the active fuel for a thorium reactor.  It also creates small quantities of another uranium isotope U232 which acts as a poison against creating a fission bomb out of U233 . So the issues of nuclear weapon proliferation by segregating out fissile material from thorium fuel are not of concern.

(Paragraph of translation. If you understand the concepts of isotopes, please skip over this paragraph.  Now, the last paragraph used a bit of physics jargon that is necessary to understand this post. I mentioned Uranium 232 (U232)  and Uranium 233 (U233).   Both of those refer to the element uranium, which has 92 protons. Where they differ is in the number of neutrons. Uranium 233 has one more neutron than does uranium 233. An element may have many different numbers of neutrons, and that is especially true in the heaviest (by atomic number) elements. These different isotopes have remarkably different characteristics, especially when dealing with nuclear reactions. This is important in the discussion below.

In order to appreciate the difference between a thorium reactor, and the current pressurized water reactors (PWR) using uranium, it is necessary to discuss PWR’s. The current nuclear power industry takes fuel rods and inserts them into the core of the reactor. A reactor contains control rods of neutron-absorbing materials. These control rods are raised and lowered in order to moderate the nuclear fission occurring in the fuel rods. If the control rods were raised totally out of the core, the fuel rods would not be able to hold the runaway nuclear reaction that would ensue. The zirconium cladding of the fuel rods would melt, and the contents of the fuel rods would pool at the bottom of the reactor. This event would not be good, putting it mildly.

When a PWR works properly, it heats water which is kept pressurized in the primary coolant loop. The water is circulated into a steam generator, where the steam is created which runs the electrical generators. Fuel rods in a PWR have a limited lifespan, and once they are no longer useful to generate electricity, these rods must be pulled out and stored in water to handle the immediate heat generated from nuclear reactions still continuing in the fuel rods. In some cases, the rods are held in water pools for 10-20 years. Then the rods must be kept secure and eventually stored somewhere where they will be able to stay segregated from the environment for geologically significant periods of time (hundreds of thousands of years). It is only after that much time has gone by before the spent fuel rods no longer pose a threat to health.

So, with uranium as the source fuel, you can generate enormous amounts of energy without CO2 generation, but with huge potential issues. You have extremely complex systems operating at incredible pressures and temperatures that must keep operating in order to prevent a runaway reaction. Then, if all works right, you have to take the fuel rods out after only a few percent of the potential energy is released, since the fission byproducts work to poison the reaction long before all of the uranium has fissioned.  And then you must isolate the fuel rods for hundreds of thousands of years, or else there is a risk of radioactive contamination of the environment. No wonder nuclear power is viewed with disfavor.

Thorium would be significantly different, though. Thorium reactors can use a molten salt as the liquid that would carry the thorium, the U233, and all fission products coming from the nuclear reactions. This means that the operating pressures of the system are far lower than in a PWR, reducing the potential for leakage or cracking of the containment system. And if the liquid salt does leak out, what would happen? It would freeze in place. Indeed, the possibility of a reactor core meltdown disappears with a thorium-fueled reactor.

It is essential to separate out the fission products and radioactive isotopes generated in this type of reactor. This can be done by taking a small side stream of the circulating salt solution, and using standard chemical separation techniques to return the unburned U233 to the salt solution. Other radioactive isotopes can be removed using this method. Because the fuel can be recycled indefinitely until it is burned, the remaining daughter fission products (the lighter elements remaining from a uranium nucleus that has fissioned) have a much shorter half life. Instead of hundreds of thousands of years for spent fuel rods to become harmless, it will only take a couple of hundred years for the fission byproducts from thorium to decay to a harmless state.

One thing that thorium has going for it is 4 times more plentiful in the earth’s crust than uranium. And it’s primary ore is one that includes rare earth metals and phosphate. So a commercial mining operation aimed at recovering thorium will also produce rare earth metals, and phosphate for fertilizer. All of these materials are essential for our modern economy.

Granted, any process involving radioactive materials has risks, and even though a thorium-fueled liquid salt reactor is simpler than a PWR, there are many challenges concerning the commercialization of this technology. But if we as a society are concerned with trying to develop energy sources that do not produce CO2 , and can serve as baseload power generators, certainly thorium reactors are a technology that should actively be researched. To think, we may have had the answer to our energy dilemmas in hand over 60 years ago, only to throw it away since thorium doesn’t lend itself to making good bombs (an oxymoron of the first degree).  Let’s try to rectify humanity’s mistake and work to investigate and commercialize this amazing resource we have been given from our earth.

Pay Me Now, or Pay Me Later! Guess What? It’s Now Later!

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Want to cut down on the size and ineffectiveness of the Federal government? If so, then you will need to shell out significant dollars to replace the decades-old IT systems that the government uses for many of its programs. And you will need to rework many of the procurement practices and political machinations that have hamstrung efforts to update IT systems in the past.

It is not a secret that the IRS is at the rear of the organizations that are updating their IT systems. Two of the main systems for the IRS are IT antiques dating back over 50 years ago, running on IBM mainframes, with programming that is written in assembly language code. There have been requests to modernize the systems involved, but since the IRS is viewed as anathema to the Republicans dominating Congress, the trend over the past decade has been to cut IRS spending, not upgrade the systems. I actually remember IBM mainframes – the IBM 360 was the workhorse of the university computing systems at our school. The fact that essential government functions still run on a similar system now should bring shame to any who care about efficient government services. Indeed, it appears that up to $60 billion per year across the Federal government is being spent trying to nursemaid these antiquated systems through yet another day.

Not only does the government incur substantial costs for keeping these antiques running, it cannot achieve the efficiencies in service delivery that are possible if we use modern computer systems. I worked for over 20 years for my company installing and upgrading our business enterprise software. Our system was SAP, and in the early 1990’s I began work at a chemical plant implementing the mainframe version of this system. Beginning in 1999, I worked full time on SAP implementation for our department, and I understand the complexity involved in uprooting existing systems and implementing brand new business processes. The period immediately before and after go-live was always traumatic and stressful. But it is only after going through these efforts that it is possible to reap the benefits of improved IT. The increase in direct IT support costs is greatly outweighed by the reductions in support staff at the plants and in central offices. Not only are overall costs lowered, but the information that comes from such a system is up to date and accurate. When I began working at a plant, it took a clerk in each process in a plant multiple days to assemble the information needed for monthly cost reporting. These reports were circulated in a preliminary form among the management of the process, and eventually they were issued. Then the plant accountant would assemble all of the overhead cost sheets, and the allocated costs would be figured. All of this meant that cost information was never current, always subject to significant revisions, and provided only a snapshot once a month.

By the time I retired in 2015, cost data was available instantaneously for all products, including labor costing and allocated overheads. The manpower was greatly reduced at a site, the information was better, and managers could focus on factors within their control instead of trying to manipulate the reports to put their operations in a better light.

The Federal government cannot achieve the efficiencies that private industry has achieved, because the impetus to upgrade IT systems has not been sufficient to enable the departments to get the funds to implement the upgrades. In fact, lately this effort has gone in the opposite direction. According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), Operations & Maintenance spending on IT systems has been rising year by year since 2012, while spending for modernization and development has declined. From fiscal years 2010 to 2017, such spending has decreased by $7.3 billion.

Even when funds are appropriated for upgrades, current procurement practices preclude efficient implementation. I am aware of an effort to implement a portion of business enterprise software for the army. Supposedly the contract for this project was approved in late 2016. However, due to the nature of government procurement, a competitor who was unsuccessful in the bidding process appealed the awarding of the contract. It has been six months, and there has not been any update on the resolution of the situation. Meanwhile, those employees who would have been assigned to the project are awaiting actual productive work at the government contractor. Such delays lead to projects running behind schedule and much above budget.

One reason why the funding has decreased for modernizing IT systems has been the sequester process for budgeting. With funding for discretionary spending flattened by decree, it has been increasingly difficult to gain support for funding for IT improvements. But for fiscal conservatives, it should be a primary goal to ensure that if the government must spend tax dollars, they should do it in a cost-effective manner, and in such a way that overall government employees could be reduced. Unfortunately, this approach has not reached the top 10 list of the Grover Norquist acolytes who view any increase in expenditure from a government agency as sacrilege.

Since the current administration is full of folks with business experience, maybe these types of modernization efforts may finally gain traction. This is one area where I do find agreement with the priorities of the Trump administration. This past week’s gathering of tech business executives with the administration did discuss IT modernization. My fear is that in this administration’s pogrom against discretionary spending, once more we will fall further behind the IT curve. Future archeologists will excavate data centers complete with mainframes and tape drives intact, and will marvel that these relics maintained their usefulness long after they had been abandoned by the world of business.