Just call it alchemical engineering

Technology really can transform worthless materials into gold.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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The lead news story in this issue (p. TK) reminds me once again of the power of chemical engineering. Researchers in the U.K. are developing a process to use glycerol for making hydrogen. This would offer a pair of significant benefits — providing an outlet for glycerol, a material now with limited demand yet whose output is growing because it’s a byproduct of burgeoning biodiesel manufacturing, and enabling a renewable resource to displace natural gas as a feedstock for hydrogen.

Biodiesel certainly is attracting increasing interest (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/177.html). If growth in demand of the glycerol byproduct can’t keep pace with that of biodiesel, producers face the prospect of an ongoing glut that would force them to dispose of the surplus. Finding uses for the byproduct beyond those established, which are mainly in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, could transform glycerol from a worthless or worse material into a valuable feedstock that actually could boost the economics of biodiesel.

This has led to a number of initiatives besides the one from the University of Leeds cited in this issue. For instance, a consortium called The Glycerol Challenge, based at the University of Cardiff, Cardiff, U.K., that aims to develop processes for making intermediates and end products (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/industrynews/2007/020.html) should start operation in March. Ashland, Covington, Ky., and Cargill, Minneapolis, Minn., in mid-2007 formed a 50/50 joint venture whose initial thrust is to build a 65,000-metric-ton/year plant at an as-yet-unnamed site in Europe to convert glycerol into propylene glycol. Meanwhile, FutureFuel Chemical, Batesville, Ark., and Virent Energy Systems, Madison, Wis., are working together on glycerol-based propylene glycol as are, individually, both Dow, Midland, Mich., and Huntsman, Salt Lake City, Utah (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/099.html).

Granted these efforts don’t involve turning base metals into gold, but they do address an up-to-date alternative.

I’d be remiss not to note that this issue reflects some significant changes at Chemical Processing. Mike Spear, who served as our editor at large based in England, retired in December (see www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/226.html) after a long career in technical journalism. Replacing Mike is Seán Ottewell, another veteran of technical journalism, who is based in Ireland. Among his credentials is a long stint on the editorial staff of The Chemical Engineer, the publication of the U.K.’s Institution of Chemical Engineers, including four years as its editor. He recently wrote two stories for us — on cyber-security in September (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/152.html) and disposable equipment in November (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/185.html) — as well as this issue’s cover story on the economic outlook, p. TK2, and a column about researchers challenging the conventional view of nucleation, p. TK3. Seán will regularly write roundup stories as well as the End Point column each month.

Meanwhile, Gary Faagau takes over Energy Saver from Christopher Russell, who had been writing the column since its inception. Gary is a managing principal at I Cubed Energy Consulting in Houston. A chemical engineer, he has extensive experience in the field, including at major operating companies. As you’ll see on p. TK4, Gary provides practical plant-focused insights about trimming energy consumption.

Mark Rosenzweig
Editor in Chief

mrosenzweig@putman.net

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