Distilled News Roundup for January 2024

Podcast: Distilled News Roundup January 2024

Jan. 31, 2024
A sobering look at the economy, PFAS regulations continue, blue-ringed octopus key to sustainable energy, and black-mass recycling.

Welcome to Distilled News, a Chemical Processing production where we review some of the latest articles trending on I’m your host, Jonathan Katz, executive editor of Chemical Processing magazine.

In her annual industry report for Chemical Processing published on Jan. 4, Martha Gilchrist-Moore, the chief economist for the American Chemistry Council, provided a somewhat sobering outlook for the chemical industry.

She noted that the outlook for industrial production remains weak.  The manufacturing sector, a major consumer of chemistry products, struggled throughout the year. Despite a modest 0.3% rise in U.S. industrial production in 2023, expectations for 2024 indicate flat growth. However, industrial recovery is anticipated by mid-2024, gaining momentum into 2025, Gilchrist-Moore noted.

The industry saw customers go through an unprecedented destocking cycle that began in mid-2022, which affected production volumes throughout 2023. While inventory destocking has largely been resolved, signs of significant customer inventory rebuilding have not yet materialized.

Chemical output volumes fell by 1% in 2023 compared to 2022, with a modest 1.5% gain projected for 2024. Because of the chemical industry's early position in the supply chain, a recovery in chemicals should precede a broader industrial recovery, Gilchrist-Moore wrote in her outlook.

She added that the long-term outlook for the industry is positive, driven by the U.S.’s competitive advantage in natural gas liquids feedstock and manufacturing capacity expansions spurred by legislative initiatives, including the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the CHiPS Act.

However, the pandemic and subsequent supply chain disruptions underscored the need for companies to be closer to their North American customer base, encouraging re-shoring and near-shoring of some manufacturing capacity.

Moving on to regulations, the EPA’s focus on per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or forever chemicals, shows no signs of slowing down. On. Jan. 8, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized a significant new use rule that prevents companies from starting or resuming the manufacture or processing of 329 per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances listed as inactive on the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, without an EPA review.

The EPA said this rule was necessary because, without it, manufacturers could have resumed production without a safety review, potentially risking their release into the environment. 

If a company wants to use any of these 329 chemicals, it’s required to notify the EPA at least 90 days before beginning any manufacturing (including importing) or processing of the chemical substance for a significant new use, states attorney and Chemical Processing regulatory columnist Lynn Bergeson of Bergeson LLP.

The agency would then be required to conduct a review of health and safety information under the modernized 2016 TSCA law to determine if the new use may present an unreasonable risk to human health or the environment. The EPA could then implement any necessary restrictions before use of the substance could restart.

In a column on her law firm’s website, Bergeson noted that the cost and effort to comply could be significant.

She estimates that the first tier in the EPA’s PFAS testing strategy could take six to 12 years and cost companies up to $250,000.

Tier II and tier III testing could take up to seven years and cost over $5 million.

Could the blue-ringed octopus hold the key to sustainable energy?

Chemical Processing reported on Jan. 5 that researchers at the University of California, Irvine, drew inspiration from the greater blue-ringed octopus to develop a technological platform with applications in military, medicine, robotics and sustainable energy.

The octopus can rapidly change the size and color of its skin patterns for deception, camouflage and signaling. The bio-inspired creation, detailed in a recent study in Nature Communications, features a thin film with wrinkled blue rings resembling the octopus, sandwiched between transparent proton-conducting electrodes and an acrylic membrane. 

The team used designer nonacene-like molecules, known for their long-term stability and controllable optical properties, to fabricate the colored blue ring layer. 

The researchers highlight the potential for in-silico design of other camouflage technologies based on the stimuli-responsive properties. Potential applications include light-emitting diodes and solar cells.

And finally, on Jan. 5, our resident battery guru, Barry Perlmutter, discusses “black mass” in his latest Barry on Batteries column. While black mass may sound a bit morbid, in the world of lithium-ion battery production, it’s a waste material left over at the end of the production process.  Black mass contains the cathode active material (such as lithium, nickel and cobalt), anode active material (graphite, silicon and lithium) and residual metals (copper and aluminum).

Drying the material is a critical part of the recycling process for two primary reasons, starting with safety. Perlmutter states that black mass contains solvents in the form of electrolytes that are hazardous to both operators and the plant environment. But drying black mass also allows for improved separation of the active materials in the subsequent recycling operations.

This means drying or evaporation of the electrolytes allows for materials recovery and reuse while eliminating emissions to the external environment. 

The three primary types of dryer technologies for black mass include a horizontal paddle dryer, vertical helical dryer or circular plate dryer. Perlmutter also discusses the steps involved with electrolyte solvent recovery.

Perlmutter concludes by stating that battery waste recovery is a critical step in our transition from a linear economy of battery disposal to a more sustainable electrification model. 

That’s it for this month’s edition of Distilled News.

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About the Author

Jonathan Katz | Executive Editor

Jonathan Katz, executive editor, brings nearly two decades of experience as a B2B journalist to Chemical Processing magazine. He has expertise on a wide range of industrial topics. Jon previously served as the managing editor for IndustryWeek magazine and, most recently, as a freelance writer specializing in content marketing for the manufacturing sector.

His knowledge areas include industrial safety, environmental compliance/sustainability, lean manufacturing/continuous improvement, Industry 4.0/automation and many other topics of interest to the Chemical Processing audience.

When he’s not working, Jon enjoys fishing, hiking and music, including a small but growing vinyl collection.

Jon resides in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.