Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Dirty Effing Hippies and the Petrochemical Industry

An interesting presentation from National Renewable Energy Laboratory gives the dope on converting what I will loosely call 'the organic chemistry industry' from petrochemical to cellulose-based feedstocks.  All the recent concern about peak oil is focused on alternative sources of energy; but there is a lot more at stake.  We depend upon petrochemicals for an enormous array of other products, including plastics, solvents, lubricants, and God knows what all else, that are so much a part of our modern industrial infrastructure that we take them altogether for granted.  Any crisis is petroleum is also a crisis in non-fuel petrochemicals.

The presentation from NREL is good stuff, but why have people waited so long?  Back in the late 1960's, troglodyte hippy chemistry majors were getting high and riffing about the end of the petroleum era, and the need to convert to cellulose as a feedstock.  (I know; I was there.)

By the way, we also had a curious little model for the second law of thermodynamics (increase of entropy.)  One was to imagine a huge projection screen, showing the entire earth.  The motions of all the atoms comprising the body of any individual in the room were imagined to be illuminated on an otherwise dark background, and to have their motions projected on the screen, with 500 years time -- centered on the year in which the chosen individual was born -- passing in about 30 seconds -- that is, a very accelerated view.  What would it look like? A confused mass of meandering dots suddenly coalescing into a bright blob, which would stay intact for a moment or two, before reverting to a confused mass of meandering dots.

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