Green chemistry?

January 20, 2011

Scouring my university’s online alumni networking site, I’ve come across several names of people involved, not with alternative energy, but with green chemistry. Typically this involves developing biologically-derived replacements for petroleum derivatives. However, it’s been used to describe any process developments that circumvent the use of hazardous materials; one commonly-cited example is the use of supercritical carbon dioxide or water to replace traditional organic solvents. Here are the 12 principles of green chemistry, according to the EPA:

Prevention: It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created.

Atom Economy: Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product.

Less Hazardous Chemical Syntheses: Wherever practicable, synthetic methods should be designed to use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to human health and the environment.

Designing Safer Chemicals: Chemical products should be designed to effect their desired function while minimizing their toxicity.

Safer Solvents and Auxiliaries: The use of auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents, separation agents, etc.) should be made unnecessary wherever possible and innocuous when used.

Design for Energy Efficiency: Energy requirements of chemical processes should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. If possible, synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.

Use of Renewable Feedstocks: A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable.

Reduce Derivatives: Unnecessary derivatization (use of blocking groups, protection/ deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes) should be minimized or avoided if possible, because such steps require additional reagents and can generate waste.

Catalysis: Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents.

Design for Degradation: Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment.

Real-time analysis for Pollution Prevention: Analytical methodologies need to be further developed to allow for real-time, in-process monitoring and control prior to the formation of hazardous substances.

Inherently Safer Chemistry for Accident Prevention: Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.

Green chemistry doesn’t quite excite me the way alternative energy does, although I don’t question its importance. Anyway, tonight I sent an email to an alumnus who works for Khosla Ventures, a major venture capital firm that invests heavily in cleantech. He immediately forwarded my resume on to one of his portfolio companies, Draths. Draths is working on developing biological alternatives to the benzene supply chain, which includes nylon and resins. As it happens, they’re based in my hometown.


January 14, 2011

Fourth B: Beijing?

The three Bs

January 14, 2011

I got an email a couple of days ago from a prospective employer in South San Francisco saying that, while my resume was fine, I didn’t get the job because I am in Michigan. A candidate from the area, either UC Davis or UC Berkeley, had been chosen and was able to start the very next day.

He advised that I move out to the SF Bay, Boston, or Denver to start connecting with people in the field.

I had been aware of several companies in both Colorado and northern California, and had started to see a few in Massachusetts. Yesterday I spoke with a fellow UM alum who spent some time working for a biofuel company in Colorado. I mentioned what I had heard about those three areas, and he immediately said, “Yep. The three B’s: Boston, Boulder, Berkeley. That’s where it’s all happening.”

I do believe that there’s a budding green jobs movement in Michigan. I am trying to find a job here; I’d be near home, near family, near friends, near Detroit and Ann Arbor. At the same time, though, the three Bs sound pretty fun.

get money

January 14, 2011

As for the jobs: my degree is in Chemical Engineering, so I’m looking for something in that realm. I’m particularly interested in energy, and the best way to describe my interest in an umbrella sense is I’m interested in smart ways to store and use energy. To simplify it best, there is pretty much one original source of energy, and that’s the big bang. Energy from the big bang is, generally speaking, within our reach in four forms:

  • Heat from the molten core of the earth
  • Kinetic energy of the moon’s orbit (imparted gravitationally on the oceans as tides)
  • Nuclear energy of elements found on our planet
  • Heat and radiation from the sun

When we use the heat from the molten core of the earth, we call that “geothermal energy”. When we use the energy from the tides, we call that “tidal energy”. When we use the energy embodied in the nuclei of terrestrial elements, we call that “nuclear energy”. All other forms of available energy are derived, in some way, from the sun, and these include:


  • Photosynthetic biomass, both young (i.e. plants and animals) and old (i.e. fossil fuels)
  • Hydroelectric (part of the water cycle, which is driven by solar heat)
  • Wind (driven by temperature gradients caused by the sun)
  • Solar (direct capture of solar radiation)

As an end product, energy is always needed in a particular form. As food, it’s mostly needed in the form of carbohydrates  and lipids. To power motors, it’s mostly needed in the form of combustible fuel. To run lights, it’s needed as electrical current. There is a whole world of research going on about how to make our energy demand more efficient, and that is really where most of the low-hanging fruit is for people who want to reduce fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions. However, it’s not the field that most interests me, which is energy supply. 

The question of energy supply is this: how can we most cheaply transfer energy from the form, time, and place where we encounter it to the form, time, and place where we need it? For a long time, the answer to this has seemed to be: fossil fuels. However, we are constantly changing the way that we count up costs, so we are constantly returning to this question. Right now, a lot of people are trying to incorporate two new costs into our cost-accounting framework, and they are each a “cost” associated with a doomsday scenario that fossil fuels are driving us toward:

  • Continued extracting and burning of buried carbon elevates atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, which destabilizes the earth’s climate
  • Continued use of fossil fuels leads to the depletion of energy sources not controlled by OPEC, so that a small group of countries (including Iran and Venezuela) begin to exert a colossal influence on world affairs

Presently these two scenarios can be considered “negative externalities” in the cost of fossil fuels. Because the market price of fossil fuels does not currently account for the potential costs of these outcomes, fossil fuel prices are artificially low. In fact, many investors seem to believe that the true cost of fossil fuels exceeds the true cost of non-fossil fuel alternatives. Anticipating OPEC-driven increases in the price of oil and cap-and-trade systems that increase the price of all fossil fuels, these investors are putting a lot of money into research and development of new energy production schemes. For a long time, the economies of scale devoted to producing fossil fuels have made the marketplace hostile to competing energy supply systems. Now there is a lot of potential for a new system to become competitive.

This is the setup for what I find so exciting about energy right now.

Anyway, I’m not particularly interested in hydroelectric or nuclear. I’m also not particularly crazy about carbon capture and sequestration or geoengineering. And I don’t really want to work on combined cycle power plants or improved internal combustion engines. I may discuss the reasons for this in future posts.

Having made those exceptions, there are a bunch of leftover technologies that I DO find interesting, but my expertise as a chemical engineer suits itself better to some than to others.

Best fits for ChemEs:

  • Biofuels (very similar to classic chemical engineering problems based on petroleum)
  • Hydrogen (classic gas handling and processing)
  • Fuel cells (more nuanced, but essentially all chemistry)
  • Geothermal (drilling is analogous to petroleum drilling; choice of working fluid in binary cycle plants is all chemical engineering)

Decent fits:

  • Batteries (moving toward solid-state polymers)
  • Solar (advanced semiconductor processes – primarily materials science)

Worst fits:

  • Wind (mechanical and aerospace)
  • Wave farms i.e. tidal

The most developed of these technologies are probably wind and solar, so there are a decent number of jobs in those areas. Several are too niche, or too underdeveloped, to attract much interest: hydrogen, fuel cells, geothermal, and wave farms. Batteries and biofuels sit in the region where a lot of different companies are trying to figure out how to make the technology work, which makes them very exciting.

So, long story short, I’m mostly looking for work in advanced batteries and biofuels. At the same time, I’m keeping my eye out for job postings in solar, hydrogen, fuel cells, and geothermal.

greening the homestead

January 14, 2011

The house project was a birthday/christmas present to my father. Here is the list of plans so far:

Energy Efficiency

  • Put together guides to using appliances in the most energy-efficient way. Post guides on/near freezers, washer/dryer, fridges, computers, dishwasher, thermostat, fans, etc.
  • Install a programmable thermostat
  • Replace air conditioner air filter and clear outdoor condenser area. Install shade unit to cover outdoor condenser. Clear and clean a/c drain line
  • Clear lint out of refrigerator/freezer fan area, clean freezer and refrigerator seal gaskets
  • Clean/replace heater air filter, remove dust and lint from furnace, inspect flues, check ductwork for air leaks
  • Investigate cost of replacing non-double-paned windows
  • Replace any remaining incandescent bulbs with fluorescent or LED
  • Insulate the first six feet of hot/cold water pipes connected to water heater, add water heater blanket to water heater, drain water from hot water tank
  • Inspect floors, walls, and ceilings for air leaks, add foam gaskets behind outlet and switch plates, seal caps and cracks around basement rim joists

Water Efficiency

  • Install faucet aerators
  • Install low-flow showerheads
  • Install controllable-flush toilet handles 

Waste Handling

  • Find a way to recycling batteries in the greater Lansing, MI area
  • Rejuvenate compost pile and organize it for better access

Now, this is the first hands-on project I’ve tackled since high school. I’m very much a novice, so I’m hoping this blog will help others avoid my inevitable mistakes.

statement of intent

January 14, 2011

My life has been simplified, now that I’ve graduated from college, to three things:

  1. Modifying my parents’ house to use less water, use less energy, and handle its waste better
  2. Applying for engineering jobs with renewable energy companies
  3. Staving off the post-grad emotional crisis

This tumblr, in content, will focus on the first two. In tone, it will probably speak to my progress on the third.