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IRI Meeting Day 2 Commentary

| On 17, Jun 2011

Industrial Research Institute Meeting Report-II

IRI Meeting-I was priveleged to present a workshop on TRIZ problem solving at the annual IRI meeting in Philadelphia this year and was able to attend a number of very interesting presentations from senior executives from materials and service industires. I’d like to report on several of these presentations from the second day of the meeting.

Dr. John Elter
A material that we use or sell cannot be separated from the process and application in which it is used. Business is part of an overall ecosystem. The scarcity of water and energy is going to be a key driver in the economy over the next 25 years (Jeff Immelt, GE)

Dr. Uma Choudry (DuPont)
Opportunities are goiong to occur at the intersection of major technical areas which will significantly impact key global demands for fresh water, energy needs, and social disparities in the areas of food and water. By 2050, China’s economy will be twice that of the us and India’s will be equal.She traced the fascinating history of DuPont moving from an explosives company (planting the seed of its strong safety policy) to a chemical company which incentivized innovation and high risk and made major investments in R&D. These investments led to major new businesses in polymers such as nylon and neoprene. The last major shift was into agricultural chemistry, biology, and life sceinces. She traced the development of their 1,3 propanediol plant in Tennessee, using biotechnology and bacteria at room temperature and pressure to manufacture a series of new polymers in a 100MM pound plant that is now sold out. Parts of this project involved collaboration with an agriculture equipment supplier (John Deere), government (NREL), a seed producer (Pioneer), and a biotech company (Genencor), a univeristy (Michigan State University), and others. This is collaboration almost unthinkable decades ago.

Dr. Richard Hayes (DuPont)
Richard talked about the unique role of a senior, award winning scientist inside a large corporation. Some of his comments brough back memories of similar presentations I have heard from other scientists at other major companies. The first rule is to beat the goals assigned to you and then you get the freedom to do what you want to do and allowing you the freedom to ignore other less important goals. He described his involvement with the development of membrane technology development. A membrane involves not just the sexy separation layer (which might be a thin as 400 angstroms) but the support layer, the membrane form structure, the solution spinning to make the polymer layers, the production of the assembled module, and the post treatment of the fibers. It is difficult for the entire team involved in such product development to understand the impact of its work until the entire system is put together and tested. Changing goals of a separation module (CO2 for enhanced oil recovery to air separation to hydrogen separation in refinery streams) reinforces the need to have strong core competencies that can adjust and shift with changing commerical objectivess. The technical breadth required forced team efforts and forthright communications between marketing and the technical community.

Dr. Steve Koonin (DOE)
A refreshing presentation from a leader at the DOE. Quote of the conference: “There is no such thing as “foreign oil”; there’s just “oil”. The future of oil policy and technology is intertwined with the transportation. Conversion of coal to electricity, at 1/3 efficiency, is an area ripe for improvement. Both gas and oil, reject 60% of input energy (and limited to a great extent by the second law of thermodynamics). Energy is a system, not just a particular fuel. Most of the spending on energy research is in private hands. The amount of energy research spent by the federal goveernment is $4-6 billion, or equivalent to the cost of 3/4 of one nuclear plant. The amount of energy derived from wood in 1850 is exactly the same as is used today! Power and fuel are commodities with thin margins. Transportation and stationary fules are disjointed in terms of their generation and use. The generation of power, still by boiling water after all these years, is sized for extreme demand and sits 50% idle at most times. Lithium ion batteries, a key future technology, are produced in Japan (47%), South Korea (27%), China (23%), “other” (2%), and the US (1%). Administration goals include a 1/3 reduction in oil imports, 1 million electric vehicles by 2015, 80% of electricity being “clean” and a 20% increase in efficiency of non-residential energy use. On top of this, a 17% reduction in green house gases by 2020 and 83% by 2050. A 20% increase in fuel economy in cars currently increases vehicle cost by $1500. To offset this will require significant advances in materials and composites technology. Ethanol is a least useful fuel (what a refreshing comment!).

Our power grid loses 7% of the energy it carries. Major challenges exist in efficiency, security, flexibility and a 2 way flow of power and information. He commented on the significance of shale gas vs. oil and imported natural gas. Gas has 1/2 the CO2 emissions of coal and we are now seeing the decoupling of gas and oil prices. He was extremely negative about hydrogen (again, a refreshingly honest appraisal from government and one that I make in my chemical enginering training on thermodyanics).