Chemicals from Durene (2)

In my previous post on the durene project, our small company needed a sizable partner, so the one remaining functional executive took a flight to the US, with the intention of trying to find one. In a rather remarkable piece of luck, he sat beside an executive of ICINZ, they discussed things, and when they got off the plane at LA, they had an agreement in principle. (I have used little incidents like this to provide background for my novels, thus in Red Gold, when David Gill sits on a plane at Denver and ends up with a contract, that is half inspired by that incident. The other half was when I once got on a plane at Denver, stared out the starboard window, and saw a hole the size of a football in the engine cowling. Fortunately, that motor was not started!)

You might wonder why ICI would be interested in partnering such a small company. The reason was, they had a submission in place. ICI had thought about this project, but decided against it. The exact reason why not is unknown, but one reason might have been, they did not want it as long as nobody got it. The reason was, while polyimide plastics are amongst the best heat resistant plastics that are still processable, at least to some extent, at that time ICI made two plastics that were good performance: polyether ether ketone, and polyether sulphone. If polyimides were made at a level that was possible from that plant, those two ICI plants would have been redundant, so as long as nobody developed this option, they would be fine. However, once it became apparent that a plant could be built, that reasoning would be false.

Anyway, an application was made to add ICINZ as the partner and operator. Unfortunately, then ICINZ wanted to add to the submission, to let everyone know how big ICI was, etc. This was manna from heaven for the new government, because they permitted the others to alter their submissions too. In effect it was a new contest, although no new players were permitted. Decision time was delayed. It took three years to get a decision made. In the intermediate time, it became obvious that my position as a government scientist would not continue, and prior to the final decision, I left and formed my own company. The people financing the small company also financed my laboratory, the purpose of which was to aid the durene project, but also to form spin-off ventures.

It was around this time that my self-published novel, Gemina came out. One of the conditions, however, of getting the lab finance and a carried interest in the durene venture, was that I stayed out of the media and did no promotion, including for the laboratory company. As you might imagine, selling books when you cannot advertize or promote them, and you have no real knowledge of the book trade, was hardly ideal. I lost money on that book, but not as much as I first feared.

Finally, this will be the last post for 2012. The southern hemisphere summer holiday season is upon us, so, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.

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Chemicals from durene (1)

The next few posts will involve issues in my life that have been helpful in providing some background to my novels, particularly involving industrial startups, small business, and government. The posts might also convince some why governments should stay out of specific commercial enterprises. These incidents occurred at the same time as I was trying to find a place to publish Gemina. As I mentioned in the previous post, I had lobbied to persuade the New Zealand government to sell durene from the Motunui synthetic fuels plant. To develop the offshore Maui gas field, the government had entered into a “take or pay” agreement with the company that would construct and operate the platform, so, having paid for it, the government owned the gas. A simple thing would have been for the government to sell the gas to the company operating Motunui, but the simple approach seems to elude certain politicians. They decided they would retain ownership of the hydrocarbon stream, and pay a toll to get it converted. Reason: they saw oil as always increasing in price, and I suppose there was also the strategic element.

The reason why this project made sense was because durene had to be removed from the synthetic petrol, therefore the cost of making it was close to that of petrol, which made it an order of magnitude cheaper than durene from other sources. Durene could be converted by a known process to pyromellitic dianhydride, which could be used to make the very high quality polyimide plastics, and it was then being made at about 500 t/a. The competitive advantage was cost, and with the price of oil falling, nobody was going to construct a similar plant to Motunui.

One fruit from my lobbying was the approach of a small company. This company had no experience at chemicals or fuels, but it claimed to know how to raise money, and how the political system worked. As the only game in town, I supported them, at first without much hope, but strangely enough, they exceeded all expectations. I put together, in my spare time, a technical proposal, and the company began looking for joint venture partners. The first effort was with an American multinational, and it was embarrassing, as two of the “official presenters” merely demonstrated they knew nothing about chemicals. Neither did the third, but he had the sense not to pretend. After a somewhat blunt discussion, those two exited from further presentations, and I ended up attending presentations and was responsible for the technical issues. I was on somewhat uncertain grounds here, being employed by a government scientific department. My defence was that I was following the organization’s mission statement. What was impressive about this defence was that it appeared I was one of the very few that even knew such a statement existed, let alone had read it! Anyway, things started progressing at last. I had apparently made sufficient nuisance of myself that there was sufficient groundswell that at last the politicians could not ignore it.

Two events happened. The first was that the small company entered into an agreement with the state-owned entity, Petrocorp, and now there was a player that made sense. (Petrocorp owned a methanol plant and an ammonia-urea plant, each run by gas, and hence had a reasonable amount of brownfield development on which to add a further chemical plant.) The second was that the government announced a bidding process for the development of durene, the process to be run and judged by the Department of Energy. Now, suddenly, the officials asked me to join in the judging process. I refused, explaining that my role was to ensure that at least one sensible proposal was on the table. Then, Petrocorp sent one of their senior executives, an executive from the small company, and me to the headquarters of Fluor Corporation, in southern Los Angeles. (This gave me one scary moment; the driving was left to the small company man because he was a native of Los Angeles and had been in New Zealand for a few years. At one point he made a left turn and to my horror we were on the left side of a divided multilane street. Apart from that minor piece of forgetfulness, though, I appreciated his driving, because he knew where he was going.)

I was fairly pleased with myself for a while, because here I was discussing a venture with engineers who knew how to build chemical plant, and they were validating most of what I had said. They agreed with me that a certain amount of development work was needed, but they were convinced this was doable. Then a spanner in the works. On the last day, with about an hour left, the Petrocorp executive produced a critical blow: Petrocorp would not be part of the bid. Why not? What I was told was that at the Petrocorp Board meeting, the Secretary of Energy, who was also a Petrocorp Board member, had said there was no need to reach a decision at that meeting, and everything could be delayed until the next. With no need to do something, they did nothing. The problem was, the next Board meeting would be after submissions closed, and that Secretary knew that, or should have, after all, his Department was running the process. Whether I was told the truth is another matter, but that borders on the irrelevant. The small company no longer had a joint venture partner, and it was not big enough to be credible. Forked? Whatever, the small company put in its submission, stating that if it won, the win would be dependent on its finding a suitable partner. More will follow!

The first steps towards self-publishing

In my last post, the bloghop post, I gave a brief answer to the question, how did I start writing “Red Gold”? Some of what happened that was left out might also be of some interest, because it introduced me to self-publishing, even back then. As I wrote previously, my first book, “Gemina” was written as a response to a bet, and after I sent it off, I got, I think, four rejections. I gave up on that, but the writing bug must have stuck because next summer I tried another. This, I decided, would be more literary, with as much as anything, the objective of which was to record experiences of a young student during the early 1960s. That too ended up in the trunk, and I gave up, as my career, aka day job, took over. About fifteen years later, I reopened the scripts. The first one, I felt, was genuine trash at the start, but half-way through I was reasonably pleased with it. The book was written in four parts, so I totally rewrote Part 1, made some significant changes to Part 2, I left Part 3 totally untouched, and Part 4 was rewritten only to accommodate necessary changes made earlier. Now what? I sent it off to one publisher and got the standard rejection. However, about this time I was reaching a crisis in my life.

I had been employed as a scientist at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Zealand, and in response to the first oil crisis, I was involved with energy-related matters. This climaxed when I was asked to a meeting to decide the government’s response to a proposal to build a synthetic fuels plant. As part of the background, New Zealand had found a massive field of natural gas offshore and by previous contracts, the government had a “take or pay” agreement to consume the gas. There were two major proposals for synthetic fuel on the table: a German group offered to build a Fischer-Tropsch plant for something like $800 million, plus site development, while Mobil Corporation offered to build their methanol to petrol process for $290 million, plus site development. (The reason for “plus site development” was that nobody knew where the plant was to be constructed.) A meeting was called, at which I was by far the most junior, and I advocated the German plant, because it was cheaper. I was asked what I meant, and I said the Mobil proposal would cost at a minimum, $1100 million plus site development. I was ridiculed, after all, how would I know better than Mobil Corporation, and never asked to come back. I became persona non gratia with the officials who recommended the plant, and who promptly received very significant roles in it. Motunui was built, using the Mobil process, and I gather it cost something around $1300 million. You might ask, how did that happen? The answer was deploringly simple: Mobil corporation gave a perfectly good quote, but it was for a process to convert methanol to petrol; you still had to build the plant to convert gas to methanol. My estimate was based on adding the cost of the methanol plants to the Mobil quote.

There was one further point about the Mobil process: the petrol it made had a component in it called durene, which, unlike other petrol components, is a solid, so it could crystallize out from petrol on a cold day and block a carburetor. On the other hand, since it crystallized out, it could be separated, and if it were, it would be a raw material for a class of chemicals called dianhydrides, from which you can make fire-resistant plastics. Since the official role for DSIR was to assist and promote industrial development in New Zealand, I set out to promote the use of durene, which in principle could be made in this plant ten times cheaper than anywhere else. Such efforts started with proper channels, and got immediate rebuff from the same certain officials who had been promoting the Mobil process. Why? Who knows. It could have been rank incompetence, or it could have been to protect their positions. However, I took what opportunities that were available, and one turned up in the form of an invitation to go on a nationwide TV program to discuss the flammability of plastics. I had mentioned to the producer that it as possible to make flame-resistant plastics, so I was invited to make some and bring them along. I did, and found myself on the set facing one of the leading interviewers in the country, and a small gas torch. At the end, I was asked to prove what I had made was flame resistant, so the gas torch was lit, I placed this slab of home-made foam in the palm of my hand, fired it up, and hoped this would work. It did; the plastic became yellow hot, but apart from minor ablation, remained more or less the same. I held it there for thirty seconds, until the interviewer decided that this had some similarity to drying paint and cut the flame.

As the plastic cooled down, he remarked something like, “Yes, but it still gives off obnoxious gas doesn’t it?”

We had already discussed the poisonous fumes given off by burning polyurethane, so I knew where this was going. So I held my nose over it and gave a huge sniff, and held my face and said something like, “Nothing too bad.”

The interviewer gave a wry smile. He knew I had acted, but he also knew there was nothing to be gained by his calling me.

The relevance of all this is, of course, I was starting to build up something of a public image. I had to get that novel out! I decided to self-publish, because there was no time to lose, or so I thought.