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!

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