The Grenfell Fire, and the Logic of Plastics in Cladding

For me, the most depressing recent news was the London fire, in which a high-rise of flats (apartments for Americans) somehow caught fire, and once it did, it spread like crazy. There is a lot of blame to share around for the death toll. Apparently people were told to stay in their flats, but that advice was given by firemen who were unaware that the building had no useful fire doors, or the other usual means of containing and retarding fires. After all, if the building is concrete, and there is no easy way to spread the fire, it should be able to be kept local. So what went wrong? We don’t know about why the interior of the building seemed to burn very nicely, but it seemed that the outside burned furiously. The outside had an aluminium cladding, apparently to make it look more attractive. The aluminium tiles were backed by polyethylene, which is essentially a solid hydrocarbon of structure similar to diesel, but a much larger molecular weight. That burns very well, and if you saw video of it, you would see great globs of fire falling off the building.

We don’t know exactly why the polyethylene was there. Some say heat insulation, others say to give the cladding rigidity. Much has also been made of the fact that for about $3 a tile more, the backing could have been fire resistant. I am not sure what that backing is as the maker’s website does not say, but would guess it is some sort of polyamide or polyurethane with non-flammable filler. These certainly do not catch fire as easily, but there is another catch with some of them: in a fire they do burn, and while not as well, they tend to give off some rather poisonous gases. There is another catch. According to the manufacturer, the fire resistant tiles passed ASTM E 84 tests, which are the standard tests for surface burning characteristics, but so did the polyethylene backed tiles. That sort of lab test does not represent a real fire.

This brought back memories of my past, when I got involved with two structural foams that could be suitable for building cladding. One was a glass foam, originally intended to be made from waste glass. This would make quite a good wall cladding without the aluminium, except possibly on the bottom floor because it does not have very good impact resistance. Thin glass shatters on impact, but it does not burn or corrode. You can also have a wide range of colours. The other is a plastic foam, for which you do not even need fillers to make it fire resistant.

The story of my involvement with that goes back to the late 1970s. In the late 1960s, New Zealand discovered a large offshore natural gas field, and the government took it upon itself to enter a “take or pay” agreement so the field would be developed. It was not clear what their idea was, but presumably electricity generation was one of them. However, when the first energy crisis struck, about 1972 from memory, there was a sort of panic, and after a lot of deliberation they decided to construct a synthetic fuels plant at Motunui, which was to use a process developed by Mobil. I was on a committee to advise on the science, and I advised this was a bad idea because they could not build it for anything like the costs presented to them. As it turned out, my projected cost was out by $200 million, but no site had been chosen, and my estimate was “plus site development”. (In the end, the site development would have been about $130 million, so I was rather pleased with myself.) However, at the committee, I was about 4.5 times greater than the figure they were comfortable with (and note the government was going to pay) so I was never asked to be on such committees again. However, when that process was chosen, I knew that there was one byproduct they would not know what to do with: 1,2,4,5-tetramethylbenzene. The reason: it is a solid, which is not good in petrol for cars. The good news from my point of view was that it could be oxidized to pyromellitic dianhydride, which would be a precursor to stepladder and even ladder polymers, and in particular to polyimide plastics. The bad news was that the top public servants did not want their synfuels project upstaged, and the politicians were unenthused, probably because they were totally out of their depth.

So to get rid of the road blocks, I needed a stunt. As it happened, the fire hazard with plastic foams was to be the subject of a half-hour nationwide TV program, and I was invited to comment as a scientist. I agreed, provided I could have a few minutes for a demonstration of fire resistant foams. That was agreed, so I made myself some polyimide foam. This was rigid, and not much use for furniture, but you can’t really do much development work with one day’s notice. So I turned up, and at the end of the program, which had the dangers of fires, and of the poisonous gases drilled into everyone, I had the cameras turned on me. I put a bit of home-made foam in the palm of my hand and directed a gas torch at it. It glowed a nice yellow-hot under the flames, and I just sat there. Eventually they got bored of watching this, and they turned off the torch, then made the comment, “It still stinks, though.” So, with a bit of acting here, I held the plastic up to my face and sniffed deeply, and made no expression. Since there was no fire, while the plastic was ablating slowly, once the torch was taken away there was no more reaction. Unfortunately, my wife forgot to record this so I can’t actually prove it.

The whole point of this, of course, is it is possible to make very fire resistant foams. Without the type of chemical plant I was proposing, such foams would be expensive, but the question then is, is preventing x number of deaths worth spending a few extra dollars (or in this case, pounds)? In my opinion, there is no real excuse. Yes, the foam I made was rigid, but as building insulation, so what? While science can provide answers to many problems, there is not much point in it if nobody in power takes any notice.

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.

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!