Research at SIU | Create. Innovate. Educate. Sunday, May 6, 2012 | The Southern Illinoisan | Page 16
PHOTO BY TIM CROSBY
Coal brewing crew – Three researchers looking into ways to extract valuable chemical precursors from coal work in a lab at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The three work for Thermaquatica Inc., a company started by geology Professor Ken B. Anderson, right, and research professor John C. Crelling, middle. Also pictured is Derek Perry, left, senior design engineer for Thermaquatica.
Thermaquatica: Turning coal into plastic, polymers By Tim Crosby
Pain at the pump has most people thinking about petroleum strictly in terms of the energy it produces. But much of the real economic value of every barrel of crude oil pumped out of the ground does not lie in its energy yield. Instead, it is locked up in the 5 to 8 percent that goes to make chemical precursors that ultimately produce the polymers and plastics that inundate our daily lives. Everything from the carpet under your feet, to the clothes on your back to that plastic water bottle on your desk, started out as oil. The worldwide market for such substances measures well into the trillions of dollars. Petroleum, however, is known for its expense and volatile prices. A barrel of oil costing about $100 means oil is trading for roughly $800 a ton. Coal, on the other hand, another organic carbon-based product known for the energy it produces, goes for about $70 a ton. Now, two geologists at Southern Illinois University Carbondale think they have found a way to extract the same kinds of highly valuable chemical precursors that come from petroleum from the much cheaper, homegrown coal. The process, developed by Ken B. Anderson, professor of geology, and John C Crelling, research professor emeritus of geology, also has led to the development of Thermaquatica Inc., a new company now based at the Dunn-Richmond Economic Development Center on campus. “The things we are making are the chemicals used to make plastics,” Anderson said. “But instead of starting with petroleum, we are starting with coal. We end up with a range of chemicals, some of which are identical to the ones made from petroleum, others of
which are analogous to those chemicals. But the end result of all of them is that they make polymers and plastics.” The process they’ve developed to do this is not only environmentally benign, but promises high efficiency. In lab tests, they’ve consistently converted up to 100 percent of the coal samples into the chemicals needed to make plastics. Several patents are pending on the process, which uses water, heat, pressure and oxygen to oxidize the coal and “break it” into other forms. The end result looks like something you might see on a sampling night at a microbrewery: Liquid products ranging in color from that of a pale ale to a dark, thicker stout, complete with a foamy head. “That’s actually the terminology we use sometimes in the lab when we’re talking about different formulations,” said Anderson, who is CEO of Thermaquatica. “We say, ‘well, let’s make a pale ale with this batch’ or ‘this one is more of a lager.’” The genesis of the idea behind Thermaquatica dates back to work Anderson conducted years ago on undersea volcanoes. The heat and pressure associated with those natural occurrences taught him something about water’s effects and behavior under those conditions. About six years ago, however, Anderson and Crelling began recognizing the need for a different way to create the chemical precursors needed for plastics manufacturing. Such petroleum-based products, they theorized, would not remain an economic option in years to come. Still, the need for such chemicals, such as the common precursor known as terephthalic acid, shows no sign of waning. Terephthalic acid now trades for about $1,600 a ton, and its price
A lot of our colleagues still don’t believe it. How can it be that simple? Why after 150 years has no one else tried that? Well, I can’t answer that. But we did, and it works better than any one of us dared dream. Ken B. Anderson, professor of geology tracks closely with that of petroleum. “So we’re talking about taking coal at $70 a ton and refining it into a substance like terephthalic acid, which goes for $1,600 ton,” Anderson said. “There appears to be a very good margin here and plenty of room for the costs of refinement and processing.” The pair initially brainstormed what the characteristics of a different process might ideally look like. Minimal environmental impact was key, and the end product needed to be in a liquid form, so a solvent of some sort was needed. “We knew in nature that water and oxygen will break down coal, so we had an example,” Crelling said. But that natural oxidation ended in powdered coal and carbon dioxide. The researchers had to find a way to use the same concept but arrest it before it went that far. So the process they came up with generally brings water, heat, pressure and oxygen together for the right amount of time in a continuous flow, rather than a batch method. Water is an amazingly good solvent under such conditions, they said, and it can “cut” the key molecular bonds in coal’s myriad chemistry, effectively turning it into liquid chemicals. Thermaquatica incorporated in late 2010 and by the following
June it had offices and lab space at Dunn-Richmond, where they began proving the concept worked. And it works like a dream, Anderson said. “We thought early on that we’d get some chemical and a lot of leftover coal residue, which could be burned as normal. But it didn’t work like that. The entire amount of coal was converted,” Anderson said. “We couldn’t believe it at first,” Crelling said. “We made them do it over and over and we kept getting the same result.” “I kept telling my lab tech he was screwing up,” Anderson said with a chuckle. “We thought ‘this can’t be true. It can’t be this easy.’” Even now, after years of testing, the simplicity of the concept is difficult for some. “A lot of our colleagues still don’t believe it. How can it be that simple? Why after 150 years has no one else tried that? Well, I can’t answer that. But we did, and it works better than any one of us dared dream,” Anderson said. The researchers used about $1 million in state economic development grant money to test the concept at the laboratory level, where it has proven very robust. “We’ve tried to break the process and we can’t,” Anderson said. The company now is raising private money and working with a private engineering firm on design and manufacture of a pilot plant that they hope to begin operating at Dunn-Richmond this summer. The pilot plant will scale up the lab process from tiny amounts to up about 10 pounds daily. If all goes well at that stage – if the idea manages to cross the dreaded “Valley of Death” that often exists between good ideas that work well in the lab but struggle to break into commercialization – the
company will next build a demonstration plant that would process about 5 tons per day before a full-scale production facility. Anderson is quick to credit the programs at the University that encourage and guide entrepreneurship. In particular, he cited Operation Mousetrap, which helps research scientists like himself navigate the ins and outs of incorporating a business while teaching them to speak the language of business in order to communicate their idea’s potential to private industry. Participants learn about testing their innovations and business concepts, exploring entrepreneurship, identifying funding and working with investors, protecting their business and intellectual property and planning for financial success. “Scientists don’t necessarily know how to do those things because it’s not what we do every day,” Anderson said. “It can be very daunting, figuring out how you’re going to set the company up, how to organize the taxes and hire people. This program helped us do those things so that we could get our idea moving.” In addition to Anderson and Crelling, the company now has one full-time employee, Derek Perry, of Flora, who earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at SIU Carbondale and is now Thermaquatica’s senior design engineer and is growing. It also has several part-time employees and subcontractors working for it. For Anderson, the idea that the years of basic science that researchers such as himself and Crelling have done may pay off in the form of valuable jobs and economic development is highly rewarding. The company also is looking at converting biomass – anything from grasses to sawdust – into such chemicals using a similar process.