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Today’s low oil prices ought to be a major boon to the global chemical industry.  They mean that consumers have more discretionary income to spend on our products, as they reduce heating and transport costs for consumers. They also helpfully destroy the myth that claimed oil was always going to be priced above its relative energy value to gas.  As I argued in my first ACS post back in February and in the Chemistry and the Economy webinars, this was never a realistic scenario.

 

But every silver lining has a cloud.  And in this case, the cloud is the negative impact of these lower prices on the renewable energy industry and green chemistry.  Will this mean the current, albeit halting, process towards a more sustainable future will be thrown off course?  What will become of the new agreements only recently reached in Paris at the COP 21 Conference after so much effort?

 

I think the key is to look forward, not back, and create new business models that prioritise affordability alongside sustainability.  In turn, this will enable us to take a long hard look at current technologies to determine which will have a realistic future. We can all accept that early-stage development is going to be expensive, but given that, which of today’s proposed  solutions really have the potential to deliver technologies and products at a price that the broad mass of people can afford?


This question challenges us to think ‘outside of the box’. Could the best solutions stem from conservation and efficiency? Could ExxonMobil be right, for example, when it argued that the most important ‘fuel’ of all, will be energy saved through fuel efficiency,“ and went on to suggest “that efficiency gains of about 300 quadrillion Btu a year can be achieved by 2030, equal to twice the growth in energy demand over the period. 

 

One of the disappointing trends of recent years, for me at least, has been the relative loss of focus on energy conservation.  Initiatives in this area drove major efficiency gains during the last period of high oil prices in the 1973 – 1985 period, with insulation becoming a top priority.  But whilst government has driven change in some key areas, such as auto fuel efficiency, the general public does not seem to have embraced the opportunity to conserve energy as they did in the past.

 

The chemical industry has also not taken the lead in the way I would have expected. New data from the American Chemistry Council shows that the metals and glass industries have actually regained market share over plastics in the battle to reduce the weight of cars.  As the chart below shows, the gains plastics made before 2009 have mostly been lost.  Competitor industries have clearly done a much better job of understanding auto manufacturer needs and creating new products such as Gorilla Glass and lightweight steel to meet them.

 

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What can be done to reverse these trends?  Must we rely on people such as Bill Gates to carry the flag for innovation in this critical area?  Much to my surprise, I discovered from an interview in the New York Times that he was the person prodding the climate change conference to put energy innovation on their agenda, commenting: “Honestly, I’ve been a bit surprised that the climate talks historically haven’t had R&D on the agenda in any way, shape or form.”

 

The good news is that the COP 21 talks reached an agreement.  And thanks to Bill Gates’s leadership, there is money available to help develop the affordable solutions that will be needed to reach the targets set. But from our industry’s vantage point, what are the most viable solutions? 

 

  • Should they be product oriented and, if so, which renewables can become competitive on a global or regional scale to reduce carbon footprints? 
  • Should they relate to energy storage - better batteries, smart grids, or more efficient transmission systems? 
  • Could they involve new ways of working – reducing energy use by nudging people to reduce costs and usage?

 

These are just a few of the questions and possible solutions running through my mind at the moment. What are yours? Could we develop an innovation forum to brainstorm about some of these concepts?  And could we then find a way of leading proposed solutions into practical development, perhaps via our own employers or the American Chemical Society?

 

These issues are simply too important to be ignored.  And collectively, as members of ACS, we must have more than enough brainpower and practical skills to turn ideas into action.  Maybe Bill Gates would be keen to hear from us, if we could put together credible business cases. 

 

Please give me your thoughts below in the comments box, and let’s see what we can come up with over the holiday season.  Thanks!


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Paul Hodges is chairman of International eChem (www.iec.eu.com), trusted advisers to the chemical industry and its investment community.  He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Industrial Council on chemicals, advanced materials and biotechnology, and presents the ACS ‘Chemistry & the Economy’ webinars.

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The gas mileage of a car does not depend on the paint color.  They are orthogonal variables, independent of each other.  There is no functional dependence of one to the other and there is no mathematical function that connects one with the other.  We encounter many such relationships and, since they are unrelated, they go largely unnoticed.

 

Humans have an aversion to chaos and seek to create order.  We explain things, sometimes through rational means, frequently by creating order where none exists.  We see patterns and ascribe importance to them.  Our drive to find order led to elaborate ritual and mythology around things we appreciate, like wine and beer.  In the pre-Pasteur centuries, connections were made and practices developed that appear silly now that we recognize and understand the microbiology at the foundation of both wine making and brewing.  We still have craftsmen that seek to recreate some of the charm of past eras, but the majority of wine and beer are now made industrially using well studied and optimized processing and microbiological systems.  Science usurped the mythology.

 

I am still amazed when I see a horoscope taking up valuable newspaper real estate.  It is clear that there are some who fail to recognize the orthogonality of the position of the stars on the date of their birth and what will happen to them today.  There are also those who fail to recognize when variables are linked.  My observations lead me to believe that my children fail to recognize that when they drive more, it costs more.  If I try to make mention of the impact on the planet, it resonates even less.

 

My kids are very intelligent young adults.  They should clearly see the relationship between their driving and cost, both financial and to the planet. I have concluded that it is not that they don't understand, they just don't want to be bothered.  In the moment, getting to where they want to be take precedence over what happens in the future, whether it be the cost a fill-up or global warming.  Some speak of the indirect costs of petroleum use.  Externalities like the cost of the military, wielded to maintain oil supply, are not included in the price we pay at the pump.  The cost for caring for people with respiratory disease made worse by emissions during production, refining or consumption of fuel are not included in the price we pay at the pump.  The cost borne by future generations for our fuel use is not included in the price we pay at the pump.  That cost is far harder to understand and far more abstract, easier to ignore, orthogonal to what is happening now.

 

Fortunately, we have economists to guide us on the journey to connect these seemingly orthogonal variables.  An economist would not even work up a sweat calculating the direct cost of driving that eludes my kids.  Gasoline costs some number of dollars per gallon and the car gets some number of miles per gallon.  Divide to get dollars per mile.  The gasoline cost is exact, but mileage may vary, for any number or reasons.  There is an error bar.  Within the error, driving can be connected to the money in their pockets.

 

Economists tackle considerably harder problems and error bars are put to the test.  The EPA has recently proposed new ozone limits that have kept the economists busy.  The proposal will mandate ozone reduction from 75 ppb to between 65 and 70 ppb.  The ozone in question is not made by direct industrial activity.  Ozone is made by the action of sunlight on air containing hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and other compounds, some also coming from combustion, but also naturally occurring, and from other anthropogenic sources.  Combustion is the big reason. That is certain.  Chemically the same as the beneficial ozone in the stratosphere, this is ground level ozone.  The health effects of elevated ozone levels at nose-level are well documented.  There is no credible argument in favor of ground level ozone.  We should all want it minimized.

 

There is a benefit of reducing ground level ozone, but there is also a cost.  Society has finite resources and we cannot spend infinitely to solve any problem.  There are at least two groups of economists that have now tackled the calculation and the numbers are so far off that you might think they are looking at different problems.  EPA estimates that compliance costs are $15 billion for reaching 65 ppb, a good deal, according to them, because the health benefits are $38 billion for attaining that level.  The National Association of Manufacturers commissioned National Research Associates Economic Consulting to study the same regulations.  That study concluded that compliance costs would cost $1.05 trillion dollars through 2040, with the loss of 1.4 million jobs.  Battle lines are drawn.  The power industry and its allies, including chemical industry groups, argue both that the revised standards are unnecessary and too costly.  The science behind the revision is being questioned.

 

Two groups of qualified economists looked at the available data – the same data - and drew very different conclusions.  Ozone levels and the condition of the economy look orthogonal.  This debate points out that they are connected by equations that are elusive.  We know that from scenes of blistering smog in China that air quality impacts the economy.  We, in the US, have the luxury of discussing something that is pretty good already and attempts to make it even better.  There is an asymptote and a general rule is that each step toward an asymptote becomes more difficult.  More effort is expended to get the same change.  It is no surprise that attempts to link economic conditions and air quality have big error bars, error bars that don't help make the decision.  They also don't help the credibility of scientists with the public that ultimately must support the decision, pay the price for compliance and reap any benefit.

 

The historic COP21 agreement completed last week seeks to balance economic and environmental impact in the context of greenhouse gases.  Ozone and carbon dioxide are very different chemically.  Ozone is a problem of today, an acute health hazard.  Carbon dioxide is the cause of climate change that is far off in the future.  Today, no function cleanly connects either ozone or CO2 to economics.  They are orthogonal.  I hope we have the resolve to realize they are connected and take the steps to internalize those externalities, eliminating the orthogonality.  Once economics are impacted, solutions will follow.

 

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Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.

For the past year, the Industry Voices blog has brought you articles for and by members working in the chemistry-related industries.  Each week our writers have tackled a new subject, from tips for the workplace and advocacy of the profession, to profiles of your peers and insights into the relationship between the industry and the economy.


With the new year approaching, the ACS Industry Member Programs Team thought it would be nice to share a sampling of some of our best content from 2015!  It's been a great first year, and we hope that you will continue to join in the discussion in 2016.


Even though the year is winding down, that doesn't mean that Industry Voices is over for the year! Keep checking throughout the month.  Our new content usually comes out on Fridays, but with the holidays in mind, we will publishing new blogs as they are completed so be on the lookout.


Buy New Homes: Chemists Need Jobs!


Paul Hodges is chairman of International eChem (www.iec.eu.com), trusted advisers to the chemical industry and its investment community.  He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Industrial Council on chemicals, advanced materials and biotechnology, and presents the ACS ‘Chemistry & the Economy’ webinars.


The Paradox of Making Something Everyone Needs


Mark Jones is Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at Dow Chemical since September 2011. He spent most of his career developing catalytic processes after joining Dow in 1990. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Colorado-Boulder doing research unlikely to lead to an industrial career and totally unrelated to his current responsibilities.


It’s Time for Male Scientists to Stand Up Against Gender Bias in Science


Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign. (The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Monsanto.)


The Entrepreneurial PhD Who Is Set to Address Unmet Medical Needs


Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.

 

Bill & Henry Say…Professionalism is about Adaptability and Growth

 

Dr. William F. Carroll, Jr. holds a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.  He received an M.S. from Tulane University in New Orleans, and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN. He holds two patents, and has over sixty-five publications in the fields of organic electrochemistry, polymer chemistry, combustion chemistry, incineration and plastics recycling.

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Marta Piñeiro-Núñez keeps a picture of her grandmother in her office to remind her of how lucky she is. Her grandmother lived her whole life in a medium-sized town in Northern Spain, never received any formal education, and washed clothes for others in the river to support her family.

 

Piñeiro-Núñez has learned from early on that you cant control your environment, but you can control your attitude and effort. She chooses to be an optimist, and is determined to always try her best regardless of the situation.

 

The positive attitude, along with her adaptability to changes and strong desire to learn everything new, has led her to a rewarding career that would make her grandmother proud.

 

A humble yet nurturing upbringing

Growing up in A Coruña, Spain, Piñeiro-Núñez didnt know shed become a scientist one day. Neither of her parents pursued a higher education, nor did they know much about science. But they encouraged Piñeiro-Núñez to pursue her education nonetheless.

 

Piñeiro-Núñez didn't have to look far to find inspiration. Despite the lack of education, her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all worked, in factories or washing clothes for others. They subconsciously instilled in Piñeiro-Núñeza a strong work ethic that she still lives by today. 

 

A pragmatic career choice

Piñeiro-Núñez has always liked the arts and literature. In a perfect world, she might have become an artist, expressing her creativity in paintings or designs. But I had to be pragmatic when choosing an occupation, recalls Piñeiro-Núñez. Since she did well in chemistry and mathematics in high school, she decided thats what she was going to study in college.

 

While pursuing a chemistry degree at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Piñeiro-Núñez grabbed an opportunity to study at the University of Wyoming as an exchange student. The experience opened her eyes to other possibilities. After finishing her college study, she applied for and later entered a Ph.D. program at Indiana University, studying organic chemistry in Professor Paul Griecos lab.

 

Reflecting on her choosing of organic synthesis as the focus of her Ph.D. study, Piñeiro-Núñez says she liked many aspects of chemistry, but two characteristics of organic chemistry were particularly attractive to her at the time.

 

On the one hand, organic chemistry focuses on three-dimensional structures, which to me has undertones related to beauty, architecture and art. On the other hand, it still focuses on puzzle-solving based on a few logical rules, but with plenty of room for intuition and creativity.

 

The inherent beauty of organic chemistry and the creativity it requires for one to succeed reminded Piñeiro-Núñez of painting and art. She made her decision without too much agony and never looked back.

 

An unexpected opportunity

After graduating from Indiana University, Piñeiro-Núñez completed postdoctoral training at Colorado State University before joining Eli Lilly and Company as a research scientist. She followed a traditional career path in the first eight years, starting as a team member and rising to a team leader.

 

A turning point in Piñeiro-Núñezs career came in 2005 when she was selected to join Lillys six sigma deployment. As a certified six sigma black belt, she spent three years working on process improvement projects across Lillys drug discovery organizations. The experience improved her leadership skills, increased her visibility at the company, and completely changed her career path.

 

In 2008, Alan Palkowitz, Lillys vice president of drug discovery, decided to develop an open innovation platform to foster collaboration between global investigators and Lilly scientists, and Piñeiro-Núñez was asked to help launch the program. She took the opportunity, and tackled the challenges that came with it.

 

The proof of concept for the open innovation platform succeeded. Lilly subsequently expanded the program, and in 2012 formed an organization to further develop it under Piñeiro-Núñezs leadership.

 

Over the years Piñeiro-Núñezs responsibility has grown along with the Lillys expansion of Open Innovation Drug Discovery (OIDD). As the executive director, today she is responsible for the development and execution of the open innovation strategy for Lillys discovery chemistry unit; leading a cross-functional team of scientists, IT professionals, and legal experts; and working with top scientists from all over the world.

 

A fulfilling professional life

When Piñeiro-Núñez first joined Lilly in 1997, her career goal was to reach a point where colleagues would love to work with her. In a competitive scientific field, thats a challenging goal. But Piñeiro-Núñez successfully managed it.

 

She attributes her success to her flexibility, adaptability to changes, and ability to understand others feelings and motivations. Her warm personality, strong people skills, and team-building skills helped, too.

 

Piñeiro-Núñez is such a wonderful person, with a pleasant personality, a pure excitement and passion about drug discovery and a pure joy to be around! her colleague Robin Kizer notes on Piñeiro-Núñezs LinkedIn page.

 

Believing in I am only as good as my team is, Piñeiro-Núñez is passionate about supporting and developing her team members. Each day she spends a significant amount of time talking to her team to understand whats going on and what she can do to help solve problems.

 

I really like working with and understanding people, and I very much appreciate being able to contribute to developing people, admits Piñeiro-Núñez.   

 

Reaping the reward

In the early days of her career, Piñeiro-Núñez defined success as adding value and becoming an asset to her team and organization. Almost 20 years later, her definition of success remains the same.

 

Regardless of the position in the organizational ladder, being able to add value and feeling I'm an asset to my colleagues is what makes me feel incredibly successful, Piñeiro-Núñez confesses.

 

Based on that definition, Piñeiro-Núñez is celebrating success every day!


 

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Yanni Wang is a principal scientific writer and the owner of International Biomedical Communications, a company dedicated to translating research data into clear messages. Yanni has a PhD in chemistry and writes about biomedical research-related topics for professional audiences and the general public.