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Sixth Grove fuel cells symposium

Summary

After more than 150 years in the doldrums, fuel cells are finally beginning to make a serious impact in the energy sector both in power generation and in transport applications. The needs of fuel cell systems is now one of the drivers of developments in reformer technology and perhaps just as important to readers of this magazine methanol is being seen as the fuel of choice in many fuel cell applications in transport. Bill Lavers reports on the Sixth Grove fuel cell symposium.

Abstract

It was in 1839 that Sir William Grove first developed the fuel cell, an electrochemical device for converting chemical energy into power. In its conventional embodiment, the fuel cell generates electric power (and heat) by combining hydrogen and oxygen to form water – the reverse of the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen (see also Nitrogen 230 Nov/Dec 1997) – but what progress has been made with this fascinating invention in the intervening 160 years?

Ten years ago, it might have been said that there has been a lot of research, and virtually nothing in terms of any practical application, despite the fact that fuel cells have always promised to be comparatively efficient power generators. But then in the early 1990s things began to move. Indeed, speaking in the opening session of the Sixth Grove Fuel Cell Symposium, held in London 13–16 September 1999, Professor J Robert Selman of the Illinois Institute of Technology spoke of the momentous progress that had been made since the first of the biennial Grove symposia was held in 1989. Since that time, he said, worldwide investment in fuel cell development had increased by a factor of three and the most significant expansion in funding had come – not from government programmes – but from industry itself, and fuel cell commercialisation had become a truly international endeavour.

“Putting fuel cells within the horizon of the general public,” Selman said, had been the primary achievement since 1989. “Though some hopes and aspirations of a decade ago have not materialised,” he opined, “technical progress has been remarkable and commercialisation prospects are bright. The next decade will see the realisation of fuel cell commercialisation, in dispersed power generation, and cogeneration, as well as transportation.”

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The integrated approach

Summary

Apart from the obvious problem of corrosion, the main challenges in ammonium nitrate synthesis are improving energy-efficiency and meeting tighter pollution control standards. Here, Philippe Lion, of Kaltenbach-Thuring SA (Beauvais, France), describes how the solution preparation and effluent treatment sections of MNK's ammonium nitrate plant in Indonesia have been integrated to utilize reaction heat for condensate stripping.

Abstract

Well known as a licensor of ammonium nitrate (AN) plant, with more than 40 references all around the world, Kaltenbach-Thuring (KT) offers a variety of technologies for reducing the level of emissions of gaseous and liquid effluents to conform with the ever more stringent regulations being introduced all over the world.

The synthesis of ammonium nitrate from ammonia and nitric acid is a very exothermic reaction and generates large amounts of contaminated steam, which arise from the evaporation of the water content of the nitric acid feed. KT has applied several processes for recovering heat from this steam and using it, for example in the ammonium nitrate dry section.

To fulfil the most stringent effluent purity standards, KT can also offer a process based on evaporation which attains a residual total contaminant level of less than 30 ppm in an energy self-sufficient system using just the heat content of the process steam.

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Looking to technology

Summary

With the impending disappearance of MTBE exacerbating an already weak market, methanol producers have to hope that technological development will accelerate the growth of alternative end-use markets and help them to chip a bit more off production costs.

Abstract

As has been reported in recent editions of this magazine, the tide has truly turned against MTBE (methyl t-butyl ether), an oxygenated additive introduced to improve the burning characteristics of gasoline in response to environmental legislation pioneered in California. Traces of it are now being found in water supplies in the state of California and in other parts of the United States, where it makes its presence known through its intensely unpleasant, bitter taste, detectable at concentrations measured in parts per trillion. The main sources of this new environmental nuisance have been identified as leaking underground gasoline tanks at filling stations, which contaminate the ground water in the water supply catchment area, and speedboats and jet-ski machines used on the reservoirs. These machines discharge their exhaust close to or even below water level, and it is fair to assume that from time to time neat gasoline is spilled or otherwise leaks from them directly into the water.

The underground gasoline tank problem was known about well before MTBE began to appear in water supplies, and after a ten-year grace period during which the proprietors of these tanks were supposed to upgrade them, new federal and California state regulations went into effect last December. At that point some 40% of the tanks in California were still not in compliance, so the state prohibited further deliveries of gasoline to them. But the pressure to outlaw MTBE continued unabated (due at least in part to the agricultural alcohol lobby, which saw a nice opportunity to greatly expand its business to provide the only feasible alternative oxygenated additive, ethanol. And on 25 March, in spite of the lack of evidence that it poses any actual health risk, California state governor Gray Davis duly announced a ban on the use of MTBE in gasoline to take effect after a three-year run-down. Other authorities both inside and outside the United States are likely to follow California’s example, if past experience concerning environmental and safety matters is anything to go by. In taking this step, Governor Davis does seem to have shot the messenger without doing anything effective about the real problem, which is that gasoline should not be allowed to escape anywhere near sources of drinking water. MTBE, being water-soluble, migrates through the ground water much faster than other gasoline constituents such as benzene, which are known to be highly toxic and dangerous. It thus provided a benign early warning of a longer-term health risk.

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Sabic company profile

Summary

Since its inception in 1976, the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (Sabic) has grown to become one of the largest petrochemical producers in the world, with major shares of global urea and methanol trade. Nitrogen & Methanol takes an overview of the company's operations in the fertilizer and methanol sectors.

Abstract

Saudi Arabia is predominantly an oil-based economy. Oil revenues make up around 85% of Saudi export earnings and 40% of the country’s GDP. A fall in oil prices, such as occurred last year, presents the country with significant challenges; last year real GDP fell by between 1 and 11% (Saudi Arabia does not publish detailed government accounts so all figures can only be estimates). And while the recent resurgence in oil prices may have put the economy back on track, this dependence on the volatile oil market has sparked an interest in Saudi Arabia in diversifying into other areas.

Sabic was founded in 1976 as a way of managing this diversification. Over the past 23 years it has grown to become a major world producer of basic and intermediate chemicals, polymer resins and polyesters, fertilizers, metals and industrial gases. It employs over 16,000 people and sells to more than 100 countries. Petrochemicals form the largest slice of Sabic’s diverse portfolio – about 50% of income, and also represent the dominant proportion of Sabic’s exports.

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