🏭 Quantum Aspen

Microsoft and quantum chemistry, the CHIPS Act’s chemical expansion, and polypropylene.

TOGETHER WITH


Good morning. Last week, after talking about Polystyvert’s upcoming site, we asked “which type of recycling process will scale better for polystyrene?” Responses varied from “styrene loves to polymerize” to “dissolution is dumb and brutal”. At a high level seems like the everyone is pretty split on this:

🟨🟨🟨🟨⬜️⬜️ Depolymerization (42 votes, 45%)

🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩 Dissolution / purification (52 votes, 55%)

This week's question: fixing which bottleneck will have the greatest impact?

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From the condenser:
· Microsoft and quantum chemistry
· The CHIPS Act’s chemical expansion
· MOTD: polypropylene

Microsoft’s quantum efforts for chemicals

Microsoft announced progress in its quantum computing capability, and is now offering Azure Quantum Elements to chemical and material companies looking to run cloud-based molecular simulations.

The context you need:
Bringing a novel chemical, material, or process to market takes a very long time. There are a lot of reasons for this, but at its core the problem is rather straightforward: we don’t have a reliable way to predict how atoms, molecules, (and the materials they become) will interact at large scales. We’ve managed thus far by experimenting, recording data, and using it to come up with empirically-derived approximations (which we then combine and solve via numerical methods using software like Aspen), but those simulations are never precise enough to eliminate uncertainty (which we manage by employing a Stage-Gate development process—lab, pilot, demo, then full scale).

Okay, so what did Microsoft do?
The company has been working with researchers from BASF (who just started up a new supercomputer in Germany) and Johnson Matthey to trial its cloud-based offerings, but now they’re making those offerings available to the industry at large. Microsoft is effectively providing researchers with a quantum chemistry toolkit, the computing power to run virtual simulations, and the ability to estimate the impact that quantum computing (when it’s ready) could provide.

Looking forward:
While we can accelerate chemical and material discovery today with Microsoft’s existing computing power, it’s important to keep in mind that discovery is just half of the problem. The other half, which may require some quantum computing, is virtually perfect simulation of full scale processes. If you can do that well enough to skip through the Stage-Gate process, then you can drastically reduce payback periods and the amount of funding required to go to market.

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The CHIPS Act for chemical producers

The US Department of Commerce (DOC) announced that the CHIPS and Science Act will be expanded to include chemical and material producers looking to supply US-based semiconductor manufacturers.

A little background:
In case you hadn’t heard, the US is very interested in building out domestic supply chains for the production of batteries and semiconductors; which, among other sustainability-related interests, is manifested in the IIJA, IRA, and CHIPS Acts. But while the IIJA and IRA provided funding and further incentives for both battery manufacturers and battery material producers, the CHIPS Act hasn’t benefited both semiconductor manufacturers and semiconductor material producers (only semiconductor manufacturers have received incentives so far).

Okay, so what’s the deal here?
Starting September 1st, the DOC will begin accepting applications and funding semiconductor material producers looking to build capital intensive projects (>$300 million). The exact amount of funding will vary on a per project basis, but the 5-15% of total CapEx that is typically awarded to semiconductor manufacturers doesn’t apply here—the DOC noted that the upper limit could be higher for the material producers, which makes sense because material producers capture a smaller fraction of the total value eventually created (which exacerbates their already long payback periods).

Zooming out:
We talked about Wacker’s plans to expand its semiconductor-grade polysilicon chunk production in Germany just a couple of weeks ago ($), and semiconductor materials have come up a few other times in the past (see: Showa Denko’s chip gases for deposition, Huntsman’s quats for photoresist dissolution, and Solvay’s H2O2 for etching). It sounds like it’s going to start coming up a lot more, because the bottom line is that we can’t make semiconductors without the chemical and material producers upstream.

Some more headlines

  • Ineos is selling sustainable epoxies for skis based on the mass-balance method

  • TotalEnergies and VNG will use green hydrogen at their Leuna refinery

  • A new propane dehydrogenation unit will be built in Turkey using Honeywell's tech

  • C&EN wrote about how Huntsman and Indorama are making battery electrolytes

  • Covestro rejected a $12 billion acquisition offer from ADNOC

Molecule of The Day

Today's MOTD is a dear friend, polypropylene.

While it's true that two chemists at Phillps Petroleum discovered polypropylene (PP), it wasn't until Ziegler and Natta developed a fancy catalyst that the world started making massive amounts of PP.

Today, over 97% of the roughly 80 million tons produced each year are made by polymerizing propylene with Ziegler-Natta catalysts. It's worth noting that only about 60% of that PP are homopolymers—the rest are these copolymers that introduce ethylene and rubber.

If you know what you're looking for, you'll find PP everywhere you look. Here is a handy pie chart if you want some examples.

There are plenty of PP producers around the world, but LyondellBasell and Sinopec are the most notable of the main players.

The reboiler

  • Book: The Alchemy of Air is a must-read for anyone interested in the chemical industry. It's the story behind the Haber-Bosch process that lead to fertilizer—and explosives.*

  • Article: Oleochemicals are making a comeback because of the sustainability push. Give this a read if you want some context.

  • Podcast: Check out this episode featuring Dr. Judy Giordan on sustainability in the chemical industry.

The bottoms

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