Thursday, August 19, 2004

From Wilkes-Barre to Wolfe

In Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on the banks of the Susquehanna River, which once flowed into the lucrative anthracite mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania, there’s a wildly popular polka band that calls itself Stanky and the Coal Miners.

And although anthracite coal was first used in a Wilkes-Barre blacksmith’s shop in 1769, these days if it weren’t for Stanky and his 1-2-3 polka beat conjuring up the sounds of a past steeped in black lung and soot, you’d no longer hear any coal-mining-era reminders in town at all. Wilkes-Barre was born in coal, boomed with coal, and then slid into economic slump with the environmental degradation wrought by coal.

But, if you pay close attention and look around town, you’ll see something new rising from the dust.

In September 2003, it was a 330-ton liquid natural gas heat exchanger that began life in the Wilkes-Barre factory of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., then journeyed to Nigeria, where it will help capture and liquefy natural gas.

Three-hundred-thirty tons? And you thought this was a nanotechnology blog? It is. But to truly explain why nano matters, you have to first see the big picture.

The developing world is doing just that – developing. And as economies grow, so do their demands for energy and their ability to export it to other countries. When it comes to gas-rich countries like Nigeria, enabling conversion of gas to liquid fuel serves as a catalyst for economic development in Africa and, eventually, could lead to less U.S. dependence on oil imports from the Middle East. And the gas-to-liquids market is $100 billion a year, and still evolving.

Did you get that word? Catalyst? Remember it. We’re almost down to the nano scale, but not quite.

Bottling that gas and piping it around the world costs a great deal of money, so companies are pumping an awful lot of R&D cash into making that process cheaper. The potential rewards are great, since the flow of liquid natural gas (LNG) is expected to quadruple from 2001 to 2020. Now is a good time to plant that LNG stake in the ground. Air Products has decided that it wants to be there – hence the Wilkes-Barre/Nigeria connection. But the company also needs to make the process cheaper and more efficient. The way to do that is by discovering more precise ways of making the chemistry happen.

Now, finally, here we are, from a 330-ton hunk of metal, to molecules. You want to set the world alight with your energy solution? Well, like The Boss says, “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” And you can’t change chemistry without a catalyst.

And, boy, have I ever learned about catalysts. I did a great deal of research on them as a contributing editor to the latest edition of the Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report. Despite having worked with me through this August issue, Josh Wolfe and company apparently haven't learned their lesson and have given me some work for the September edition.

When I learned of coal-to-oil technology, it sent me back to the wastelands of Wilkes-Barre, where I was assistant news editor at the Times-Leader for the longest 10 months of my life back in the early '90s.

In 1997, Air Products worked with the U.S. Department of Energy in a Tennessee pilot plant that turned coal into methanol – technology that will likely see commercial light in China. The good folks of Wilkes-Barre might want to take a look at the connection between their hometown company’s innovative technologies being deployed in the Far and Middle East, and their own lost coal heritage.

But, then again, perhaps the connections have been made already. According to the Oct. 25, 2000 Congressional Record, Rep. Paul E. Kanjorski, D-Pa., rose to pay tribute to John “Stanky” Stankovic, “who has been entertaining people of all ages with his polka magic for 55 years.”

Stanky, the hometown congressman continued, “learned to play the accordion from his father, Joe Stankovic, a Czech immigrant who came to America at age sixteen and went straight to work in the coal mines. When Stanky was a young man, he was more interested in being a professional baseball player. However, his father wisely made sure he practiced his music one hour a day before going out to play, and audiences around the world have benefited from Stanky's ultimate career choice. For example, in 1988, Stanky and the Coal Miners played to a crowd of a million people in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China.”

Perhaps all it takes to spark a revolution is a lump of coal, a nanocatalyst and 1-2-3- polka beat.

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