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My Year with Unipetrol – Michael Londesborough
They say that money makes the World go round.
But, it’s not true.
The instability of the C-H bond is what really makes the World go round.
It is the desire of the delicate C-H bond to give in to the persuasive charms of thermodynamics, and fall into the tempting and welcoming arms of oxygen to form C-O bonds that truly turns the cogs of the World. To this we must add the possibly unique genius of our planet to use sunlight to turn this process around, head over heels, and regenerate the C-H bond, thus harvesting solar energy to produce chemical energy. The same chemical energy that powers our cars and machines, packs our Christmas carp with calories, and enables my fingers to tap out these words on my PC.
But, there is a catch to this blessing. A caveat that must be addressed.
Ying and yang.
Regarding the exchange between C-H and C-O bonds, as with so much in life, balance and moderation are key to sustainability. Indeed, understanding this balance, and being able to extract what we require whilst not overworking the goose that lays the chemical golden egg, is the primary challenge of our times. How to intelligently source, store and control energy and materials in order to support growth whilst maintaining sustainability is increasingly the focus of industry, government, science and society. Within the scope of this challenge Unipetrol plays a key role in the development of local strategy.
This year I have had the pleasure to work with a fantastic team of people from Unipetrol and Unipetrol Foundation who are contributing to this evolving strategy. A focus has been communication, sometimes with industry experts, other times the general public, and on occasion with school children. So much of the information disseminated in various media concerning our use of hydrocarbon products is oversimplified, presented with a one-sided bias, and unbalanced. I believe that in order to make progress, we must present the full story, warts and all. The situation as it is. An honest assessment.
With Unipetrol Foundation I have been a part of “Báječný den s chemií” – a chemistry extravaganza touring the country and engaging thousands of school children with the thrill and wonder of chemistry shows. Amongst all the fun and whizzes and bangs, however, is a serious underlying message about how our Planet uses chemistry to store energy in the form of hydrocarbons – vitally important molecules that we can use for fuel and from which we can manufacture modern materials.
Part of Unipetrol’s outreach strategy is its participation at important Czech and international technology fairs and conferences. For example, “Innovation week 2019” held at the impressive Forum venue in Prague. Here I provided a chemist’s perspective on “Plastics: The material we love to hate”. If you missed it, you can see it here: YouTube. Plastics are the objective of much current concern, some of which is warranted and some of which is exaggerated. My aim was to present a balanced view based on my professional understanding of chemistry supplemented by what I had learned during another Unipetrol project from 2019 – “Let’s Talk About It”. “Let’s Talk About It” is a series of twelve interviews, unscripted and unedited, with experts in an array of fields – from research scientists to economists. A recurring theme in many of these interviews is the zeitgeist of the ‘Circular Economy’ – a principle of intelligent resource use, material recycling, and industrial efficiencies.
My 2019 with Unipetrol featured not only insights into current trends but also projections about our future. In this context, I talked at the annual “Čerpačka conference” and at a client event in Slovakia about the future of fuels, car engines and petrol stations, concentrating on the difference between storing and selling molecules (what we currently do) as opposed to electrons (what we might well end up doing): the latter being a sub-atomic particle and therefore governed by the mysterious laws of quantum physics. The fuels we will use will ultimately depend on the kind of cars we will drive, which, in turn, is a product of infrastructure, technology, and governmental policy. A fascinating mix of science and economics – from the quantum level to international politics. It is highly encouraging to see so many experts and interest groups together discussing possibilities and formulating ideas and plans.
Last, but not least, 2019 afforded me the experience of two industry fairs: The 3rd Central European Plastics Meeting, and K-Fair – the leading international meeting on plastics and rubbers. Here a full perspective may be gained on production, usage and recycling of our age-defining material. On display were the latest technologies, including bicycle frames 3-D printed from recycled plastics, super-thin ultra-HD polymer/OLED based display units, training shoes and training running track from recycled plastics, I even had a shirt to wear made partially from recycled ocean-plastic waste. Many innovative intelligent plastic materials doped with active compounds that change the appearance or function of the material were on display, my favourite being Unipetrol’s very own Chezacarb – an anti-static material that can mitigate static shock from cars and reduces the risk of static-electricity ignited explosions. Technology, chemistry, materials…a scientific feast.
I can’t wait for what 2020 brings!