“I really didn’t think that tweeting a random article about an ethylene experiment would get so much attention.” – Rory Johnston
Ethylene is the most industrially significant molecule in the world. Its simple structure of two carbon and four hydrogen atoms belies its astonishing utility. The carbon atoms are connected via a double bond, the reactivity of which makes it an ideal feedstock for countless downstream chemical reactions. Ethylene can be oligomerized, polymerized, oxidized, halogenated, alkylated, hydrated – the possibilities are virtually limitless. It is no exaggeration to say that most synthetic materials in our modern economy contain carbon atoms that once existed as ethylene.
Each year, approximately 200 million metric tons of ethylene are produced at factories known colloquially as crackers. (That’s more than 50 pounds for every living human on Earth.) Crackers are marvels of chemical engineering and operate at an almost unimaginable scale, complexity, and efficiency. In ExxonMobil’s giant Baytown cracker (below) and similar facilities around the world, ethane is cracked into ethylene and hydrogen around the clock, feeding the world’s nearly insatiable appetite for the stuff.
Given its prominent role in our economy, the production of ethylene has been studied and optimized by tens of thousands of brilliant industrial scientists and engineers over several decades. Because the return on improvements can be captured across such a huge scale, untold billions have been spent seeking the smallest advances. Few stones remain unturned when it comes to this particular industrial process.
It is in this context that we recently engaged in an affable back-and-forth with Rory Johnston – a good friend of the Doomberg team and author of the fantastic Substack Commodity Context – about a tweet he published last Sunday:
The article that understandably caught Johnston’s eye draws attention to a recent scientific publication with some bold claims (emphasis added throughout):
“A team of researchers led by Meenesh Singh at University of Illinois Chicago has discovered a way to convert 100% of carbon dioxide captured from industrial exhaust into ethylene, a key building block for plastic products.
Their findings are published in Cell Reports Physical Science.
While researchers have been exploring the possibility of converting carbon dioxide to ethylene for more than a decade, the UIC team's approach is the first to achieve nearly 100% utilization of carbon dioxide to produce hydrocarbons. Their system uses electrolysis to transform captured carbon dioxide gas into high purity ethylene, with other carbon-based fuels and oxygen as byproducts.”
While the point of today’s piece is not to debunk this particular example of hyperbole-masquerading-as-research but is instead to demonstrate this as a symptom of a broader disease infecting much of modern academia, we can’t effectively do the latter without spending at least a few paragraphs driving home the former. Let’s dig in.