Sunday, July 5, 2015

A Good Laugh over Thorium

Subtitle: Anonymous Says Thorium Is Too Good

Sometimes, I just have to laugh.  I don't post many comments on SLB, although I do receive a great many comments.    My blog only contains comments that pass my moderation standards.  Many comments get discarded, such as hateful statements, irrelevant statements, blatant sales pitches, and illegal statements.    Today, I post an anonymous comment that was sent in just the other day on one of SLB's thorium nuclear power articles.   This one is given its own article with my commentary - it is just too funny. 

I don't mind anonymous comments just because they are anonymous.  I understand there are some excellent reasons for some people to remain anonymous.  It's the content of the comment, not the commenter's internet name that gets the moderation. 

Note, this commenter gave zero support for any of his statements (or her, but I'll refer to him and his.)   That is pretty typical for an anonymous and negative tone such as this one. 

First, the comment in quoted italics, then my thoughts on what Anonymous wrote. 


Your "blog" is truly a masterful deception. The reason that alternatives to Thorium power plants have occurred had absolutely NOTHING to do with the failure of thorium power plant technology. Way back in the early 70's Westinghouse Corp. had 2 fully operational thorium test plants.

While there were minor problems, they did in fact completely obsolete virtually all nuclear and fossil fuel technologies of the time. Now I happen to know a little about this because my father was a senior management Consultant for a major consulting firm who was under contract with them at the time. The issue of Thorium was not that it was a failure; rather it was far to (sic) big a success. It literally would have rendered the entire fossil fuel industry of oil, gas and coal, not to mention conventional nuclear power obsolete . Its other big failing, and ultimately the excuse for burying the technology, was the fact that unlike conventional nuclear power, there was (sic) no by products (sic) suitable for material for nuclear weapons production. 

Ironically it was Jimmy Carter who officially signed the death warrant for Thorium, claiming national security issues. But in truth Thorium was a victim of its own success. It was to damn good, and to damned cheap." 

My comments:

He writes, "your "blog" is truly a masterful deception."  I suppose putting the word "blog" in quotations is his way of saying SLB is not a real blog.   Perhaps not, but more than 42,000 visitors from 145 countries have shown up to read SLB.    

He then says "in the early 70's Westinghouse Corp. had 2 fully operational thorium test plants."  No references or citations were given, but perhaps Anonymous refers to the short test at Shippingport, Pennsylvania where thorium fuel was tested in a nuclear power plant.   For those who want to read about this, Idaho National Lab published a document on it at this link.   The Shippingport reactor was a Light Water Breeder Reactor (LWBR) test plant of only 72 MWe maximum.  Key passage is shown below:

"During most of core life, the LWBR was operated as a base load station (Richardson et al. 1987, WAPD-TM-1606, p. 35). During the first two years of operation, the core was subjected to 204 planned swingload cycles to demonstrate the core transient capability and generating system load follow to simulate operation of a large commercial nuclear reactor (Richardson et al. 1987, WAPD-TM-1606, p. 35). A swing load cycle is defined as power reduction from about 90% to 35–60% for 4 to 8 hr, then back to 90% or higher power. Despite shutdowns and swing, the reactor achieved a high capacity factor
of 65% and high availability factor of 86% (Richardson et al. 1987, WAPD-TM-1606, p. 35).

For its initial 18,000 EFPH, the maximum allowable reactor power was established as 72 MW gross (electric) . . ." 

Anonymous then writes the truly funny statement: "It literally would have rendered the entire fossil fuel industry of oil, gas and coal, not to mention conventional nuclear power obsolete."   That is a bold conclusion, with zero facts provided to support the conclusion.  Here are the important points that Anonymous must prove to support such a conclusion: how would nuclear-produced electricity make obsolete the oil and gas industry, given that oil provides transportation fuels for cars, trucks, ships, aircraft, and trains, plus lubricants, asphalts, and petrochemical feedstocks, and natural gas provides critical feedstock for agricultural and petrochemical production?   That thorium nuclear-produced electricity must indeed be novel, even Nobel-Prize worthy stuff.   Also, coal has many non-electricity uses, but perhaps Anonymous is not aware of such things, or he has a plan for substituting his thorium nuclear-produced electricity for those services.   Here is a partial summary of non-electricity uses of coal: 

"Other important users of coal include steel producers, alumina refineries, paper manufacturers, and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Several chemical products can be produced from the by-products of coal. Refined coal tar is used in the manufacture of chemicals, such as creosote oil, naphthalene, phenol, and benzene. Ammonia gas recovered from coke ovens is used to manufacture ammonia salts, nitric acid and agricultural fertilisers. Thousands of different products have coal or coal by-products as components: soap, aspirins, solvents, dyes, plastics and fibres, such as rayon and nylon."  (source:   

So, we can see that Anonymous is truly a funny man.    But what about the statement that thorium would make "conventional nuclear power obsolete?"   As written on SLB (and a few other places), nuclear power that now produces only approximately 11 percent of the world's electricity after 50 years of intense effort, is outrageously expensive and so unsafe that only with effectively full government indemnity from radiation releases are any plants built anywhere.   Therefore, Anonymous' thorium nuclear plants must somehow overcome those two big hurdles: must be much less costly to build and operate and decommission, and must be so safe that they do not need government assistance.    

Put bluntly, that is not going to happen with thorium plants.  As written before on SLB, see link, when a nuclear plant is operated at anything but baseload, the price for its electricity must skyrocket.  As shown in the above quote from the Idaho National Lab (INL) paper, Shippingport was operated as a load-following power plant, even though it was tiny at only 72 MWe.  The output shown in the INL report shows max output of 50 to 65 MWe.  

So, thanks for the laugh, Anonymous.  Your conclusion of "It was to (sic) damn good, and to (sic) damned cheap." is truly funny.   "Good" means what, exactly?  Was the plant able to compete with a coal-fired power plant on cost?  We note that the test was for only 5 years, and not full-time at that.  Would such a plant last for 40 years?  "Cheap" means what, exactly?  Note that conventional nuclear fuel from uranium is touted by the nuclear proponents as costing "only" one or perhaps two cents per kWh generated.  Even if thorium fuel was free, how much would that reduce a customer's monthly bill? 

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Knowing versus Not Knowing

Subtitle: Ignorance is no substitute for knowledge

The search for Truth - with a capital T - has a long history.  How do we define something as True?  In part, the answer lies in what that something is.  Easily verifiable statements are true, if the verification is positive.  For example, it is true to state that the Pacific Ocean lies to the west of North America.  At the other extreme, truth is elusive for highly subjective statements such as "my dog is cute."  The dog may be cute to some observers, but very ugly to other observers.   Another consideration is the iceberg principle: what may appear to be true (no danger to a ship from the small top of the iceberg) is not true when all the facts are known (the underwater, hidden, and huge part of the iceberg is a danger to a ship).  In a court of law, judicial notice is taken when neither party wishes to dispute the truth of a fact that has some bearing on the case.  The fact is taken as absolutely true, with no doubt associated with that fact.  An example of a true fact, one that would have judicial notice in a court proceeding, is that June 27, 2015, is a Saturday. 

Note, there are some who quibble and object that islands are part of North America and are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean.  An example is Santa Catalina Island, offshore southern California.  

Background - about me and why I write this article
For those who may be new to Sowell's Law Blog, SLB, I am both an attorney-at-law and have long experience in chemical engineering in a great number of process plants around the world.  In addition to my law practice, I write on a number of topics, and make speeches to various groups from college students to professional engineering societies.    SLB topics typically include climate change, nuclear power, renewable energy, fossil fuel energy, government regulatory issues, fresh water, NASA's missions, engineering and scientific professional liability, Free Speech and the First Amendment, especially defamation, and others.   My stance generates some responses, of which quite a few are positive and some downright nasty and negative.   A few commenters, who sometimes send email, resort to vicious personal attacks, character assassination, and libel.   

For some perspective, SLB has existed since March, 2008, and has received almost 120,000 pageviews from more than 40,000 unique visitors in 140 countries.  At this time, there are 280 posts, and the blog receives approximately 3,000 views per month.  (Those statistics are not especially notable in the internet world, yet they are what this blog has produced over its 7 year life.  This represents far more views, and far more visitors, and certainly far more countries than I ever envisioned.  Alexa's global rank for SLB is 21.4 million, out of more than 1 billion websites globally).  

What sometimes puzzles me is how so many people, typically those with nasty and negative comments, can hold the positions they hold.  This article explores some of the reasons people hold an opinion. 

Knowledge Matrix

A knowledge matrix is a binary matrix with two parameters, with each parameter taking one of two values.  The two parameters are 1) knowledge a person can have, and 2) the realization the person has of having the knowledge.   The two values for each parameter are yes, and no, as shown below.  

  A) Don't know but don't realize it
  B) Don't know but do realize it
  C) Do know but don't realize it
  D) Do know and do realize it

For A) a person doesn't know the knowledge but also does not realize he doesn't know.  This person is (probably) blissfully ignorant of that particular bit of knowledge.  Experience has shown that many people, perhaps most people, have this A) condition for a great many subjects.  As examples, an unpublished bit of scientific knowledge may have only a few people who know about it, while the rest of the world population don't know and don't realize the knowledge exists.  Also, social groups that are isolated have no knowledge of events outside their local area and may not realize the outside areas exist.  

For B) a person doesn't know the knowledge but realizes he doesn't know. This person is one who recognizes that such knowledge exists, but realizes that he himself does not know the knowledge.  For example, most of us (excluding medical doctors) are in this category with respect to deep medical knowledge.  We know that a vast medical knowledge exists, and we may actually know some of it, but we realize we don't know all that a trained medical doctor knows.   This also describes a person with a shallow knowledge of any subject, who realizes that a complex and deep body of knowledge on that subject also exists.  

For C) a person does know the knowledge but doesn't realize he knows it.  This may seem a bit unrealistic, since most of us are aware of what we know.  Yet, examples exist all around.  A shy person may have never made a speech in public, but once he tries public speaking and has success, he enjoys public speaking.  He had the knowledge of how to speak in public but did not realize it. 

Finally, for D) a person does know the knowledge and realizes he knows it.  This describes people who have studied a subject, or practiced activities until they are proficient.  

This becomes important, the A B C D categories, when matters of some public concern are discussed.  Especially with the internet and its literally millions of websites, it can be seen that writers (and speakers) from all categories are publishing their views.  But, pre-internet, similar situations existed with traditional print and broadcast media.  People who wildly speculate might be in A), they don't know and don't realize they don't know, but they write very wrong things.  People in B) may write, but acknowledge they don't know and therefore seek opinions from authorities and quote those authorities.  That in itself has problems, discussed later.  People in C) may write, although in my experience those are rare.  They know, but don't realize they know, so they don't write.   People in D) may write, those who know and realize they know, and have valid points.  

However, the A B C and D categories are not sufficient; what about those Ds who know, and realize it, but deliberately omit key facts or distort the facts, or outright lie, to further their agenda?  This has great application in several key areas discussed below. 

Furthermore, what about those who don't know and don't realize it, (A), but actually believe they do know and realize it?  They may trust authorities, and repeat the talking points.   These may be good, honest people, but they simply have never heard the opposing viewpoint.  (e.g. people who don't know that the climate scientists adjusted historical data, omitted variables in their models, ignore important correlations, include data that should be excluded as invalid) (e.g. in nuclear power, those who never have heard the safety, costs, or subsidy facts such as shown by TANP series) (e.g. renewable energy costs are rapidly declining, with increased production and grid penetration with no ill effects, storage is solved with MIT underwater storage) (e.g. fresh water is abundant but in the wrong places and the wrong times in floods, need transfer systems such as NEWTAP, or dams and reservoirs).

Tests for Veracity and Acceptance - Daubert Standard 

How, then, can one determine the truth of what people write?  The example of a court trial is given.  In US Federal Courts, and some state courts, an expert witness' testimony is tested to determine if the expert's reasoning and methodology is scientifically valid and can be properly applied to the facts at issue in the case.  The Daubert Standard has five parts:

(1) whether the theory or technique in question can be and has been tested; 
(2) whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication; 
(3) its known or potential error rate; 
(4) the existence and maintenance of standards controlling its operation; and 
(5) whether it has attracted widespread acceptance within a relevant scientific community.

Of course, almost none of what is written on the internet ends up in a Daubert analysis for validity.   Courts require the attorneys to prepare and submit arguments based on existing cases and a few other legal authorities.   Internet websites and blogs can function to influence public opinion, and individual opinions.  It is likely not necessary to run through the entire Daubert five steps, but an opinion that can pass all five steps certainly should carry some weight.    

What is interesting is how some people refuse to modify their opinions, even when faced with overwhelming proof that their opinion does not match the facts.   In some of my speeches, especially those to college engineering students, the audience members have not heard or been exposed to certain aspects of science and engineering.  It is an indictment of the primary and secondary school system that tries to indoctrinate the students with half-truths or outright false statements.   

For example, a student asked me years ago to read the environmental science textbook for a class he was taking, and comment on it.  I found it to be full of false statements, and very misleading where it had an element of truth.  The writer clearly had an agenda, and that agenda did not include the most good for the least cost.  One of the greatest false statements in environmental propaganda is that the Earth cannot heal itself.  One huge example is oil spills in the oceans.  The fact is that oil is a natural substance and has leaked into the oceans in very many locations around the world, and has done so for thousands if not millions of years.  Oil becomes part of the food chain in the oceans.  (one need only look up underwater volcanoes)  

Other tests for validity exist for an argument, with the several well-known false arguments from logic.  These include the appeals to authority, to heaven, to pity, and to tradition, arguments from consequences, ignorance, inertia, and from motives, the argument by force, by silence, the bandwagon argument, circular reasoning, the Big Lie, blind loyalty, the Ad Hominem (attacking the person), favoritism, bribery, complex question, the half-truth, lying with statistics, the non-sequitur or Red Herring, straw man, slippery slope, with more than 50 such fallacies listed here.   Many of these false arguments occur routinely in legal proceedings, in testimony, in depositions, in expert witness opinions, in attorney's summations, and at times, in judicial opinions.  It is important to identify the false arguments and refute them where possible. 

In matters concerning science and engineering, the data itself is subject to review, criticism, and many times, rejection.   A brief excursion follows, to describe what many people (apparently) do not know, or if they know, refuse to admit when discussing important topics. 

How Valid Is The Data

It is sometimes stated that all data has measurement errors, the only question is how big are the errors.  That is almost always true, but not quite.  Where one can have absolute accuracy is in certain data involving integers, or discrete objects.  One can, for example, count the number of chairs in a room, provided there is sufficient time to do the counting, the room is not overly large, and the number of chairs does not change during the counting.   For an ordinary room such as a banquet room in a hotel, one can quickly and accurately count the chairs.   One can also count the number of coins in a cash register.  (counting coins can be made much faster and more accurate by placing the coins in piles of ten, then counting the number of piles and multiplying by ten).   However, where a discrete number of things is not the object, measurements actually do have some error.   

Errors exist in most data, but where the errors are sufficiently small, the end-user does not care.  Sometimes, measurement errors are random and tend to cancel out over enough time.   At times, statistical methods are used to determine if the measurement is within the usual (historical) range of error, perhaps one or two standard deviations.   If the measurement is outside that range, notice is taken and the measuring device may be examined for recalibration or repair. 

Topical Examples

Having now examined some aspects of what people know, if they realize what they know, writers with agendas, validity of arguments, fallacious arguments, and accuracy of data, specific topics are examined.   These include, in no particular order, nuclear power plants, climate change and its prevention, mitigation, or adaptation, renewable energy systems, and abundant fresh water.   Each of these has appeared in articles on SLB, and each has attracted comments both positive and negative.  

Nuclear Power Plants

The subject of nuclear power plants, that provide electricity, is immense with almost limitless individual topics.  The fuel itself has many aspects, whether uranium, thorium, or fusion.  The reactor design has many systems from which to choose, from boiling water, pressurized water, advanced boiling water, molten fluoride salts, radioactive spheres, small, medium, or very large capacity.  The power generation scheme has different aspects, from steam, to circulating helium, and supercritical carbon dioxide.   However, even within the arena of existing licensed technologies, the boiling water reactor using steam to drive a turbine-generator, great controversy exists.   

Many industry proponents write articles and offer comments on blogs that show they are blind to the many and serious negative aspects of nuclear power.  As my articles on Truth About Nuclear Power, TANP, show, economics, safety, and subsidies all are very negative.  Yet, when confronted with the truth, many proponents resort to name-calling.   Others resort to what I refer to as the "Yeah, but..." argument.   Some proponents actually insist that the current nuclear regulatory regime is too restrictive, and must be relaxed to allow the plants to compete economically.   One argument they make is to greatly increase the allowable nuclear radiation that can be routinely or episodically absorbed by humans.  In essence, they don't mind frying the populace from time to time in order to build more nuclear plants.  

What is very interesting is that TANP has very little original data, from me.  Instead, the articles are a compilation of known facts and valid statistics from a wide variety of sources.  As an example, the fact is that nuclear power produces only about 11 or 12 percent of the entire world's electricity, as published in several reputable sources.  The logical conclusion drawn and published in TANP is that nuclear power is not the safest and most economic power source, for after more than 50 years of mightily striving in the electrical generation marketplace, it remains only a minor player.   (Coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric all produce more kWh per year than does nuclear power).   This fact causes howls of indignation from the proponents, with their protests including over-regulation, lawsuits from attorneys, public scare-mongering about safe radiation levels, and more.  

Another plain and simple fact of nuclear power is that no nuclear plant would ever be built, anywhere, if not for massive government subsidies and almost total indemnification from harm due to nuclear radiation releases.  TANP discusses this at length, based on irrefutable facts such as the Price-Anderson Act.   Nuclear proponents twist the facts around, by stating that the cost of insurance for a nuclear power plant is a tiny fraction of the power sales price.  That is actually true, but only because the Price-Anderson Act covers the liability and forces each nuclear plant to have a tiny amount of insurance.  

What, then, can be the motivation of the nuclear proponents to howl in such indignation, to resort to vicious name-calling when the facts are published?   As I have stated or questioned before, do they really want to permanently poison the planet with plutonium?   Or, do they have a naive faith in the ingenuity of future engineers to magically solve the huge technical problems that exist in nuclear power plants?   My answer to that one is, some of the best minds in history have applied their best efforts to making nuclear plants safe, reliable, and affordable, for more than 50 years.  The results speak for themselves - five massive reactor meltdowns in less than 40 years, near-misses every 3 weeks (in the US) even after decades of operating experience, huge construction costs that require government subsidies, very long construction times that typically last a decade or more, massive amounts of reserve power to take over when (not if) the nuclear plants trip off-line, and very expensive decommissioning.  With all that effort, nuclear plants produce only 11 to 12 percent of the world's electricity.   

It certainly appears that nuclear proponents, whether writing or making speeches, are a combination of the knowledge matrix types: some write even though they don't know themselves and parrot authorities, some write with an agenda to build the plants no matter what.   One of the best ways to argue and prevail is to omit the negative points and hope the opposition fails to mention them.  Nuclear proponents are masters of that line of argument.  Some proponents, apparently, have great faith in nuclear plant advances, but zero faith in other energy technologies.  (renewable energy is discussed below). 

Climate Change and Prevention, mitigation, adaptation

Renewable Energy systems

Fresh water in abundance

(NB, more to be published on the remaining topics.)

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell

Friday, June 19, 2015

The View from a Process Engineer

Subtitle: Seven Steps to Good Evaluation

This article delves into the world of one of the most practical of all engineering disciplines: the chemical process engineer.   I hope to explain how we process engineers do at least some of the things we do, and why.  The examples shown here may have applicability to those who read and write on subjects such as climate change, nuclear power, renewable energy, water shortages, and many others.   All of the just-mentioned subjects are found on SLB.  

First, what is a chemical process engineer?  As I am one (as well as being an attorney at law), I can say that it is a person with a degree in chemical engineering who practices his or her engineering skills in process plants.   Process plants encompass quite a variety of industrial plants, such as petroleum refineries, natural gas plants, petrochemical plants, basic chemical plants, air separation plants, synthetic fiber plants, agricultural chemical plants, agricultural or crops processing plants (i.e. corn refineries that produce ethanol), synthetic fertilizer plants, soaps and detergents plants, adhesives plants, and many more.  My own career to date has given me first-hand experience in many of those categories, including petroleum refineries (of four types), natural gas plants, petrochemical plants (of many types), basic chemical plants, and air separation plants. 

The process engineer (leaving off the word 'chemical') typically addresses a problem or considers a new idea via a seven-step process.  These are, in order, 
1) is it physically possible, 
2) can it be made safe, 
3) can it operate reliably over time, 
4) can environmental impacts be mitigated, including post-operating life cleanup, 
5) can it make a profit, 
6) can it compete for scarce capital resources, and 
7) is it the best among the available alternatives.

Each of these steps is discussed below.   It is important, to a process engineer, to take the steps in order and not skip any steps.  

Physically Possible

This step may appear unnecessary, even ridiculous, but it is amazing (to me) how many people (typically non-engineers) who believe in and then advocate for processes or an article (meaning a thing) that violates one or more of the laws of physics.  Consistency with the laws of physics is the meaning in this context of "physically possible."   One sometimes hears, for example, that "everything is possible."  That is just not true.    There are many, many laws of physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics, that are immutable.  As I mention in my speeches, no one has ever found a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  I encourage the students and practicing engineers at my lectures to notify me at once if and when they encounter a Second Law violation, because I want to congratulate them, and be the one that notifies the Nobel Prize committee on their behalf.    Once a potential idea, or problem solution, is examined and found not to violate any physical laws, and only then, does the process engineer move on to the next step. 

Can It Be Made Safe

Safety in a process plant is not only required by law, it is critical to success.  Success may be defined in many ways, but in this context it is sufficient to have success mean long-term profitability.   This ties in somewhat to the next step, reliable operation.  An unsafe plant typically has unexpected production disruptions, perhaps explosions and fires, process areas that will not function, injured or killed employees, and a host of other undesirable outcomes.   

The process engineer examines the potential idea and evaluates the safety aspects.  There may be, for example, high temperatures, high pressures, corrosive or abrasive materials, toxic gases or vapors, and unstable chemicals that could violently expand, explode, or spontaneously ignite.  Other dangers could include very low temperatures, a tendency to solidify and block the flow, or emissions of dangerous radiation.  This is only a partial listing of the many and varied dangers that exist in a process plant.  There may be design or operating decisions that can eliminate the safety concerns, or mitigate them sufficiently to move on to the next step.   If the safety concerns cannot be overcome, the process engineer stops the evaluation. 

Reliable Operation Over Time

A process plant must operate reliably over time to be useful and profitable.  The question is how to define "reliable."   Process engineers usually define reliability by a percentage of time that a plant operates.  Operating ninety percent of the time is a typically acceptable reliability.  A process plant typically must be shut down at intervals to allow equipment to be repaired, cleaned, or have other services performed.   Plants that operate with frequent but unplanned shutdowns have a low reliability and will suffer a reduced profitability.  Profits are decreased as production decreases, from increased cost of repairs, and sometimes from re-processing unsuitable production.   A process can have multiple negative impacts where unreliable operations combine with unsafe conditions, as above.  Only where an idea can be designed and operated with sufficient reliability does the process engineer move to the next step. 

Environmental Impacts Mitigated    

A modern process plant must meet certain environmental requirements as defined in a multitude of laws.  An idea for a new process must be evaluated for environmental impacts.  There are at least three ways to eliminate or mitigate environmental impacts, including capturing and properly disposing the pollutants, dispersing the pollutants so that any toxicity is reduced or eliminated, and designing the process so that the pollutants are not produced at all.  This last means is sometimes known as "green chemistry."  

The process engineer examines the various regulated pollutants and evaluates the available means to meet the emissions requirements.   The concept of Best Available Control Technology, or BACT, is common in the environmental world.   As examples of "capture and dispose", toxic dusts may be captured in a filtering system, gaseous pollutants may be physically absorbed or chemically converted to benign chemicals, and liquids that have objectionable acidity or alkalinity (low or high pH) can be neutralized.  

Dispersing pollutants is generally a last resort, but such systems are occasionally allowed.  Examples include saline brine from desalination plants where the saline brine is introduced gradually and at multiple points into the ocean, treated water from a waste-treatment plant is also introduced slowly and over a wide area into a body of water (the Pacific Ocean receives treated water from a large waste treatment plant on the coast near Los Angeles, California), and tall smokestacks are required to allow the wind to disperse emissions. 

Environmental impacts must include mitigating any impacts when a process plant is shutdown after its viable life expires.  The US history is replete with hundreds of petroleum refineries and various chemical plants that have shut down permanently.  Many of those sites required extensive and costly mitigation to clean the soil.  Other process plants may have toxic areas that require special remediation.  

Only where the process engineer can determine acceptable ways to design and operate a plant that meets all the environmental requirements does the next step occur.     

Operate Profitably

The goal of (almost) every process plant is to make a profit, and a process engineer evaluates each idea with that in mind.  Where the idea is physically possible, can be made adequately safe and reliable, and meets environmental requirements, the process engineer examines the potential profitability.  This almost always includes an evaluation of capital costs, operating costs, and expected revenues.    Importantly, an idea that requires a lengthy construction period will also incur substantial financing costs.  

Many economic aspects of a new idea will be evaluated, including considering various sizes to take advantage of economy of scale, possibly modularized construction, competing technologies (if any exist), fees or royalties, plant location with respect to feedstocks and markets, plus many more.  It may be possible to improve profit for plants that have high electrical power requirements when they can be located near sources of low-cost electricity, such as hydroelectric dams.   

A key aspect is the cost to achieve improved reliability, especially long-term reliability due to corrosion.  Process engineers understand that corrosion is a function of the material chosen for the various pipes and equipment (note, there are also many other aspects that impact corrosion).  It may be possible to build a plant that does not corrode, if one had unlimited money and constructed the plant with titanium.  At the other extreme, one could build a plant of carbon steel and replace the various equipment and pipes just before the corrosion renders them unsafe and unreliable. 

The process engineer evaluates all the above, and many others, to determine the likely profitability of the new idea.   Several measures of profitability are usually calculated, with one of the most commonly used being the simple payout time.  A process engineer simply divides the capital cost by the annual net income (revenues minus operating costs) to obtain the number of years that would be required to pay off the capital cost.  For example, a new idea that would cost $10 million to install, and has $2 million per year net income would have a 5 year payout.   

Only where the simple payout time is sufficiently small, perhaps 2 or 3 years, does the process engineer move on to more sophisticated calculations of profitability. 

Compete for Scarce Capital Resources

Next, a new idea is evaluated against other potential ideas or projects.  It is common that only a finite capital budget exists, but the combined cost of the numerous ideas greatly exceeds the capital available.  The process engineer then must evaluate the various new ideas and select those for implementation.   The selection criteria and process may be complicated and require careful evaluation from many people in the organization.  

One criterion that a process engineer uses is the simple payout time from above.   Projects with shorter payout times almost always win over those with longer payout times.   

Best Among the Available Alternatives

The final step taken by the process engineer may appear to be identical, or similar, to the Compete for Scarce Capital Resources step just above.   However, in this context, the process engineer considers the overall wisdom of proceeding with the new idea.  Even if the new idea could be built according to all the above criteria (physically possible, safe, reliable, environmentally adequate, profitable, and more profitable than competing ideas), the process engineer considers whether the new idea should be built.   

There may be compelling reasons one might not want to build the new idea.  Perhaps the new idea consumes resources that could be used in a different way or for a different purpose.  Natural gas, for example, has been decried as a heating fuel and as a power generation fuel because it has great value as a building block for pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, and synthetic fertilizer.   Coal as a resource is also limited to approximately 50 years at this time, with its primary use as power generation fuel.   It might be wise to reduce coal use as a power plant fuel and use it instead as a petrochemical precursor.  

Another aspect is anticipated government regulation that would cut short the operating life of a new process plant or idea, such as occurred with mercury-based chlorine plants, plants that produced certain refrigerants, plants that produce lead-containing products, and plants that produce asbestos-containing products.   

Application to Other Areas

The above discussion shows seven steps employed by process engineers.   These steps are proven over many decades.  But, are they applicable to non-process plants?  The list at the beginning included climate change, nuclear power, renewable energy, and water shortages.   Each is discussed below.  

  -- Climate Change

In climate change, the science is so shaky, so uncertain that it scarcely deserves consideration.  (see link and this link).   When one considers how the climate data was and still is tortured, how definitive statements of man-made climate change are made - and then revised - and then revised again and again, how modern instruments with global reach show zero warming for almost two decades, how the best "climate models" disagree with modern temperatures, it is a wonder that climate change is considered a problem in the first place.   Yet, solutions to any actual global warming, and more importantly, global cooling, can be addressed via the above seven steps.  One must, first, reliably identify whatever is a substantial factor in causing global warming - or cooling.   To date, global warming advocates believe that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing unstoppable global warming.  There is no evidence to support that belief, however.   

If, and this is a big IF, it becomes necessary to reduce carbon dioxide inputs into the atmosphere, or remove some from the atmosphere, chemical engineers already know that it is physically possible to do so.  Safety is a major concern, especially for the processes that capture carbon dioxide and store it in liquid form deep in the earth.  A leak of liquid carbon dioxide into the atmosphere could and likely would suffocate thousands, if not millions of people.   Process plants that remove carbon dioxide from furnace exhaust stacks have existed for many years, and a modern plant is now running near San Antonio, Texas.   Reliability is not a major issue for these plants.  Environmental compliance is also not an issue, other than the massive leak from storage described above.  However, the cost to build and operate is a problem at this time.   The major issue, though, is whether the great cost to build enough plants to make a difference is justified, considering the questionable science surrounding the entire climate change and human contribution to any historical warming.  

   -- Nuclear Power 

Nuclear power is a frequent topic on SLB, and creates great disagreement and acrimony between proponents and opponents.   As readers of SLB already know, my position is a nuclear opponent.  The 30-article series on the Truth About Nuclear Power shows many excellent reasons why nuclear power plants should never be built.  (see link)

Yet, nuclear proponents continue with their beliefs that nuclear power is safe, affordable, and desirable.   Nuclear power can be considered as two categories: proven and unproven technologies.  As proven technologies, there are boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors (BWR and PWR, respectively).  Unproven technologies include thorium, fusion, high temperature gas reactors, and small modular reactors.   

The arguments made by proponents for expansion of PWRs is that newer models are less costly and safer.  Some even argue for relaxed regulations, and abolition of lawsuits during construction.  Applying the seven steps, it is seen that the reactors are physically possible, but clearly not safe and not very reliable - especially as the plants age.  Environmental risks and damage are very great, with highly toxic nuclear waste emitting dangerous radioactivity for hundreds and thousands of years.  Costs to build have not been reduced but instead keep increasing, even though huge plants are built to achieve economy of scale.   Finally, competing technologies for producing electrical power make nuclear plants not the best choice, including natural gas and renewable energy.   

Unproven technologies barely pass the physically possible test, with fusion as yet only a theoretical but not demonstrated concept.  Thorium plants also are physically possible but have major safety, reliability, cost and environmental concerns.  The same is true for high temperature gas reactors and small modular reactors.   A major concern for thorium-based nuclear plants is the corrosion and cracking in the metallurgy that contacts the molten salt.  Every heat exchanger with tubes will eventually leak, with material at higher pressure leaking into the material with lower pressure.  The consequences of such leaks must be understood.   It is astonishing to me that a great number of nuclear proponents simply ignore this basic fact of process engineering.  

The final verdict on nuclear power is that proven technologies are vastly uneconomic, require massive government subsidies, and leave behind highly toxic wastes that endure for generations.  Unproven technologies are even worse.  

   --  Renewable Energy 

The renewable energy subject includes many technologies, solar in its various forms (photo-voltaic, concentrated solar, and solar ponds), wind both on-land and off-shore, ocean including waves, tides, sea-surface vs deep ocean temperature difference, and currents, river flow systems, pressure retarded osmosis at river mouths, and bio-mass systems including land-fill methane capture, municipal solid waste burning, and water distribution pressure recapture.  Many of the above technologies require some form of energy storage and release to provide increased value to the untimely or intermittent nature of the energy source.  

Physical possibility exists for all of the above renewable technologies.  Safety is adequate or can be made acceptable.  Reliability can also be made acceptable with sufficient design and investment.  Costs are rapidly declining in most technologies as experience is gained and economies of scale are captured.  Economy of scale exists for both larger individual units, and for mass production, and for single-events such as building transmission lines.    The lack of environmental impact, or very low impact, makes renewables especially attractive.  The eternal nature of the motive force, the sun, the wind, ocean waves, tides, and currents, and the essentially eternal production of municipal solid waste also make renewables especially attractive.  As installed costs continue to fall but costs of other forms of electric power increase, renewable energy plants become ever-more attractive.  

    -- Water Shortages

Fresh water in adequate amounts is a greater and greater concern, even though some areas experience heavy rains and floods.  Providing adequate fresh water essentially reduces to three technologies: building dams and storage reservoirs to hold and retain water during abundant years; desalinating ocean waters; and collecting then transferring excess water from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity.  Those in the water industry also promote conservation, however that has a very limited benefit.   Pumping groundwater from aquifers to the surface is also common in many areas, however the aquifers are generally not replenished as rapidly as the water is pumped out.   Yet another (unpopular) technology is simply recycling treated water from waste treatment plants.   This last has the great risk of transmitting disease via unclean water.  

Technologies exist and are therefore physically possible for each of the three technologies (dams, desalination, and water transfer).  (for water transfer, see link) The technologies are safe and reliable when properly designed, built, and operated.  Certain dams have failed with harmful or even catastrophic results, but those can be minimized or eliminated with proper attention.  Environmental impacts are hotly debated, with some claiming great harm results from building dams and desalination plants.  

The major issue with fresh water is cost, and in some cases, ownership of the plants.  Water is such a vital part of life that many consider it too precious to be privatized except in very limited and controlled ways.  However, some technologies are simply very costly at this time, especially desalination via reverse osmosis, RO, the most attractive process.  A few thermal desalination technologies also exist, but are generally less economic than electrically-powered RO.  


The seven steps of process engineers, physically possible, safety, reliability, environmental impact, profitability, most economic choice, and wisest choice, are used to evaluate a new idea or process plant.  These steps should be used to evaluate other areas to provide a systematic and grounded conclusion.  Having a blind and irrational faith in future innovations is not a good basis for allocating resources of time, talent, and money.  Yet, a blind and irrational faith is what many people exhibit in their writings on many topics (especially climate change, and nuclear power).  

At the same time, many people have far too little understanding of the technical and economic advances in renewable energy systems, and the associated energy storage and release systems.  

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California

copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Unexpected Results From Computers

Subtitle: If A Human Can't Find It, The Result Is Unexpected

Computers are sometimes discussed as slaves to their programmers; that is, they produce only the results the programmer wanted when he (or she) wrote the software that runs in that computer.   I have discussed this before on other forums, and this article addresses some of my experience in this arena. 

My qualifications to discuss computers and software programming are as follows: software development, design, debugging, and various sorts of computer programming since 1971 (44 years at this time), from simple BASIC, Hewlett-Packard's programming on HP-35 pocket calculator, FORTRAN of various vintages (starting with FORTRAN 66 on IBM mainframes), Artificial Intelligence software in LISP and neural networks, Lotus 123 and MS Excel (tm), to html and similar programming on modern internet applications.   Computing platforms covered a variety, such as IBM mainframes, CDC machines, programmable pocket calculators, desktop PC (personal computers), and modern laptops. 

The primary purpose of my programming efforts has been related to chemical engineering tasks, where very large databases from a process plant running 24/7 provide information that must be retrieved, analyzed, processed, and results returned in a timely manner for appropriate decision-making.   Also, very complex oil refining, petrochemical, and inorganic chemical process unit simulations (including kinetics in reactor systems) were developed and enhanced - including various forms of optimizers (e.g. LP, successive LP,  and open-equation).   In short, computers and software are merely tools to the chemical engineer, not our reason for living.  We have real problems to solve in the real world, with (at times) hundreds of millions of dollars at stake (or more).  There are almost always time constraints in the problems that require a quick solution, such that a program that runs too long is totally useless even if it provides the correct answer.   The process unit conditions will have changed far too much for an answer to be useful.   Time frames for computer solution can be measured in hours, but often a few minutes is required, and on rare occasions, a few seconds.  

So, do the computers we use provide predictable, unsurprising results?  Are they truly slaves to their programmers?  No.   Chemical engineers know very well that our software provide unexpected results on many occasions.   This is a hard concept for many to grasp, perhaps because they have been conditioned to believe that a computer merely adds 1 plus 1 to obtain 2, but does it very, very quickly.  And, I agree that computers can and (sometimes) do add 1 plus 1 to obtain 2.  And, they do that very, very quickly.  

Examples of unexpected results follow.  One arena is in optimization of complex process units.  Another is recognition of patterns, such as "this event X always happens after that event Y occurs, but only after Z time passes from event Y."  

Complex process unit optimization.  

Process modeling and optimization is sufficiently important in chemical engineering that, for example, a session at an AIChE conference was held recently (see link), with the session description as:

"Modeling is the art of simplification of complex physics underlying the chemical processes to account for observed phenomena and make falsifiable predictions. A good predictive model provides the basis for optimization of objective function in a multi-parameter space. This session invites talks that elucidate the practice of model building, the challenges involved in optimizing validated models and reduction of optimized results to practice."

In addition, a major division of AIChE is devoted to computing and optimization, the CAST division (Computing And Systems Technology Division) (see link).  Their description reads:

"The CAST division provides relevant programs for AIChE members who share interests in computing and systems technology, especially in the analysis, design, and control of process and management systems. CAST also coordinates the Institute's activities with other societies active in this field."

Many other conferences, seminars, webinars, books, etc. are devoted to optimization in chemical engineering (see link). 

The unexpected results occur when the process model, or process model with an optimizer produce a solution that a human could not have produced, especially within the timeframe required.  Some may argue (and many have) that this is a matter of semantics, that the computer's results are within the realm of possible outcomes that the programmer allowed the computer to explore.   The argument appears to be that, given enough time, even a human could have found the same solution.  However, that defeats the purpose when, by definition, a solution is worthless if not produced within the required time constraints.  

One personal experience follows, of an unexpected result in a simulation of a petroleum refining process unit; a vapor-recovery process for a Fluid Catalytic Cracker (FCC) unit in a large, integrated and complex refinery in the US.  There was no chemical reaction in this process, merely five inter-connected towers with vapor-liquid equilibria, mass-transfer, heat-transfer, mass recycles, heat recycles, and absorption, all constrained by the typical issues of pumping capacity, compression capacity, heat exchanger capacity, and tower diameters.  The goal, or objective function, was to maximize unit throughput without undue loss of valuable components to a fuel gas system.   The process unit was simulated on an industry-standard process flowsheet software, then optimized with the internal optimizer.  Manipulated variables included the lean oil flow rate into the primary absorber, sponge oil flow rate into the sponge absorber, total feed rate, pressures, temperatures, and various heat inputs and removals.  

In this particular case, conventional, prior "wisdom" held that the lean oil flow rate was to be minimized - reduced to zero - because the lean oil material consumed energy due to being recycled.  However, the simulation and optimizer showed that the energy savings were very small while the value of increased feed rate due to a non-zero lean oil rate was many times greater, indeed, extremely valuable.   The solution was implemented with the predicted results being measured and then confirmed.  (note the "... falsifiable predictions" wording above; this lean oil optimization certainly qualified).   So, was this an "unexpected result?"   I maintain that it was, because the then-existing management believed the path they had followed was optimal until the new operating paradigm was presented and implemented.  They were quite impressed when the FCC unit was able to process a significant increment of feed (approximately 10 percent more per day).  

Other examples of unexpected results are very common, almost too many to mention.  Another refinery used a computerized kinetic simulation and optimizer on their FCC plant and found they could increase feed rate and conversion to a much more profitable state.  The same has been done many times on other process units.  

Pattern Recognition 

As mentioned above, process plants, including oil refineries, have databases with large amounts of data.  A process engineer routinely extracts data from the database and performs analyses to follow the progress of the unit.  There may be catalyst deactivation, heat exchanger fouling, distillation efficiency reduction, among many other parameters that change rather slowly over time.  Other changes are more rapid, sometimes requiring only minutes or even seconds to appear in the data.   Where a pattern can be recognized, a good engineer can and should determine the cause.   Indeed, it is fairly simple in these days to use a data-mining software to rapidly evaluate thousands of variables in pairs and other combinations to determine the extent of any correlation.  In engineering, especially chemical engineering, linear fits are possible, but the physics of the process dictate that many times, a log or exponential, or quadratic fit are indicated.  

An example from personal experience follows.  In a complex oil refinery that processed heavy oils in a Delayed Coker Unit (DCU), and processed the virgin and cracked gasoils in a FCC, data analysis found a pattern:  the cyclical production of heavy coker gasoil created an undesirable cyclical change in FCC operation.  Simulation and optimization on the FCC showed that a better operating strategy was to store the coker gasoil for a short time rather than pump the coker gasoil as it was produced into the FCC system (note, there was a gasoil hydrotreater upstream, as usual).  A steady flow of coker gasoil allowed the FCC controls to more easily optimize the unit; in effect, the control system was always "hunting" for the optimum as the coker gasoil rate fluctuated.   This result was contrary to the established "wisdom" that it was more profitable to minimize all storage, and run intermediate streams between process units right away rather than into storage and back.  The solution was presented, then implemented with great success.  The result was unexpected in the eyes of the then-existing refinery management.    

(Note: this is entirely consistent with my career as a process consultant; many times the conventional "wisdom" was false, based on invalid original assumptions, or the previously valid  assumptions had changed materially.  One refinery with a Hydrocracking Unit told me and my colleagues that their unit was optimized, thus there was no need for us to examine it.  I asked when the latest optimization had been performed, and the reply was "a few years ago after startup."  That refinery made a substantial increase in profit after being shown why a Hydrocracker Unit optimization should be performed on a periodic basis.)


It has been shown that unexpected results from computer software indeed exist, both for complex process unit optimization and for pattern matching.  Other categories also exist, which may be the subject of future articles.  

Roger E. Sowell, Esq. 
Marina del Rey, California

copyright (C) 2015 by Roger Sowell

Saturday, June 6, 2015

More Thorium Silliness

Just a few thoughts that came to mind while reading comments on WUWT, the latest puff-piece on Thorium-based nuclear power plants. 

First, very few commenters have a grasp of what a molten salt is or does, especially when that molten salt contains radioactive thorium and uranium and other fission products.  

One comment, in particular, shows a vast ignorance of economics. claiming ". . . near-free (sic) and unlimited electrical power ($0.03/kWh), which will gut the remaining industrial sectors of Western economies. . ."  This refers to thorium-powered nuclear plants built in China.   The 3 cents per kWh might be the fuel and variable operating cost, but certainly does not include amortized capital costs.  As shown previously on SLB, a molten-salt reactor using liquid fluoride salts will cost much more than the present generation of uranium-powered pressurized-water reactors, and those cost approximately $10,000 per MW or more.  The per-kWh cost just for the capital cost would be approximately 25 cents, depending on how much state subsidy is applied to the capital cost.    Note: apparently "forgetting" to include the capital costs is a favorite ploy of nuclear proponents, because it allows them to compare (barely favorably) a nuclear plant's "cost" to natural gas.  

Another clueless commenter states ". . . there isn’t really much for the CHinese (sic) to do except size up the design. . . "  This particular commenter claims to be ". . .a design engineer who worked on projects for nearly 40 years. . ."   The "size up the design" refers to scale-up of a thorium molten salt reactor.   As I wrote elsewhere on SLB, scale-up from the pilot plant size at Oak Ridge to a full-scale commercial plant of 1,000 MW electrical output is a massive, daunting task.  (see link)  In pertinent part: "Scale-up from ORNL size (7 MW thermal) by 500 times is an enormous challenge.   Note that scale-up with a factor of 7 to 1 is a stretch, yet such a factor (using 6) requires four steps (40, 250, 1500, and 3500) to use round numbers.   Each larger plant requires years to design, construct, and test before moving to the next size, and that is if the larger design actually works the first time."  

The same clueless commenter on scale-up added to his list of errors with this:  ". . .corrosion problems that some rag on about . . . were all but solved. . ."   This refers to the very real corrosion and cracking in the reactor material, in fact, any material that touched the hot molten radioactive fluoride salt.  A material was developed and tested, but not for the 40 or more years with multiple heating-up and cool-down cycles that a commercial reactor must withstand, not to mention any vibrational stresses caused by any earthquakes.   The Oak Ridge National Laboratory "developed (in 1977) an improved and very expensive alloy Hastelloy N for nuclear applications with molten Fluoride salts.   In tests, Hastelloy N with Niobium (Nb) had much better corrosion resistance to molten fluoride salts."  (source: link just above from SLB article on thorium molten salt reactors).  

There are many other, equally silly comments. 

Roger E. Sowell, Esq. 

Marina del Rey, California
copyright (C) 2015 by Roger Sowell

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Thoughts on Graduation and Starting Engineering Career

Subtitle: Go With What You Know

This article is for the new engineering graduates, but also applies to those with a year or two of industrial experience.   Some of this may seem quite obvious, but perhaps some will be useful. 

I recently was invited to speak for an hour to the AIChE student group at University of California at Irvine, or UCI.  The topic was Engineering Ethics.  During the question and answer period afterward, I was asked what was the most unexpected thing I encountered after graduation.  My reply was, I did not expect to be so unprepared for the variety and depth of topics in the industrial world.   I gave a few examples to illustrate.

My engineering degree is from The University of Texas at Austin, one of the top engineering schools in the country, if not the world.  I learned what they taught, but the fact is that the engineering curriculum cannot possibly teach everything one needs to know in only 4 years of study.    The amount of knowledge that an engineer should know increases yearly as more and more fields are created (e.g. environmental engineering, bio-engineering, nano-materials) and existing fields are expanded. 

What the new engineer should know can be viewed as 1) the fundamentals are key, 2) a vast body of topics exists and should be studied, and 3) time is your ally if used properly. 

A brief side-bar on my career start: my first job was as a process engineer in a chlor-alkali plant in a medium-sized chemical company that no longer exists.  The plant is still operating, though, after being sold to other companies.   For details, the plant was designed and built by Diamond Shamrock Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio, and was known as the Battleground Plant after the nearby San Jacinto Battleground and monument in LaPorte, Texas - just east of Houston.   This was a merchant plant, in that the products were sold on the open market and not used internally by the company.   

My first problem was understanding what a chlor-alkali plant did, and how it did it.  An engineer would do well to understand what his (or her) plant does.  Chlorine, caustic, and hydrogen are produced via electrolysis of sodium chloride dissolved in water.  I did not recall that electrolytic cells were mentioned in the undergraduate courses I took, not in chemistry, nor in reactor design.   It was all foreign to me.   At that time (1977), two technologies existed for chlor-alkali plants, diaphragm and mercury cells.  The company had both types in its fleet of plants, but the Battleground Plant had the diaphragm cells. 

The solution to curing my ignorance of chlor-alkali technology was in two steps: 1) attending the mandatory safety orientation class, and 2) reading in the Perry's Chemical Engineering Handbook.   The safety orientation class gave a good overview of the chemical plant, but was mostly concerned with the dangers and toxicity of the various processes and chemicals.  The chlor-alkali plant had plenty of dangers and toxicity: deadly DC current at 800 volts and 90,000 amps in the cell room; chlorine gas is toxic and can be deadly; caustic soda even in dilute strength (cell liquor) is hot, corrosive, and can blind the eyes; hydrogen is invisible, auto-ignites, and the flame is a pale blue that is essentially invisible in daytime.  The plant also used asbestos in creating the diaphragms.  There was also sulfuric acid in one process area, with the acid strength ranging from 70 to 98 percent.   There were also the usual dangers in a process plant, steam at various pressures, fuel gas, AC current at various voltages, and rotating machinery, to name just a few.  

After gaining an appropriate respect for the hazards I would face on a daily basis, the next task was to read the Perry's, where Electrochemistry was discussed in a few pages.  However, the Perry's treatment was mostly theoretical and I was not much wiser for having read the material.  I then turned to another favorite, Chemical and Process Technology Encyclopedia by D. M. Considine (McGraw-Hill 1974).   This excellent resource had what I needed: about half a dozen pages on chlorine production, including a process flow diagram.  (readers should note the time frame, 1978.  At the time, there was no internet with vast resources.)  Finally, the plant library had design books specific to the Battleground Plant, with process flow diagrams and material balances. 

This brings me to point 1) from above, the fundamentals.  I finally had a grasp of the fundamentals of electrochemistry and how a chlor-alkali cell operated.   In its simplest form, DC current passed through a conductive brine attracts the chlorine ions, Clˉ, to the positive electrode, and the sodium ions, Na+, to the negative electrode.   The chlorine ions combine to form a molecule of Cl2, while the sodium ions combine with OHˉ ions to form NaOH.  The left-over hydrogen ions combine to form a molecule of H2.   From there, the products Cl2, NaOH, and H2 were processed, purified, and condensed (the chlorine) into products for sale or internal use. 

The new engineer must, in my opinion, gain a good understanding of the fundamentals of his (or her) assigned process, no matter what that process is.  The above outlines the steps I took to gain an understanding.  Next, the fundamentals of engineering are key to success.  No matter what field or area one is working in, the various laws apply: material balance, heat transfer, mass transfer, equilibrium, fluid flow, etc.    

Now to point 2), a vast body of topics exists and should be studied.   The list below includes a number of topics that are common to the process industries, both batch processes and continuous processes.  Budgeting, Control and Instrumentation, Corrosion, Cost Estimation, Economics (especially incremental economics),  Environmental, Equipment, Feed Specifications, HazOps, Laboratory,  Maintenance,  Metallurgy,  Operations,  Optimization, People, Pinch Technology, PFD & PIDs, Plant's Design, Project Implementation, Product markets, Product Specifications,  RAGAGEP,  Regulations, Safety,  Technical Plan, and Trade Offs.    These are the main issues that a plant process engineer will encounter.  Those working in other areas will have different issues to learn.  Engineers also work in EPC companies, Engineering/Procurement/Construction, research, catalyst development and production, technical sales, government agencies, and others.  

Point 3) from above, time is your ally if used properly.  A new engineer could, and should in my opinion, strive to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible about the areas in which he (or she) is deficient.   Time for such learning can be found by arriving an hour early to work, at the lunch break, and staying an hour after formal work hours.   A study plan can be developed that will encompass the topics.   Another way to increase knowledge is regular attendance at AIChE monthly chapter meetings where continuing education credits are given.  Many times, these meetings include a presentation or lecture by industry experts on a particular subject.   Reading industry literature, including magazines or e-zines is especially helpful.  

UPDATE: 6/6/2015 - brief expansion on the additional topics to be studied. 

Budgeting - the engineer should know that a process plant has at least one budget, there being typically three or more.  These include a) annual operating budget, b) capital budget, c) local spending budget (under the control of the plant manager).  Learning what each budget controls, the budget size, and how the budgets are prepared are all vital to understanding the plant's operation.  

Control and Instrumentation - many times, the new engineer has had a course in the basics of process control and instrumentation; if not, he or she should study this.  The basics include (but certainly are not limited to) the four basic controlled parameters: temperature, flow, level, and pressure (and note there are several others); the measurement instruments that collect the signal; the controller that processes the measurement and sends out the correction signal; the control device (usually a control valve but not always); and the actuator that moves the control device.  In addition, the engineer should understand the basics of various control schemes, and why each controller exists at that particular point in the process.  Higher (and lower) levels of instrumentation and control exist, including safety and machinery health (bearing temperatures, shaft vibration), DCS (distributed control systems), advanced process control (computerized integration of basic controls with process models including optimization and constraints).   Other areas include inferential controls, analyzer-based controls, to name just two.  

Corrosion - the measurement and management of corrosion in a process plant is extremely important, even vital.  The engineer should read and understand the basics of corrosion - it is simply a rather slow chemical reaction that (typically) removes molecules from the corroded surface and results in thinning (usually) and weakening of the material.  The corroded material may be a process vessel, a pipe, or other equipment.  Corrosion control and management may include passivating chemicals added to slow down the corrosion rate, upstream removal of corrosive molecules (e.g. sulfur and salts), and temperature control to keep the corrosion rate manageable.  Wall thicknesses are measured during periodic shutdowns.   

Cost Estimation - the new engineer almost always has some experience in cost estimation in undergraduate studies, but the employer likely has its own cost estimation philosophy and software.  

Economics (especially incremental economics) - the new engineer also likely has some experience with economics in undergraduate studies.  The process plant likely has various criteria that the engineer is required to use for economic studies, including a list of values (or prices) for each utility, feedstock, intermediate streams, products, and process unit operating costs.  Sometimes feeds, intermediates, and products prices are confidential and guarded with great secrecy.   Incremental economics must be understood, as these are quite different from average values.   It is also crucial to understand that not all energy is equal, as a BTU (or kW) saved in one area may actually have zero value.   In addition, the cost to install equipment to save energy, or increase yield, or improve product separations may greatly exceed the benefits.   Some plants have a strict guideline that no potential project is to be advanced for consideration that has greater than two years simple payout.  

Environmental - the new engineer should learn what environmental issues exist in his or her plant, with the three standard classifications of air, water, and solids.  Typically, the plant has one or more permits from state or federal agencies that list the quantity of allowable emissions for each pollutant.   Potential modifications to the plant, e.g. adding a new fired heater, may require expensive and time-consuming revisions to the environmental permits.  

Equipment - the new engineer likely has a good understanding of the basic equipment types from undergraduate work.  The plant likely has equipment that was not included in the classwork, and almost certainly has variations on familiar equipment.  As an example, there are many types of pumps (centrifugal, positive displacement) with several variations of each.  The same is true for relief valves, control valves, block valves, compressors, heat exchangers, filters, separator vessels, fired heaters, boilers, piping, fittings, turbines, electric motors, reciprocating engines, and many more. 

Feed Specifications - each plant, and each unit within a plant, will have one or more feed specifications.  The engineer should understand what each specification is, what the allowable limits are, and how that item is measured.   Equally important, the engineer should know what the ramifications are when a feed specification is above or below the limit.  

HazOps - or hazard and operability study, is an important part of a process plant's safety plan.  This should be thoroughly understood by the engineer. 

Laboratory - the plant laboratory, the samples, and analytical tests should be understood by the engineer.  The plant may have a laboratory on-site, or may send samples to off-site labs for testing.  Many laboratory tests are described by an ASTM number (American Society for Testing and Materials), or other designation.   Reference books exist that describe each test; these should be on the engineer's bookshelf and be read and understood. 

Maintenance - the plant maintenance is one of the three major organizations in a typical plant (the others are Operations, and Technical Services).   Maintenance is a vast, complicated, and essential aspect of a process plant's success, safety, and profitability.  The engineer should learn the essentials of the plant's maintenance organization and program.  Typically, maintenance is organized by craft: millwrights, electrical, instrumentation, and piping.   Safe shutdown and isolation procedures must be understood by the engineer, as well as startup procedures once the maintenance is completed.  

Metallurgy - the engineer should understand the metallurgy and other non-metallic materials used in the plant.  Typically, various metallurgies could be used in a plant, and the choice is made based on several considerations: safety, cost, durability, corrosion, and others. 

Operations - plant operations is one of the big three organizational arms in a plant (Maintenance and Technical Services are the other two, typically).  The engineer should get to know the operations staff, from the Operations Manager to Unit Supervisors, to shift staff.  Typically, the shift staff has a Shift Supervisor, each unit has a Lead Operator (or other title such as Head Operator), and Unit Operators and helpers.   The engineer should understand the role of each.   Terminology for the various operating positions can vary by industry and by plant.  For example, there may be one or more Board Operators and Outside Operators where the Board Operator remains at a computer control console in a central control room, while Outside Operators (as the title suggests) work outside among the equipment. 

Optimization - the engineer should learn as much about optimization as possible, including what optimization systems and procedures are in place, and what they accomplish.  Optimization is a vast topic.  One thing a new engineer should know is that seasoned veterans in the Operations and Technical management are usually distrusting of new optimization schemes - especially the benefits that supposedly derive from the optimizer.  

UPDATE: 6/14/2015 -  (see link) to my March 1998 article in Hydrocarbon Processing, "WHY A SIMULATION DOES NOT MATCH THE PLANT," in which process plant simulations and optimizations are discussed.   An excerpt from the article: 

". . . there are many reasons why a process simulation doesn't match the plant. Understanding these reasons can assist in using simulations to maximum advantage.

The reasons simulations do not match the plant may be placed in three main categories: 
1) simulation effects or inherent error,
2) sampling and analysis effects or measurement error, and 
3) misapplication effects or set-up error."   
The article then discusses these three categories.   --  end update 6/14/2015

People - people skills are essential to success, not just in engineering but in almost every endeavor.  The new engineer would do well to focus on what may be called "human engineering," or practical psychology.  This is a vast topic, but crucial to success.  Stating one's views in a meeting, learning how and when to disagree without offense, learning how to network effectively, all are important aspects.   Dealing with incredibly difficult people is to be expected.   One good source for process industry engineers is the "You And Your Job" series of articles in Chemical Engineering magazine (online and archived in libraries).  

Pinch Technology - the engineer should understand Pinch Technology, (developed years ago by Bodo Linhoff) and how it applies to process heat transfer and other areas.   PT has many articles and publications that the engineer can read for an understanding. 

PFDs & PIDs - the engineer likely has a basic understanding of Process Flow Diagrams (PFD) and Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams (PIDs) from undergraduate work.  The process plant will have detailed drawings of each, which should be read and studied until the engineer is completely familiar with each figure on the drawings.   (Note that PID has a different meaning in the process control context, where it means Proportional, Integral, and Derivative).  

Plant's Design - where possible, the engineer should know the basics of the plant's design - the capacity basis, the choices among various technologies, storage and inventory quantities (i.e. number of days' storage for feedstock and for products).   Unit constraints are also important.  

Project Implementation - the engineer should learn how a project is implemented in the plant, whether a capacity expansion, or other type of project.  There may be a separate group for project work, or the engineer may be expected to develop and manage a project.  The area of project management is (or can be) complicated, with construction contracts, project schedules, disruption to the existing plant, and many other aspects to consider. 

Product Markets - the engineer should understand the market or markets for the plant's products.  This could include the historic demand, projected demands, whether his or her plant is a low-cost producer or a marginal producer, and especially: how disruptive technologies could make the plant obsolete.   This last point is rather important to chemical engineers.  

Product Specifications - similar to the above on feedstock specifications, the engineer should know and understand the specifications on each product.  At times, no variations in product specifications are tolerated.  In other plants, there may be incentives for higher purity and lower prices for selling a product with lower purity.  

RAGAGEP - the engineer should understand RAGAGEP (Recognized And Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practice) and how it applies in the plant. RAGAGEP are "engineering, operation, or maintenance activities based on established codes, standards, published technical reports or recommended practices (RP) or a similar document." They "detail generally approved ways to perform specific engineering, inspection or mechanical integrity activities such as fabricating a vessel, inspecting a storage tank, or servicing a relief valve." (source: OSHA NEP for refineries, 2007)  

Sources of RAGAGEP are many. Examples are the API Standards (American Petroleum Institute), ASME Code, CCPS (AIChE's Center for Chemical Process Safety), OSHA, NEC (National Electric Code), NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), and other engineering disciplines such as ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers).

The intent of RAGAGEP is to ensure that process plants, manufacturing plants, structures, civil works, electrical works, and other things designed and built are as safe as possible. This extends to ongoing repairs and maintenance, alterations and changes, inspection and testing.  

Regulations - the engineer should develop at least a basic understanding of the multitude of government regulations that apply to the plant.  These likely include (but are not limited to) environmental, OSHA, FTC, labor laws, and others. 

Safety  - the engineer should understand the basics of the plant's safety program.  Safety should be first, as the slogan says (Safety First).  Whether the engineer is designing a new process, a modification to an existing process, or reviewing operating procedures, safety is critical.  

Technical Plan - the Technical Plan is (or could be) a part of the Technical Services division.  The engineer should become familiar with the tasks or projects that are underway or were recently completed, and those that are contemplated for future work.  Unless the plant is recently completed and started up, the engineer will find there is a legacy of studies, projects, and reports for each that can be read and studied.  

Trade Offs - the engineer should know what trade-off opportunities exist in the plant (this is a subset of the Economics and the Optimization areas above).  Trade-offs exist for making or purchasing utilities, feedstocks, and processing or selling intermediate streams.  

-- end update 6/6/2015

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell