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What If?

When I sit on our patio in the late afternoon on a bright sunny day with blue skies and my favorite adult beverage nearby, I like to meditate and play “what If?” games.  Part of my nonfiction reading during retirement has been about the living cells in plants, animals and humans.  The chemical reaction that go on in each living cell are incredibly complex and efficient.  Living cells have to perform their chemical reactions at ordinary atmospheric pressure and temperatures. Chemical reactions don’t work very well under these conditions.  To overcome that obstacle, living cells produce their own enzymes to speed up the chemical reactions by hundreds and thousands of times.  Without enzymes, living cells couldn’t survive.

Commercial Industries, such a the one I spent my career in, the oil refining industry, use numerous catalysts to speed up chemical reactions. Unlike enzymes, industrial catalysts speed chemical reactions up by maybe 5 to 10 times at best.  Unlike living cell chemical reactions, oil refining chemical reactions require high pressures of about 200 to 1,000 pounds per square inch and temperatures in the 500-1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  Those conditions add great, initial capital costs and operating costs to oil refining processes.

So, what if scientist could develop a catalyst like nature’s enzymes?  I’m an engineer, not a chemist and no doubt there are fundamental laws of chemistry that make that either impossible or extremely difficult.  Otherwise, it would have been done already.  However, scientists can produce some artificial enzymes to copy those of nature.

A key step in the innovation process is the use of analogies to take processes or solutions that work well in one situation and adapt them to a different situation.  For example, Henry Ford got credit for creating the production line for assembling cars.  Actually, a Ford employee visited a meat packing plant and recognized that cars could be assembled in a production line similar to meat packing.  The employee suggested it to Ford who, to his credit, recognized the potential and did it.

All industries that use catalysts in chemical reaction processes could benefit incredibly from more efficient catalysts that speed reactions by hundreds of times at lower temperatures and pressures.

Author:  Ralph Coker


Ralph Coker is a retired petroleum refinery plant manager.  He writes on business, economic, military and political topics