Era of cheap oil is over, but synthetics are here to stay

Can Americans afford to drink out of plastic cups, wear polyester clothing, and sleep on foam mattresses in an era of growing energy scarcity? Although these products are made from petrochemicals that use oil, natural gas, and natural-gas liquids as basic ingredients, they are in no apparent danger of becoming 20th- century dinosaurs.

Indeed, "synthetic materials have an important role to play in the future, and their production may in fact be one of the last major uses for oil and natural gas," concludes Christopher Flavin in a recent study on synthetics published by Worldwatch Institute, a Washington research group.

Mr. Flavin claims that with current patterns of use and methods of production many natural materials actually consume more oil and natural gas in total than do synthetics. This is true of some natural fiber and wood products, for example, when compared with their synthetic alternative, he says.

Further supporting the notion that Americans will continue to find plastics, synthetic fibers, and foam materials part of everyday life are dramatic gains in energy conservation being achieved by the petrochemical industry.

At the Dow Chemical USA facility here in Freeport, energy savings have been achieved in a number of ways, ranging from what energy conservation manager Lawrence Saphier calls "better housekeeping" to multimillion-dollar investments in new processing technology. The result is a plant that can turn out more product while consuming less energy, he says.

The Chemical Manufacturers Association recently reported that the petrochemical and chemical industry is 22 percent more energy- efficient now that in 1972.

That gain is considerably better than American industry as a whole, reports Thomas Banksdale, who monitors industrial conservation for the US Department of Energy.

"Petrochemicals is a very good group in energy conservation. They have a long-term program and plenty of incentive to meet their goals" because of their energy dependence, he said.

One reason for the exceptional performance is that US petrochemical producers are relatively prosperous and have had in recent years much more discretionary capital to invest in energy conservation than have many other domestic industries, Mr. Banksdale said.

Still, petrochemical products remain quite energy dependent. The federal Department of Energy classifies the chemical and petrochemical industry as the greatest energy-consuming industry in the United States.

Petrochemical plants use between 5 and 6 percent of US oil and natural gas as feedstocks for their products, says Mr. Saphier. And they use a great amount of energy in generating power for their own facilities.

Dow Chemical USA, for example, generates enough electricity at its domestic facilities to make it the energy-producing equivalent of the nation's 15th largest utility.

In terms of total energy consumption, the petrochemicals industry remains "much less energy efficient than it could be," asserts Mr. Flavin. And he writes that "there are many wasteful uses of synthetics, particularly the plastics used in the packaging field."

On the other hand, he sees many positive new applications for synthetics that will save energy. These include substituting plastics for metals in automobiles to make them lighter, the use of plastics in solar heating systems, and greater use of synthetics for insulation.

Here at the Dow Freeport plant, where petrochemicals are produced and sold to manufacturers who use them in the production of an assortment of consumer products, energy savings have been sizable since the early 1970s.

Mr. Saphier says the company has paid particular attention recently to finding new potential fuels for power generation. Dow is building a pilot plant for coal gasification in Louisiana and has invested in lignite (low-quality coal) mines in Texas and Louisiana.

Although Dow remains heavily dependent on natural gas for generating power, "WE eventually intend the use solid fuels," Mr. Saphier says.

Energy conservation has been achieved here by reducing overall lighting, wrapping pipes in aluminum for better insulation, and replacing inefficient "steam traps" -- devices that remove condensation from pipes and vessels.

The greatest energy savings have come from wholesale replacement of outmoded facilities. Shutting down a "block" -- a unit dedicated to the manufacture of a specific product -- and replacing it with new technology can chop energy consumption for the unit by 50 percent, Mr. Saphier says.

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