Scale limitations characteristic of chemical plants and heavy industry led some readers to question whether production under communism could be globally distributed and industry have much lower energy consumption, that is, whether it would be a hindrance to meeting human needs.
In this article
- The question
- Today’s chemical plants and the industrial logic of capitalism
- From alembics to advanced materials
- From blades to continuous flow
- A glimpse of a new industry for a new society
Large chemical and industrial plants mirror capitalism’s tendency to concentrate large masses of workers and fixed capital, but many engineers also insist that this is a basic characteristic of heavy industry. Is it true that the extreme concentration of heavy or chemical industry is a spontaneous feature of this sector, a feature that would make it incompatible with the general satisfaction of human needs?
Today’s chemical plants and the industrial logic of capitalism
The production of diverse essential goods for global production chains is limited to a few huge plants, all of them controlled by certain national capitals. All this becomes evident whenever sanctions and blockades disrupt the global industry’s access to semiconductors, the current near-monopoly of certain countries with the production of covid vaccines, the shortage of oxygen for covid patients or the lack of access of many semi-colonial countries to pharmaceuticals or certain products as basic as fertilizers.
These are well known facts in certain milieus: the immense concentration of global industrial ammonia production in a few chemical plants causes serious supply problems and high fertilizer prices in countries with weak national capitals, while countries with strong national capitals apply excessive amounts of the same fertilizers. The same is true for many other products, such as pharmaceuticals.
Some of these chemical plants, such as refineries, can occupy an area larger than that of small cities and require immense investments to establish and operate. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the development and growth of this kind of concentrated chemical plant meant the progressive liberation of the world’s population from several Malthusian constraints.
For example, human agriculture was emancipated from mineral deposits of nitrate… had the process of industrial fixation of atmospheric nitrogen for the production of nitrates not been developed, today’s productive capacity would be much lower. How much? The equivalent of the current food consumption of one-third of the world’s population.
However, such chemical plants not only require huge concentrations of fixed capital but also rely on a specific type of chemical plant processes, processes which rely on using large amounts of energy and highly reactive intermediates to carry out profitable chemical reactions and physical separation processes on a large scale. There is no doubt that these are profitable processes on the scale of capital needs, but these are neither really the only possible chemical processes nor are they desirable for satisfying the needs of Mankind.
From alembics to advanced materials
Processes in chemical plants can be divided into two broad classes: physical and chemical. Physical processes, used mainly for the separation of chemicals from mixtures, are easily forgotten even though they are of great industrial importance.
The basic example is distillation, where the constituents of a liquid mixture are separated according to their boiling points, and it is a really important example today. Not because of its importance in refineries, but because gas separation is where the oxygen needed by covid patients comes from. And it is running out in many semicolonial countries.
What is the classic way to obtain pure oxygen from air in chemical plants? By cooling the air to a mixture of liquefied gases and separating these by heating them in a large distillation tower. These are the air separation towers and are the industry standard for obtaining oxygen and nitrogen in order to produce fertilizers or to remove excess carbon from steel. An immense energy expenditure coupled with a truly enormous scale.
But distillation is not the only way to obtain pure gases from a mixture. If, instead of using large amounts of energy and playing with the basic physical properties of compounds, one relies on knowledge about the structure of matter, it is possible to create much smaller and more versatile plants, such as pressure-swing absorption plants (PSA), which can fit in a room and be much more widely distributed.
Instead of expending brutal amounts of energy on cooling the mixture, it uses filter material which traps the molecules of one of the gases in the mixture at relatively high pressure. As long as the pressure is high, the molecules of one gas pass through smoothly while those of the other are retained , and when the pressure drops suddenly, the molecules of the second are released allowing the two gases to be separated from a mixture.
Supposedly it is not convenient to use PSA for certain uses because the purity would not be high enough for various processes. In reality it is perfectly possible to achieve high purity, what happens is that there is no investment in it because it is neither necessary nor viable in terms of profit, considering the investments in large distillation towers and entire chemical plants yet to be recovered.
But even when industry installs PSA systems in chemical plants for processes requiring less pure gases such as papermaking, they do so boasting about how absurdly huge their plants are. Why? Because for the owners of a factory their ability to generate profit depends on how much capital they can absorb producing profit. That is the primary goal of any industry under capitalism: to profitably place capital. The larger the plant size, the more capital to absorb.
From blades to continuous flow
Something similar is true for chemical reactors. The two abstract models learned by every engineering student are the stirred tank reactor and the plug flow reactor. The former basically corresponds to a large stirred tansk with paddles or gas stirring where generally discontinuous reactions occur, while the latter corresponds to a tubular reactor where the inflow and outflow is continuous and there is a reaction gradient from one end of the tube to the other.
Many reactors – such as just those in which the industrial production of ammonia for fertilizers takes place – do not really follow either model, but the stirred tank is generally considered old-fashioned and full of disadvantages. In reality, a large number of chemical processes are carried out in precisely this type of batch reactor.
The reactions necessary for the preparation of drugs in the pharmaceutical industry are carried out in large stirred tanks, at a scale and cost unattainable for many smaller national capitals, a problem that has been denounced numerous times.
These same reactions can be carried out using flow chemistry, with reactions occurring under continuous flow and whose steps can be controlled temporally and with almost no mixing problems. Crucially, these processes can be carried out successfully on a much smaller scale and locally compared to the large tanks of today’s chemical plants.
Several of the well-known problems of tanks, such as their lousy surface-to-volume ratio, problems maintaining homogeneity of conditions and reactions etc do not occur with flow chemistry, which in fact shows advantages due to better surface-to-volume ratios and shorter residence time of potentially hazardous or explosive chemical intermediates within the reactor.
This is not a new idea, it simply did not find interest among large capitals until very few years ago, and even then only for one-off processes. Today the pharmaceutical industry still uses the stirred tank logic even to produce covid vaccines , which has caused huge production delays due to the well-known problems of these reactors .
Naturally, tubular reactors are used industrially… for large-scale processes, such as in refineries where heavy gas oils – made up of large hydrocarbon molecules – coming out of large distillation towers are broken down into smaller molecules thanks to a large tubular reactor. There, the mixture of gas oils is brought together with a chemical catalyst that breaks them into lighter (and less dangerous for engines) gasolines. As expected, this is the opposite of the logic of the small flow reactors we were talking about earlier, these facilities are among the largest and most expensive in a refinery.
Similarly, attempts to modernize or turn fertilizer production green – which after all consumes up to 2% of the world’s energy production – run up against the needs of capital. Generally, the processes work well but chemical plants huge enough to be attractive to large capitals cannot be built with this technology.
The examples are countless, all representing advances over the old technology of the early 20th century, they abandon the use of obscene amounts of energy and high pressures to focus on new chemical techniques based on materials, electrochemistry or membranes… which allow a reduction in the scale of operations, but that is precisely one of the main reasons why they are not interesting for capital accumulation.
A glimpse of a new industry for a new society
In any society, the social organization of labor determines what is possible or not. During feudalism, without an integrated market and a large working class, all of today’s heavy industry would have seemed nothing more than a pipe dream…
And the same kind of fetter is imposed by the present social organization of labor – capitalism – on the future possibilities of mankind’s development. A given era’s technical and social level is not independent of the mode of production, the deformed character of the present means of production is not the result of some technological natural characteristics but of a decadent ruling class and its already anti-historical system of exploitation.
Production can emancipate itself from the remnants of the old Chymistry of the alchemists, from analysis – separation – by fire and physical transformations and move to a new Chemistry based on molecular interactions and smaller scales. It can be based on the accumulated knowledge of matter rather than the old glories of the modern era.
Today it is not only possible, it is necessary to move from a world of technical secrecy and worn-out remnants of artisanal techniques to a world where the goal is the satisfaction of general needs and knowledge is emancipated in the hands of a universal class.