Alec Groysman: “Thanks to chemistry and chemical engineering, life expectancy doubled in the 20th century”

The Israeli doctor in physical chemistry and expert in materials and corrosion, Alec Groysman, will be one of the main speakers at the 15th Mediterranean Congress of Chemical Engineering, which will take place from 30 May to 2 June 2023 in the framework of Expoquimia, the International Chemistry Meeting at Fira de Barcelona. For more than 20 years, Groysman worked for the Haifa oil refinery while teaching corrosion science and technology at several universities in his country (Technion, Haifa; Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv, Ariel University) and at the College of Engineering (Karmiel, Israel). He is currently honorary president of the Israeli Association of Chemical Engineers and Chemists. We speak with him to find out more about the chemical industry in Israel, the challenges facing the sector globally, the contributions of these disciplines to social and economic development, and of course, about his keynote at the congress.

(*) Alec  Groysman’s personal note about this interview

You asked me important and interesting questions. Each question can occupy a large individual paper. Despite of Israel is a small country with population of 9.4 million and youthfulness, we have multi-faceted developed chemical industry and chemical engineering education. Exactly, chemical engineers contributed much to name my country the “Start-Up Nation” and the “Silicon Valley of the Middle East”. Since Israel`s independence in 1948, its chemical industry has flourished thanks to the Dead Sea and the minerals it provides. A highly educated and skilled workforce makes Israel a global power player in the pharmaceuticals, electronic industry, energy produce (especially use of solar energy), military, medicine, agriculture, fertilizers, fuels, paints, and other chemicals, and semiconductors. Chemical engineers play a prominent role in all these sectors.

First of all, what is the role of chemical engineering in a country like Israel?

For historical reasons, the State of Israel is developing in two scientific-technological fields: computer science and chemistry (including chemical engineering). Chemistry-based industry fulfills a crucial and prominent role in Israel’s economy, despite there only being 400 industrial chemistry factories among the 18,000 industrial factories nationwide. 50,000 industrial chemistry workers – a tenth of all industrial employees in the country – contribute 30% of the industry’s revenues and 40% of its exports. Roughly one third of the companies represented by the TA-35, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange’s flagship index, are chemical manufacturers.

I am a person possessing an experience in all three fields in Israel (industry, academy, and education) and brought up many chemical engineers, may say with responsibility that they contribute to modern advancement of natural sciences, computer sciences, electronics, medicine, genetics, optics, energy sector (natural gas, oil refining, electric power stations, and solar energy), agriculture, and of course, chemical industry. The latter can be divided into several sectors, including pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, chemicals (including pure phosphoric acid) and fertilizers (including phosphorus-based compounds, potash, bromine, and bromine compounds), and refining and petrochemicals. Oil refining industry produces fuels, and raw materials for polymers (polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride), aromatics, basic oils, and waxes. Then, numerous articles are produced from plastics: for instance, drip irrigation systems, sprinklers, house articles, and other accessories.

Bromine valuable feedstock is used to produce compounds for plastics, electronics and textile manufacturing, other organic products, and for water treatment.

The Dead Sea conditions spawned thriving magnesium and its alloys, and potash industries. Magnesium products are used primarily by aluminum, titanium, steel, and automotive industries in Europe and America.

In this regard, what have been the contributions of chemical engineers to the development of your country? My note: I would add and other countries too …

The most impressive finding is that fewer than 8,000 chemists, 5,000 chemical engineers, and 700 chemistry teachers work in Israel. Without this group of chemists, the State of Israel would not look anywhere near as innovative as it does today. Owing to chemical engineers Israel is a home to over 1,400 life science companies, including about 300 pharmaceutical companies, 600 medical devices companies, 450 digital health companies, and 470 biotechnology companies.

Israel`s high-tech sector is a major employer of chemical engineers and chemists, materials and mechanical engineers, and biotechnologists. Intel Israel is a large world produces of semiconductors and chips. Exactly, chemical engineers decide the problems of the environment, decreasing pollutions of air, water, and soil.

It’s no coincidence that all six of the Israeli scientists who’ve won Nobel prizes among 12, were all awarded this prize for their work in the field of chemistry: Avram Hershko, Aaron Ciechanover, Dan Shechtman, Ada Yonath, Michael Levitt, and Arieh Warshel. And it’s no coincidence that Israel’s two former presidents who were also scientists, were professors of chemistry: Haim Weizmann and Ephraim Katzir.

Can the Israeli experience be extrapolated to the rest of the world to respond to the challenges of today’s society?

There is no doubt that Israeli experience in chemical industry and chemistry can be extrapolated to the rest of the world to respond to the challenges of nowadays society. There are three chemical engineering and chemical societies in Israel that are active in various fields of chemical engineering and chemistry. They change the face and attitude to chemical industry that it “pollutes the environment”. Only chemical engineering decides the problems of purification of wastes, air and soil, the protection of the environment from pollution, improvement of quality, health, and longevity of peoples` life.

Our country fully decided the problem with pure water providing developing the technology of water desalination technology (based on seawater reverse osmosis) and creating such enterprises in Israel and abroad.

Israel supplies one third of the world’s bromine consumption and one sixth of the world’s potash consumption. The country is a world leader in the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, flame retardants, agro-chemicals to improve world agriculture . Developing of oil refining industry gives not only producing of fuels of high quality but also ensures petrochemical industry.  Israel is also a big exporter of high-tech manufactured products, such as computers, telephones, and medical equipment.

And in the energy field, which is currently a very hot topic?

In 2004, the Israel Electric Company began fuelling many of its power plants with natural gas (instead coal, fuel oil, and diesel oil). All enterprises of chemical industry (furnaces etc.) also converted to natural gas (instead fuel oil and diesel oil). This situation provides many advantages, such as improvement of the environment, including lower greenhouse gas emissions, and lower electricity costs.

One of chemical plants began produce potassium nitrate to store thermal energy in concentrated solar power stations. The Megalim solar power station is functioning in the Negev desert since 2019. Similar stations exist in Spain, Morocco, India, USA, China, Chile, South Africa, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Chemical engineers play a leading role in erection and its functioning. I personally participated in choice of materials and continue consulting in corrosion control and monitoring methods. Certainly, our experience could be extrapolated for all countries of the Mediterranean Sea.

This is not a secret that the manufacture of advanced materials (alloys, polymers, composites) is based on chemical engineering. Logically that Israel is considering to be the leader of drones` manufacture (unmanned aerial vehicles), and one of the world’s major exporters of military equipment.

What is the relationship between the chemical industry and academia?

Israel has six major universities with six departments of chemistry and three departments of chemical and biochemical engineering. Six chemical and biochemical engineering departments exist in academic colleges. Most professional leaders in chemical industry are graduates of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. All universities conduct R&D for industry, although some companies have their own R&D facilities. For instance, I personally worked in R&D corrosion and materials laboratory at the Oil Refining company.

Special chemical and chemical engineering programs about chemical industry in Israel are developed and are regularly teaching at school. Regular visits of students are organizing to chemical enterprises. Many students work during learning and carry out scientific researches at these plants. Thus, they ensure future workplace in chemical industry.

You are an expert in corrosion, why is its study so important?

When I begin my corrosion course, I raise this question. I wrote a paper in Hebrew many years ago with the title “Why chemical engineers must learn corrosion?” Any explanation begins from definitions. For this, we will give a definition of corrosion.

Corrosion is an interaction between a material and its environment that results in changes both of the material and the environment.

Often these changes deteriorate both. Corrosion has many faces and we should differentiate them: general corrosion with formation of corrosion products and thinning of walls of equipment and structures, pits and cracks with unpredicted development and failure.

Certainly, five main reasons may be mentioned for the explanation of the importance of corrosion study and dealing with it.

  1. Direct economic losses: the cost of replacing corroded equipment, use of anti-corrosion (control) protective and monitoring methods. Indirect losses include loss of products, efficiency, shutdowns, contaminations of products, and overdesign because of corrosion.
  2. Safety. Corrosion of equipment and structures is a danger to people and the environment. We know many tragedies because of corrosion of bridges, airplanes, ships, explosions of boilers and reactors and deaths of people.
  3. Environmental damage. Explosions, fires and release of harmful substances into the atmosphere, water and soil.
  4. Reliability. Corrosion of electronic devices and other components (pumps, military equiipment) can cause changes in their dimensions and their reliable function. Corrosion products can contaminate medicines, food, and pure chemicals.
  5. Preservation of metal sources. Our Earth is limited by metal ores, especially by sources of corrosion resistant metals, such as molybdenum, nickel, chromium, copper, zinc, tungsten, and titanium.

If we do not educate and study corrosion, certainly, we have many losses. I do not like when people say that the cost of corrosion is about 3-5% of the Gross National Product. Each of us does not feel that. But … when I say, that the cost of corrosion is included in the price of bread, car and other articles we buy, the situation is different.

When I said every year to our managers at the Oil Refineries company after analysis of corrosion losses, that we lost 2 millions $ beause of corrosion, nobody dealt with this. But … when I said that every empoyee lost 5,000 $ each year, staff began to think how to reduce these losses.

To which industrial fields can your corrosion studies be applied?

There are no industry, organization, ministry, and project institutes, dealing with metal, and who did not cope with corrosion problems. First of all, corrosion studies should be applied to such metal-intensive industrial fields, as chemical, oil and gas, refining, petrochemical, biotechnology, energy sector, military, water supply, aircraft and aerospace, nuclear power, pharmaceutical and medical technology, pulp and paper industry, land transportation industries, mining and metal processing industries, food and beverage industry, microelectronics industries, fossil and alternative fuel industries, and building industry. Really, all industries.

Secondly, people of various professions are interested in corrosion: archeologists, sculptors, architects, doctors, and … advocates.

Thirdly, there are no persons who did not cope with corrosion in everyday life.

Could you tell us more about your presentation at this year’s MeCCE?

The aim of my presentation is to analyze how corrosion risk management influences process safety. I would like to say a crucial and prominent role in a reliable function of chemical enterprises. Both issues are wide and occupy an important niche in the chemical industry. Corrosion risk management includes identifying, analyzing, assessing, and managing corrosion hazards. Process safety is a discipline that focuses on preventing fires, explosions, and accidental releases at chemical process facilities. Corrosion can cause all these detrimental events. A hazard is a substance, object, or situation with the potential for an accident or damage. Corrosion is one of the biggest hazards because it is related to substances, objects, and situations leading to the interaction between them and the deterioration of both.

Numerous data show that large failures resulting in harmful consequences occur because of corrosion once a week in many chemical enterprises.

There is much literature about both topics, corrosion risk, and process safety, separately but there is nearly no research concerning intersections. Usually, specialists in process safety do not know much about the subject of corrosion. Accordingly, corrosionists do not specialize in process safety. In this work, I analyze the role of corrosion risk management in the prevention of corrosion accidents related primarily to the safety of personnel and the environment.

We unite three wide phenomena-concepts: corrosion, corrosion risk management, and process safety. Corrosion management is achieved by the use of anti-corrosion measures, corrosion monitoring, regular inspection, the study of each accident, implementation of meetings, publications of minutes, education, and knowledge transfer. Corrosion risk is achieved by identifying, analyzing, assessment of occurring, and modeling possible corrosion phenomena. Process safety includes the prevention of unintentional releases of dangerous chemicals and energy during processes that can have a serious effect on the plant and environment. This is achieved by the prevention of equipment malfunction, over-pressures, over-temperatures, leaks, spills, and corrosion. All these phenomena are interlinked and interdependent. Process safety programs focus on the design and maintenance of equipment, effective alarms and control points, procedures, and training. Corrosion risk management is an active instrument in all these aspects of process safety and takes part in achieving its main purposes.

The level of corrosion failure and its consequences, defining corrosion risk, may be different: the leak of crude oil, natural gas, water, liquid and gaseous hazardous chemicals, fire, explosion, damages, deterioration of the environment, injuries, and death of people and animals. Due to the biological and psychological properties of human nature, we are unlikely to exclude human mistakes. The human factor plays a vital role in both corrosion risk management and process safety, and as a result in the prevention of corrosion failures and improvement of both. We should pay significant attention to education, dissemination of information, knowledge transfer, collaboration, and communication. Correct corrosion risk management gives rise to the improvement of process safety at stages of design, fabrication, implementation, erection, service and maintenance of equipment and constructions in the chemical industry. Many practical examples will be given during the lecture.

Instead the end

Most people are unaware that chemistry and chemical engineering is the reason our life expectancy has doubled from 40 to 80-85 in the 20th century. Thanks to chemistry we are healthier and happier, and our lives are more interesting and productive than those of our predecessors. Most people don’t know that solar energy, electric cars, electronic chips, efficient LED lighting, smartphones, television and computer screens, are all mostly chemistry and chemical engineering innovations. Let me to emphasize that chemistry and chemical engineering serve as the foundation for material engineering, biology, medicine, cosmology, aerospace, Earth sciences, agriculture, and everything that global industries produce; it’s at the root of everything we eat, wear, enjoy.

You know about clean and renewable energy, raw material, energy, water and food shortages, air, water and soil pollutions, the climate crisis, and health. There are no absolutely safe chemical technologies. Knowledge and understanding corrosion processes, use of control and monitoring methods of corrosion phenomena can reduce the risk of failures and catastrophes.

I am originally a chemical engineer; my followers work in Israel and other countries in various fields of chemical and other technologies. Therefore, I can confidently say that namely chemical engineers and chemists are those specialists who will successfully meet the above-mentioned challenges.

But … for this ensuring, we should drastically change our education and teaching system. Only in this case, we provide our children and grandchildren enjoy a more promising happy future.

Barcelona, March 2023

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