Listen to Victoria and Eric’s Conversation Here:
Driven by both consumer demand and government policies, the shift towards sustainability in the chemical industry is creating a landscape ripe for innovation and growth. Eric Bober, VP at NexantECA joins host Victoria Meyer on The Chemical Show this week to explore the world of sustainable chemicals, the evolution of the chemical industry, the challenges and opportunities of sustainable technologies, and the global shift towards eco-friendly products.
Victoria and Eric discuss the concept of “colorful technologies,” such as green and blue products, and their viability in the market. With a focus on sustainability, they examined the challenges and opportunities for companies in adopting more environmentally friendly practices, emphasizing the importance of scalable, innovative technologies in the journey towards a more sustainable future.
Join Victoria and Eric as they offer insights into the following:
- NexantECA’s long standing focus on sustainability in the chemical industry
- Sustainability in the chemical industry is an evolution, not a revolution
- Navigating the intersection between politics and profit while staying within regulations and guidelines.
- The viability of colorful technologies
- New opportunities, growth, and a more sustainable future in 2024
Killer Quote: “In a sense, the market is looking for revolutionary results, but it really takes an evolutionary approach.” – Eric Bober
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Watch Victoria and Eric Discuss Sustainable and Green Technologies on Youtube:
Exploring Sustainable Technologies and Green Chemicals with with Eric Bober of NexantECA
Hi, this is Victoria Meyer. Welcome back to The Chemical Show. I am speaking with Eric Bober, who is Vice President at Nexant ECA and is the regional head of The America’s practice. Eric leads Nexant’s Global Green Chemicals Team, which we’re gonna be talking a bit about, and has some expertise in ammonia, urea, methanol and other industries. He’s been with Nexant for several years and has led over 50 engagements, and a lot of his experience actually comes from other operating companies in the chemical industry, which you might get to hear about a little bit. Here’s a fun fact for you, Eric is a referral from his brother Scott Bober, who was on Episode 116 of The Chemical Show.
So if you haven’t listened to that one yet, go and listen. You can send both Eric and Scott a note and give them their pros and cons and what they did differently. But anyway, it’s just a great fun connection. So, Eric, welcome to the Chemical Show. Glad to have you here.
Thanks very much Victoria.
What got you interested in chemicals? How did both you and your brother get into the chemical industry, and how has your career evolved and progressed to where you are today?
So in high school, I was good at math. I was good at chemistry. I actually had a chemistry teacher in high school that really set the direction for me, and then eventually my younger brother who followed in my footsteps. Our dad always taught us to be ambitious. So I had chemistry, I had math, I put it together, and went to school for chemical engineering. Coming outta school, I went into the chemical industry to work as a product development engineer. Then I went back to business school for an MBA with a concentration in finance. When I went back to industry, I worked for a manufacturer for over 10 years in a series of roles in operations management, product management, and then marketing strategy.
Then I jumped to consulting in the late-90s. So I’ve been a consultant for over 25 years now. I worked for one firm for a bit over 10 years, and worked a bit with circularity, worked a bit in recycling. I joined Nexant in 2009, really because of Nexant’s expertise already at that time in sustainability and in helping clients make the transition into sustainability.
I didn’t appreciate, first of all that Nexant had that sustainability focus all the way back in 2009, so that’s interesting. Here’s a side question for you, so chemical engineer with an MBA, when you did your MBA, did you expect to rejoin the chemical industry?
It is interesting, I thought I would go into finance. That’s what most of my friends were doing. The summer in between years in business school, I got a job in equity research and that became my dream. I would be the chemical industry analyst for one of the big Wall Street banks, but I just didn’t really enjoy equity research. It just wasn’t substantive enough for me. I missed the industry. I missed being in the plants and actually working for operators in the industry. So that’s why I went back to work for an operator.
I’m also a chemical engineer with an MBA. I thought I was gonna be in consulting like McKenzie, Deloitte, Mercer, one of the big consulting firms. I actually did get some consulting offers coming out of business school, but what I realized is I hated the lifestyle at that time. With the pandemic, things have shifted a little bit, although I think they’re shifting back. But certainly at that time, 25 years ago or whatever, consultants were really road warriors. They were traveling all of the time, and working ridiculously long hours. I had this realization of nobody I’ve met looks healthy, which tells me that they’re not really living a healthy lifestyle, which was not the lifestyle that I wanted.
So I ended up joining Shell coming out of business school. They had a great program at the time. So again, not necessarily the path that I thought I would join, but once you start assessing other options, you’re like “Oh yeah, this is pretty darn good. Let me go back and make an impact there.”
Right, and we don’t do the type of consulting where we’re on the road all the time. We’re more seated really in the technologies and in the markets. So we travel, but not all the time.
Tell us a little bit about Nexant ECA, because everybody may not be familiar or maybe we’re familiar with the Nexant part. For me, certainly that was the case. And then ECA comes up and I’m like, huh, what is this? So tell us a bit about who you guys are and what you do.
Sure. So we were founded as Nexant with basically two major businesses coming together. It was the old Chem Systems consulting business and a business within Bechtel Engineering, which was included their engineering consulting business. So that’s how we were founded. A couple years ago we spun off a couple of peripheral businesses, so now we’ve rebranded as Nexant ECA (Energy and Chemicals Advisory). We’re totally focused on advising companies in the industry. We provided an expert independent view of the sector. What we’ve been doing a lot of lately is helping clients satisfy the need for sustainability while taking a pragmatic approach to profitability.
That’s a nice statement, but what does that really mean?
Well, sustainability has a lot of people interested in it, but there are things that make sense and things that don’t make sense and there are opportunities to add to profitability, but you have to select the right opportunities at the right time and then execute them well.
So I think of Nexant ECA as really technically focused maybe from that perspective more than from a market perspective. Is that true? Are you guys technology first or how would you describe that?
We do both. We have expertise on both sides, technical as well as market. We use sort of a techno economic approach to our consulting. We have consultants around the world. Our primary offices are in Houston and New York, London which is world headquarters, Bahrain, Kuala Lumpur, and Bangkok. We do span the entire spectrum of services for our clients. I think we are well known for the technology, and that’s a big part of our business, but we do a lot of work on the market side as well.
All of the 2020s, let’s just say, there have been a lot of changes. What do you think from where you sit with yourself and in terms of what are the most significant changes Nexant industry in the past five years and what’s really driving those changes?
It has been the move to sustainability and it’s being driven by both carrots and sticks. The carrots include just an underlying growing interest from consumers in sustainability, and then that goes to customers of the chemical industry. Customers are demanding improved sustainability in the products they buy from the chemical industry. There’s also subsidies and incentives. So where consumers aren’t driving it, governments are providing carrots to get people there. It’s changing applications for specific chemicals. It’s opening opportunities for some, and then where those carrots aren’t working, there’s also the sticks of policies and regulations.
Yeah, I’ve had conversations recently about some of those policies and the lax in the policy, let’s just call it, in terms of the sense that some of these policies not necessarily that they’re not science-based. I don’t want to have that debate because people will debate what science is and is not. I always like to come back to science is a theory in many ways. But I think more importantly that there’s not necessarily operational solutions to achieve the goals that our regulators have set out across the globe when I think about net zero goals and other goals. So that seems to me like it’s a real challenge for the companies that are really trying to drive there and make that happen. So you need the incentives to make it happen in order to be able to meet those regulatory goals and as you say, the carrot and the sticks work together.
Yeah, in a sense the market is looking for revolutionary results. But it really takes an evolutionary approach. I mean, this isn’t easy changing chemical pathways, changing feedstocks you’re using, but the opportunity is very large. So the opportunity is to meet that growing demand for products like ammonia and the changing applications. For sustainably improved nitrogen based products, you could be looking at a hundred million tons of additional demand easily. In some scenarios, if all the planets aligned could be double that. We’re looking at products like ammonia to be used as a transport fuel, as a boiler fuel to displace coal.
A term I used, general decoalification, to replace coal in as many applications as possible. Then ammonia as a hydrogen carrier really has potential. If hydrogen ends up being the next big thing, ammonia could have a big role as an energy storage vehicle and a transport vehicle to move hydrogen around.
I’ve done some work myself in just looking at some of these technologies that was a much higher level than what you guys would do. The opportunity around ammonia, it’s obviously a big basic chemical and the connection to hydrogen. Who do you see as really being interested in this, when you think about the companies that are driving and seeking innovation in this area, what characterizes them?
It’s a range of companies really. Consumer products companies have been driving a lot of this, and we do a lot of work with consumer products companies that are looking for sustainable pathways to their packaging, and to their products themselves. Honestly, some are just looking to do things that will improve the environment, whether it has a direct impact on their business or not. In some ways they’re trying to navigate the intersection between politics and profit by staying within regulations and guidelines. But the consumer products companies are very focused on their bottom line. Technology licensers are another one, these companies are in the business of developing and deploying these new technologies. They’re very, very smart people.
They’re developing great, innovative technologies. They sell very effectively and in a lot of ways our clients are those technology licensers, but we also get hired by people looking to deploy those technologies to make sure they’re right for them and for their applications. Operators in general are trying to drive the innovation and it’s interesting because if you think of current players in the business, they’re trying to look forward with their strategy to see where they need to be in the future. But they don’t want to cannibalize their current business to any extent, larger than they really have to. Then there’s project developers. Project developers to me, are a basket of people that are underappreciated because they are looking for opportunities. They’re looking for an environment where they could come in and build a project and make money. If they’re looking at building projects in a sector, to me that’s an indicator that it’s an attractive sector because I mean, they’re there not for their future growth of their current business.
They’re there really there to make money.
They’re coming there on a short term basis, really. Developing it, figuring out how to capitalize it and monetize it, and then selling it off. Is that right?
Exactly. There’s one basket that I failed to mention, which is large public groups that are helping to fund these innovative new technologies and helping to fund the transition to sustainability.
One of the challenges I think we are all seeing is scale. So again, we say it’s an evolution, not a revolution. Part of the reason it’s an evolution is because It’s hard to get to full scale. when you think about world scale plants across every chemical, every product and technology, when we’re starting to launch into newer technologies that are more green and more sustainable, it’s hard to launch at the same scale. How do you help navigate that? Is that one of the biggest challenges you see or where is that falling for you?
It is a big challenge and if we look at products like ammonia and methanol, for sustainable pathways to them, there are scale issues. That’s where it’s an evolutionary approach and not a revolutionary approach where you need to deploy at a scale that can prove out the technology and then work on the scale up over time. We actually do a lot of work with our clients in helping them look at how scalable this technology is, how likely is it to be able to perform at a larger scale? If fuel opens up as an application for methanol or for ammonia for example. We’re looking at the need for multiple new plants per year for those products, and that assumes they’re at world scale. So it’ll require a lot of build out, but you have to get started somewhere.
On the other hand, there are some technologies that are going big right at the outset. I was out in the western part of the US last week on a construction monitoring visit for what will be the world’s largest green hydrogen production and storage facility. They’re going big right at the outset, but we’re also working on other green hydrogen projects that have more of a small distributed model. So it’ll vary.
So green hydrogen, that’s a function of where the energy or electricity for production comes from, is that right?
It is, and it makes green power in effect, a key raw material for some of these products.
So is that typically solar and wind or are we looking at something else?
It is typically solar and wind.
What’s interesting with this is the value chain connection. None of this is very simple, all the pieces have to line up. Also from a scale perspective, all the pieces have to line up.
They do, and it’s driving a regionality in the business. For ammonia and methanol, it’s been a regional business because access to available low cost natural gas has typically been a big driver. But now you’re looking at access to renewable natural gas or maybe landfill gas or to green power for electrolysis of water to generate the hydrogen. But you also need an infrastructure. So you still need a place where it’s straightforward to build and operate a plant. So you need access to labor for construction and for operations. You need access to maintenance personnel and spare parts and infrastructure to get raw materials in and products out.
Where else are you seeing a lot of these green technologies, and from a regional perspective, where are they being built? What does that look like?
Each region has sort of its own specific pluses and minuses, but you’re seeing them here in the United States. There’s good potential for them in South America where you have wind and solar resources, so we’ve seen interest there. Of course, in Europe where regulations are trying to encourage things like this. And, in Western Europe in particular, where you’ve traditionally had high cost gas and high cost power, changing the raw material mix could have a positive impact. Projects there could look very good relative to what they’ve had in the past.
As I’ve mentioned before, I think Europe is its own mess at the moment. The regulations have made it very difficult to be a cost effective producer. So if we can see a path to creating more, through whether it be green hydrogen, whether it be ammonia, whether it be something else, I think that’ll be great just for the European economy in general.
Were there more interests in places other than Europe?
Well, Asia Pacific, we’re seeing interest there as well.
Before we got on the call, you were talking about color, that there seems to be a revolution, not just when we talk about green hydrogen or maybe that’s part of the story. But what are we talking about when we talk about colorful technologies and is there a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow?
Yeah, that’s terminology we use internally to talk about it. I’ve been trying to talk about sustainably improved products instead of getting into all those colors. But our clients are asking about it.
They’re asking if they need to add some color to their product mix. So blue products are made primarily in traditional ways, but emissions are captured and dealt with. Green will have green feedstocks. So like we talked about green hydrogen for example, but then there’s pinks and turquoises. You start to get nuclear power into the mix and the clients are asking about it, but they’re asking what’s viable. Are these colorful technologies viable? What scale are they today? What scale could they be in the future? What’s the cost to build and cost to produce? Could they get a price premium if they move into a colorful product? Could they make money from it? I mean, really they’re asking, are any of these colors prettier than gray?
It depends. It’s really a case by case basis. There are opportunities to move to sustainably improved products and make money. But there are proposals out there for things that look less attractive.
I know we started talking about some of the driver for this being consumer products companies. Yet, are they looking this far back in the value chain, thinking about green hydrogen, blue hydrogen, green and blue ammonia? Or do you see that more as we get into specialty materials? What is their interest? How far back in the value chain are they interested?
It varies. Some of them are focused on what they buy and then what they put to market because increasingly people are talking about consumer products, companies having to take back empty packaging, and them being responsible for it post use. But some of them are specifically looking back in the value chain for raw material streams. We’ve worked with some clients who want to use emissions and wastes to produce their products. So they’re looking for those kinds of streams as raw materials for their value chains. Others are quite concerned about post use and recycling and making sure that their products once used and discarded are dealt with in responsible ways and come back into value chains. So it varies.
Let’s just start with the consumer. Consumer use and then beyond is so challenging because it really requires changing human behaviors. My oldest daughter when she started college was an environmental science major, she’s now a computer science major, which fits her better, and I’m happy about that. Although environmental science fits her as well because she’s really what I would call a green and granola crunchy girl. At the time she was vegan and she was really thinking about saving the planet and stuff. But I remember asking her like, do you guys recycle your water bottles? No. It’s just too hard.
Not just her, but collectively on college campuses. As environmentally conscious as these students are, at least in terms of what they’re speaking, their actions aren’t supporting the same thing. So that’s the individual behavior. Then there’s the partnerships that are needed with the trash disposal companies to enable this. So it’s really complicated when we start thinking about post-consumer use because the infrastructure is not there. Back to your infrastructure discussion, the infrastructure and the behaviors just aren’t there.
Yeah, the individual behavior is hard. The people in the waste value chain are actually working effectively on technologies to improve everything they can do. But we need to increase the supply. And that’s companies, company-wide policies as well as individuals. I also was at a meeting recently with a couple of dozen people and I drank a couple of bottles of water. When I looked to discard them, there were only gray garbage cans. I asked, “Is there recycling?” And there wasn’t. We should be getting to people in college and we should be getting to them at home before college.
I had another experience speaking at a chemical company in one of their business meetings and they had recycling for aluminum. But of course most of what we had was plastic, and this is a company that produces plastic. They’re a pretty large company. They produce a little bit of everything, but there was not a single place to recycle plastic. And I’m like, fix it in your own shop. It’s hard to, if you’re not willing to make the change yourself it’s hard to implement the change elsewhere.
Of course, again, there’s always stories and I didn’t push ’em on it, but it’s surprising. It’s really surprising when you go out in the world and see the easy wins that aren’t happening.
So we’re at the beginning of 2024, which is kind of shocking because I’m not sure I’m ready to be at the beginning of 2024, but that’s okay. What should we be looking for? What are you seeing that’s coming up next when we think about the industry, what should we be looking for from you next? And, what’s the year ahead for you?
It’s really a fun time to be working in this sector. Our employees are very excited about what they do and they love their work. We’re adding a lot of value for clients. Clients are really able to leverage our decades of experience to allow them to develop an informed view of the future. I think we’ll continue along this path towards sustainability.
I think it has momentum now. There were just, as we mentioned earlier, a lot of things that just make sense and I’d like to see those things deployed. For us at Nexant ECA, we’re growing. We’re just really busy with work on the transition to sustainability and it’s fun. We’re about 115 consultants globally in the organized three regions.
Awesome. Well, Eric, thank you for joining me today on the Chemical Show, this has been great.
I’ve really enjoyed myself. Thanks very much for having me.
And thanks to everyone for reading, keep reading, keep following, keep sharing, and we will talk with you again soon.
About Eric Bober:
Eric Bober is a NexantECA Vice President and regional head of its Americas practice. Eric leads NexantECA’s Global Green Chemicals team, which provides expertise in ammonia/urea, methanol, and other important segments. In the past few years, Eric has led nearly 50 NexantECA engagements that supported investment decisions on manufacturing projects. Much of this included technology concept evaluation, assessing the viability at commercial scale of complex technologies, and business plan evaluations. He has 35+ years’ experience beyond earning a BS in chemical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a Wharton MBA with a concentration in Finance.