Asking ChatGPT what all was made from petroleum produced surprising results - the answer: everything. Photo by Sanket Mishra/Unsplash

I sat down to have a conversation with ChatGPT from OpenAI about energy by-products; specifically, everyday items we use that contain some form of petrochemicals. My first prompt was rather broad, so I wasn’t surprised to get back a rather broad answer highlighting product categories instead of specific examples. Plastics, synthetic fibers, cleaning products, personal care products, medicines, paints & coatings, and adhesives were all succinctly summarized, but I wanted to dive deeper.

Given that AI has an almost limitless reach, I asked for a comprehensive list of all the products we use in everyday life that are made from petrochemicals. Turns out, ChatGPT has some healthy boundaries, so it pushed back, only offering a slightly more detailed list of the categories produced from the first prompt.

Not to be deterred, I asked for additional examples. I didn’t want to continue getting spoon-fed 10 items at a time, so I asked for 200. Less than comprehensive, more than the crumbs I was getting.

In entertaining fashion, ChatGPT told me compiling a list of 200 items might be challenging, but that it could offer up 100. The brazen negotiation made me smile.

I complimented the list and nudged a bit, encouraging ChatGPT it could come up with another 100 items if it tried. Much like a teenager wishes to stave off further questioning from a nosy parent, ChatGPT proffered up a second response of 100 items–almost half of which were simply things before which it added the qualifier “synthetic.” Salty.

As my intention is not to bore you, but rather enhance the knowledge of our readers by understanding how pervasive petrochemical products are in our everyday life, I settled on a more direct inquiry with a capped demand prompt: “What would you say are the 10 most surprising things in common everyday use that contain petrochemical products?”

Most of the answers featured wax-based products, like lotions, crayons, and lipstick–not necessarily earth-shattering realizations given my familiarity with cosmetics as petroleum by-products. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that chewing gum, with its synthetic rubber base enabling theoretically endless chewing, is derived from petroleum. I was also surprised to learn that many artificial sweeteners, like saccharin and aspartame, are made from petrochemicals. Huh.

There was one item on the list, however, that helped me see how truly pervasive the energy industry is, and not just for petrochemicals. Tucked in nonchalantly at #6 was Deodorant. My brain jumped immediately to the waxy base of a solid sweat deterrent, but my eyes got a curveball. ChatGPT writes, “Many deodorants contain aluminum, which is often derived from bauxite, a mineral that is usually mined from the earth using petroleum-powered machinery.” Now that was an answer I wasn’t expecting.

While my initial inference stood true – the smooth glide of a buttery solid antiperspirant is without a doubt derived from petrochemicals (not to mention the plastic packaging surrounding it), I wasn’t expecting ChatGPT to rope in the oft petroleum-fueled tools used to make said product. If that’s true, then nearly every item on the planet is derived from petroleum. Or at the very least, some source of energy. Regardless of whether the machinery used runs on gasoline, electricity, or wind power, literally almost everything that is produced on this earth is related to the energy industry.

Even if it’s hand-made, it’s technically still energy-adjacent, assuming we all bathe regularly with soap, yet another on the list of commonly used items derived from petroleum by-products. It’s certainly directly powering some manual activities, for those busting stress and bad breath with gum, or drinking a diet soda to power through. No pun intended.

I share this amusing tale simply to clarify the ubiquitous nature of energy in all parts of the modern world. As we look toward the #futureofenergy, we must be cognizant of its universal reach. It’s not necessarily realistic to switch from one source of energy to another overnight, but we do have a responsibility to seek cleaner, healthier, more efficient sources of energy while sustaining the life to which we have all grown accustomed.

Much like ChatGPT thought she couldn’t come up with 200 items derived from petroleum products, many think Houston will be unable to drive the Energy Transition, given our extensive petroleum focus. But like so many fellow Houstonians before us, we love a good challenge.

Just keep prompting us, and we’ll eventually unlock infinite potential for the #futureofenergy. It’s a limitless time to be in Houston, absorbing wisdom the city so willingly wants to share with the growing ecosystem of innovators. Just ask the growing number of almost 5,000 Energy-related firms in Houston. We’re just getting started.

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Lindsey Ferrell is a contributing writer to EnergyCapitalHTX and founder of Guerrella & Co.

Energy sources are often categorized as renewable or not, but perhaps a more accurate classification focuses on the type of reaction that converts energy into useful matter. Photo by simpson33/Getty Images

How is energy produced?

ENERGY 101

Many think of the Energy Industry as a dichotomy–old vs. new, renewable vs. nonrenewable, good vs. bad. But like most things, energy comes from an array of sources, and each kind has its own unique benefits and challenges. Understanding the multi-faceted identity of currently available energy sources creates an environment in which new ideas for cleaner and more sustainable energy sourcing can proliferate.

At a high level, energy can be broadly categorized by the process of extracting and converting it into a useful form.

Energy Produced from Chemical Reaction

Energy derived from coal, crude oil, natural gas, and biomass is primarily produced as a result of bonds breaking during a chemical reaction. When heated, burned, or fermented, organic matter releases energy, which is converted into mechanical or electrical energy.

These sources can be stored, distributed, and shared relatively easily and do not have to be converted immediately for power consumption. However, the resulting chemical reaction produces environmentally harmful waste products.

Though the processes to extract these organic sources of energy have been refined for many years to achieve reliable and cheap energy, they can be risky and are perceived as invasive to mother nature.

According to the 2022 bp Statistical Review of World Energy, approximately 50% of the world’s energy consumption comes from petroleum and natural gas; another 25% from coal. Though there was a small decline in demand for oil from 2019 to 2021, the overall demand for fossil fuels remained unchanged during the same time frame, mostly due to the increase in natural gas and coal consumption.

Energy Produced from Mechanical Reaction

Energy captured from the earth’s heat or the movement of wind and water results from the mechanical processes enabled by the turning of turbines in source-rich environments. These turbines spin to produce electricity inside a generator.

Solar energy does not require the use of a generator but produces electricity due to the release of electrons from the semiconducting materials found on a solar panel. The electricity produced by geothermal, wind, solar, and hydropower is then converted from direct current to alternating current electricity.

Electricity is most useful for immediate consumption, as storage requires the use of batteries–a process that turns electrical energy into chemical energy that can then be accessed in much the same way that coal, crude oil, natural gas, and biomass produce energy.

Energy Produced from a Combination of Reactions

Hydrogen energy comes from a unique blend of both electrical and chemical energy processes. Despite hydrogen being the most abundant element on earth, it is rarely found on its own, requiring a two-step process to extract and convert energy into a usable form. Hydrogen is primarily produced as a by-product of fossil fuels, with its own set of emissions challenges related to separating the hydrogen from the hydrocarbons.

Many use electrolysis to separate hydrogen from other elements before performing a chemical reaction to create electrical energy inside of a contained fuel cell. The electrolysis process is certainly a more environmentally-friendly solution, but there are still great risks with hydrogen energy–it is highly flammable, and its general energy output is less than that of other electricity-generating methods.

Energy Produced from Nuclear Reaction

Finally, energy originating from the splitting of an atom’s nucleus, mostly through nuclear fission, is yet another way to produce energy. A large volume of heat is released when an atom is bombarded by neutrons in a nuclear power plant, which is then converted to electrical energy.

This process also produces a particularly sensitive by-product known as radiation, and with it, radioactive waste. The proper handling of radiation and radioactive waste is of utmost concern, as its effects can be incredibly damaging to the environment surrounding a nuclear power plant.

Nuclear fission produces minimal carbon, so nuclear energy is oft considered environmentally safe–as long as strict protocols are followed to ensure proper storage and disposal of radiation and radioactive waste.

Nuclear to Mechanical to Chemical?

Interestingly enough, the Earth’s heat comes from the decay of radioactive materials in the Earth’s core, loosely linking nuclear power production back to geothermal energy production.

It’s also clear the conversion of energy into electricity is the cleanest option for the environment, yet adequate infrastructure remains limited in supply and accessibility. If not consumed immediately as electricity, energy is thus converted into a chemical form for the convenience of storage and distribution it provides.

Perhaps the expertise and talent of Houstonians serving the flourishing academic and industrial sectors of energy development will soon resolve many of our current energy challenges by exploring further the circular dynamic of the energy environment. Be sure to check out our Events Page to find the networking event that best serves your interest in the Energy Transition.


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Lindsey Ferrell is a contributing writer to EnergyCapitalHTX and founder of Guerrella & Co.

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Houston startup taps new corporate partner for AI-backed sustainability consumer tech

out of the boxes

With the help of a new conversational artificial intelligence platform, a Houston startup is ready to let brands get up close and personal with consumers while minimizing waste.

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want.

The Boxes device, about the size of a 40-inch television screen, dispenses products to consumers in a modern and sustainable spin on the old-fashioned large vending machine.

CEO Fernando Machin Gojdycz learned that business from his entrepreneur father, Carlos Daniel Machin, while growing up in Uruguay.

“That’s where my passion comes from — him,” Gojdycz says of his father. In 2016, Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay with some engineer friends

Funded by a $2,000 grant from the University of Uruguay, the company's mission was “to democratize and economize affordable and sustainable shopping,” in part by eliminating wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

“I worked for one year from my bedroom,” he tells InnovationMap.

Fernando Machin Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay before relocating the company to Greentown Houston. Photo courtesy of Boxes

The device, attached to a wall, offers free samples, or purchased products, in areas of high foot traffic, with a touch-screen interface. Powered by watsonx Assistant, the device asks survey questions of the customer, who can answer or not, on their mobile devices, via a QR code.

In return for completing a survey, customers can get a digital coupon, potentially generating future sales. The software and AI tech tracks sales and consumer preferences, giving valuable real-time market insight.

“This is very powerful,” he says.

Boxes partnered in Uruguay with major consumer brands like Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Unilever, and during COVID, pivoted and offered PPE products. Then, with plans of an expansion into the United States, Boxes in 2021 landed its first U.S. backer, with $120,000 in funding from startup accelerator Techstars.

This led to a partnership with the Minnesota Twins, where Boxes devices at Target Field dispensed brand merchandise like keychains and bottles of field dirt.

Gojdycz says while a company in the Northeast is developing a product similar in size, Boxes is not “targeting traditional spaces.” Its software and integration with AI allows Boxes to seamlessly change the device screen and interface, remotely, as well.

Boxes aims to provide the devices in smaller spaces, like restrooms, where they have a device at the company's headquarters at climate tech incubator Greentown Labs. Boxes also recently added a device at Hewlett Packard Enterprise headquarters in Spring, as part of HPE’s diversity startup program.

Boxes hopes to launch another sustainable innovation later this year, in universities and supermarkets. The company is also developing a device that would offer refillable detergent and personal cleaning products like shampoo and conditioner with a reusable container.

Since plastic packaging accounts for 40 percent of retail price, consumers would pay far less, making a huge difference, particularly for lower-income families, he says.

“We are working to make things happen, because we have tried to pitch this idea,” he says.

Some supermarket retailers worry they may lose money or market share, and that shoppers may forget to bring the refill bottles with them to the store, for example.

“It’s about..the U.S. customer,” he says, “….but we think that sooner or later, it will come.”

Boxes has gotten funding from the accelerator startup branch of Houston-based software company Softeq, as well as Mission Driven Finance, Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, and Right Side Capital, among others.

“Our primary challenges are scaling effectively with a small, yet compact team and maintaining control over our financial runway,” Gojdycz says.

The company has seven employees, including two on its management team.

Gojdycz says they are actively hiring, particularly in software and hardware engineering, but also in business development.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

Houston software company to manage IRA compliance for solar, storage company with national presence

tapping into tech

Houston company's Inflation Reduction Act compliance management software has scored a new partner.

Empact Technologies announced a multi-year agreement with Ampliform, which originates, builds, develops, and operates utility-scale solar and solar plus storage projects. The Empact platform uses a combination of software and services to ensure projects meet IRS regulatory requirements, which focus on wage and apprenticeship, domestic content, and energy and low-income community incentives. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed

Empact will partner specifically with Ampliform’s project Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) firms, subcontractors, and key suppliers of steel and iron products. In addition, they will work through a project’s life cycle for EPC’s solar modules, trackers, and inverters to manage prevailing wage & apprenticeship, domestic content, and other tax incentive qualification and compliance.

“The team at Ampliform had the leadership and foresight to recognize the significant risks of IRA non-compliance and the need to have third party compliance management in place prior to construction kick-off," Charles Dauber, CEO and founder of Empact, says in a news release. We look forward to helping Ampliform fully leverage the IRA tax incentives to develop and build their project development pipeline.”

Ampliform has approximately 700MW of projects in short-term development. Ampliform also plans 3GW of projects in its development pipeline. Ampliform’s future expansion plans exceed more than 13GWdc in total. Empact will manage the IRA compliance for these projects. According to a Goldman Sachs report, the IRA is estimated to provide $1.2 trillion of incentives by 2032.

Guest column: Cold weather and electric vehicles — separating fact from fiction

EVs in winter

Winter range loss is fueling this season’s heated debate around the viability of electric vehicles, but some important context is needed. Gasoline cars, just like their electric counterparts, lose a significant amount of range in cold weather too.

According to the Department of Energy, the average internal combustion engine’s fuel economy is 15 percent lower at 20° Fahrenheit than it would be at 77° Fahrenheit, and can drop as much as 24 percent for short drives.

As the world grapples with the implications of climate change and shifts toward sustainable technologies, it's important to put the pros and cons of EVs and traditional gas vehicles in perspective. And while Houston isn't known as the coldest of climates, you still might want to review this information.

The Semantics of Energy Consumption Hide the Real Issue: Cost

First, let's talk about the language. When discussing gas vehicles in cold climates, the conversation often centers around "fuel efficiency." It sounds less threatening, doesn't it? But in reality, this is just a euphemism for range loss, something for which EVs are frequently criticized.

Why does that matter? Because for most drivers who travel less than 40 miles a day, what range loss really means is higher fueling costs. When a gas vehicle loses range, it costs a lot more than the same range loss in an EV. For example, at $3.50 a gallon, a car that gets 30 MPG in warm weather and costs $46.67 to go 400 miles suddenly costs $8.24 more to drive the same distance. By contrast, an EV plugging in at $0.13 per kWh usually costs $13 to go 400 miles and bumps up to a piddly $16.25 even if it loses 20 percent efficiency when the temperature drops.

Some EV models lose 40 percent in extreme cold. OK, tack on another $3. That still leaves almost $30 in the driver’s pocket. Over the course of a year, those savings pile up.

Let’s Call It What It Is: Fear Mongering

Any seismic shift in technology comes with consumer hesitancy and media skepticism. Remember when everyone was afraid to stand in front of microwaves and thought the waves would make the food unsafe to eat? Or how, just a decade or so back everyone was talking about how cell phones could spontaneously explode?

Fear of new technology is a natural psychological response and to be expected. But it takes the media machine to turn consumer hesitation into a frenzy. Any way you slice it, 2023 was one big platform for expressing fears around EVs. Headline-grabbing tales of EV woes often lacked context or understanding of the technology. In a highly partisan landscape where EVs have been dubbed liberal leftist technology, what should be seen as a miraculous pro-American, pro-clean-air, pro-energy independence, pro-cost saving advancement is getting a beating in the press. In this environment, every bit of “bad EV news” spirals out into an echo-chamber of confirmation bias.

For example, Tesla’s recent software update was hyped as a 2 million vehicle “recall” even though the software was updated over the air without a single car needing to leave the driveway. Hertz's recent decision to reduce its Tesla fleet was seen by many as a referendum on the cars’ quality but was actually a decision based on Hertz’s miscalculations around repair costs and a mismatch in their projections of consumer demand for EV rentals.

While the cost of repairs might be higher, maintenance and fuel costs are still much lower than gas vehicles. EVs are better daily-use cars than rentals because while our country’s public charging infrastructure is still lagging, home charging is a huge benefit of EV ownership. Instead, the Hertz move and the negative coverage are further spooking the public.

The Truth About EVs

Despite the challenges, it's crucial to acknowledge the environmental advantages of EVs. For instance, EVs produce zero direct emissions, which significantly reduces air pollution and greenhouse gasses. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EVs are far more energy efficient than gas-powered cars, converting more than 77 percent of electrical energy from the grid to power, compared to 12-30 percent for gasoline vehicles.

This efficiency translates to a cleaner, more sustainable mode of transportation. And stories of EVs stranded in Chicago aside, generally they perform well in cold weather, as clearly demonstrated in Norway. In Norway, the average temperature hovers a solid 10 degrees lower than in the U.S. Yet 93 percent of new cars sold there are electric. The first-ever drive from the north to the south pole was also completed by an electric vehicle. The success story of EVs in Norway and demonstration projects in harsh winter climates serve as a powerful counterargument to the notion that EVs are ineffective in cold weather.

So where does this leave us? The discourse around EVs and gasoline vehicles in cold weather needs a more balanced and factual approach. The range loss in gasoline vehicles is a significant issue that mirrors the challenges faced by EVs. By acknowledging this and understanding the broader context, we can have a more informed and equitable discussion about the future of automotive technology and its impact on our environment.

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Kate L. Harrison is the co-founder and head of marketing at MoveEV, an AI-backed EV transition company that helps organizations convert fleet and employee-owned gas vehicles to electric, and reimburse for charging at home.