Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Shocking News! Biodegradable Plastics don't Biodegrade in the Ocean!

Just as Captain Renault was "...shocked! - shocked! - to find that gambling is going on in here!", the announcements surrounding the newest United Nations Environment Programme report that biodegradable plastics don't biodegrade in the ocean is as equally unshocking. But you would not know that from the much of the hullabaloo around the web.

"The enemy of the environment" screams one such headline. For me to call that an overstatement is equally as much of an understatement. Biodegradable plastics make up such a small proportion of all plastics (keep in mind that the Big 6 are high density polyethylene, low density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyester and polyvinyl chloride, they comprise 76% of all plastics produced and they all are non-biodegradable), that their lack of biodegradability in the oceans is an equally small concern.

Besides, I really have never seen much potential for biodegradable plastics, at least as an approach to pollution elimination. No matter what the material, biodegradability is a slow process and yet the creation of pollution is instantaneous. Newsprint is one of the most biodegradable materials available, but newspaper pages blowing around in the park is still considered an eyesore and an example of pollution for the weeks that the paper is still undegraded.

Biodegradation is a long-term solution to immediate pollution, and this new report simply confirms what has been known for decades. Plastics has no business being in the ocean - do your part to keep it out.

Previous Years

May 25, 2012 - My Favorite Toxic Chemical

May 25, 2011 - A New Variable in Polymer Degradation Chemistry

May 25, 2010 - Exhibits that I liked at ANTEC

May 25, 2007 - Why I hate polyurethanes

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Haber-Bosch and General Chemistry

C & E News is reporting a new iron-sulfur based gel that catalyzes the formation of ammonia from nitrogen. In contrast to the existing Haber-Bosch process which heats the nitrogen to ~ 400 oC under ~ 200 atm of pressure, this new process is performed at room temperature and in water. Depending on whose estimate you look at, the Haber-Bosch process uses between 1 and 2 % of the world's energy.

The social significance of this reaction is far greater, in that the product, ammonia, is then used to either directly as a fertilizer or it can be converted into ammonium nitrate - also a fertilizer, but one that is less hazardous to handle. The process was invented just over 100 years ago and has revolutionized agriculture. Prior to the invention, nitrogen fertilizers were limited to guano. With this new process for fertilizer preparation, agricultural production began to increase exponentially (as did population), so much so that it has been estimated that 80% of the nitrogen in your body has been inside a Haber-Bosch reactor. [*]

While I can see the potential for this new discovery, my more immediate thoughts (and ones that I would not have had just a year ago before I started teaching) are regarding chemical education. General chemistry is rife with multiple discussions on the Haber-Bosch process. The text that I use discusses it repeatedly in the sections on equilibrium, Le Chatelier's principle, the ideal gas law, partial pressures...No more Haber-Bosch process and the book needs a major rewrite.

Actually, I seriously doubt that a major rewrite would occur. Once a textbook is established, it becomes a Katamari Damcy ball that increases in size with each new edition as more and more material is added and nothing is taken away. The text I use still has a overview of qualitative analysis of metallic elements:
Going old school - qualitative analysis of metals!
Seriously? Haven't the authors heard of an ICP? Look at the buckets of hazardous waste that this scheme generates. Also note shown in the scheme is that a flame test is proposed as the final step for identifying sodium in the alkali metals. Why don't we just send a telegraph of the analysis back to headquarters, using a gravity cell to power the process while we're at it since we seem to be stuck in the early 20th century?

No, the more likely outcome is that new textbooks would just not include the Haber-Bosch process and that would be a loss due to its usefulness in tying together so many concepts. It also gives us a chance to talk of the full work of Fritz Haber and to get students to start thinking early on about the ethical concerns that they and other scientists may have to face. Time will tell. Most new discoveries never make it far from the bench, and that is the likely outcome for this one as well.

[*] I've seen that 80% figure before, but never looked at the original source. Check it out for yourself (the article linked above is open access) and you'll see that there is no reference provided for it. So is this another one of those mythical numbers without any basis, such as the "8-glasses of water a day" legend?

Previous Years

May 24, 2012 - Slimy Alien Invaders in Minnesota?

May 24, 2011 - Smallest 3D Printer

May 24, 2007 - Why I love polyurethanes

Monday, May 23, 2016

Are plastics to blame for a diplomatic spat?

Plastics are often unfairly blamed for many problems in the world, but being blamed for a diplomatic spat is novel. But that is what the Daily Mail is doing. The Queen was heard to say that the Chinese in a recent visit were "rude". She thought that she was speaking privately and in a low enough tone to not be widely heard but that was not the case.
"Her majesty was clutching a clear plastic brolly in the drizzle, but it appears it amplified her comments and sent them towards a microphone belonging to her own personal cameraman. If her majesty was using a typical umbrella or the sun had been shining her comments would not have surfaced."
The Queen and here magical voice amplifying umbrella

The Chinese were bothered by the remarks, but I don't expect much to come of it in the long run.

But are plastics really to blame? I think the shape of the umbrella is this case with its deep bowl and the not the flatter design of say, a golf umbrella would play a huge role. But more importantly, the article notes that the cameraman was using a "sensitive directional microphone". So did the umbrella play a role at all? Since even more sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment exists, the Queen really should be careful with any remarks she makes in any public area.

There is the old American expression from World War II "Loose lips sink ships". Perhaps her Majesty would do well to consider it.
Loose lips sink ships

Previous Years

May 23, 2011 - Serendipity

May 23, 2011 - This is underwhelming, really underwhelming

Thursday, May 19, 2016

3M is NOT science

Sports, particularly in the US never seems to reach a limit in its attempts to increasingly commercialize itself. Stadiums used to have names with a history behind them, but now they are all named after corporate sponsors. And then there are all the "official" products, especially with NFL football, which range from the mundane (Courtyard by Marriott is the official hotel) to the strange (Bridgestone is the official tire - this is football, not auto racing) to the truly bizarre (Covergirl is the official beauty product line. Seriously? How many NFL players use Covergirl?)

But yesterday saw a new level of commercialization that first had me laughing but then got me quite made: 3M is now the "Official Science Partner" of the Minnesota Vikings. What does that even mean? Details are few, but it does appear that 3M's line of bandages will be available at the first aid stations around the stadium, and of course they get a banner in the stadium but beyond that, not much else is explained.

But think about this further. 3M ≠ science. Official Science Partner? How can someone or some company suddenly claim "science" for themselves and then use it for commercial gain? With the other "official" products and services that the league and teams have, the "official" product or service is something that the company actually sells. 3M, however, does not sell science. They sell Post-It notes and sticky tapes and cleaning supplies and respirators and tens of thousands of other products, but they do not sell science. Call their toll-free number (1-800-3MHELPS) and tell that you want to buy some science and could they forward you to the proper salesperson.

Science is not for sale [1] and no one is in charge of selling it. So for 3M to suddenly equate itself with science and then leverage it for profit is maddening. How long until this cashing in with the name of science spreads to other sports, not just with a single team, but at a league level? What if Monsanto wanted to the be official science partner to the Premier League? Or if Amgen wanted to be the official science partner to cycling? (Oh wait, they already are [2].) To cloak a company within the good cloth of science is just too much for me.

Unfortunately, science as a term has no legitimate defenders. I can't see any legal recourse available. Even showing standing would be a nightmare, let alone damages. Short of an organized social media campaign putting pressure on the Vikings and/or 3M, I think this is the future and we are stuck with it.

[1] Publishers of non-open-access journals make me think otherwise at times

[2] I'm looking at you, Lance Armstrong.

Previous Years

May 19, 2014 - A Portfolio of Biobased PE and PP

May 19, 2010 - Back in the Office

May 19, 2009 - Accelerated aging gets even faster

Monday, May 16, 2016

Even the Megacorporations can be defrauded

While it is very common to read reports of individuals falling victim to fraudulent internet and email schemes, it is much less common to hear of businesses being scammed, especially very large businesses. But apparently that has happened with LG Chem and Saudi Aramco (the latter arguably be the largest company in the world). Plastemart reported last week that LG Chem was supposed to wire $21 million to Aramco as payment for some petroleum distillates that they had ordered. But things fell apart when LG Chem received an email detailing a "new" account number to wire the money too. The "new" account, as you might now guess, was not an account that belonged to Aramco.

This reeks of an inside job - someone not only had access to Aramco's email system but also knew that LG Chem was supposed to be making the payment, so the list of suspects is probably pretty short.

We've not actually seen the email that LG Chem claimed they received, so we just have to trust that the letter did indeed supply a new account number. OR maybe, just maybe, it might have started like this:
"Dear LG Chem,

You may not believe your luck, but I am His Royal Highness, Sheikh Abdul al Abdul and I have $773 millions dollars in a Nigerian bank account and I urgently need your help..."

Previous Years

May 16, 2014 - The New Wonder Polymer

May 16, 2013 - Buy & Selling Division in the Polymer Industry

May 16, 2012 - Time to Test My Beliefs

May 16, 2011 - Updating the Blogroll

May 16, 2011 - Definitely Updating the Blog Roll

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Music influencing chemical reactions

The polymer chemistry world was "rocked" a few months back when an Australian research group announced that they had developed a new method for preparing potential cancer fighting medications that were overcoated with a Teflon-like coating generated from a plasma. What was so rocking about this? Well, in order to achieve a uniform coating over the entire particle, they needed a way to keep the particles in a constant tumbling motion. And being Australian, the music of AC/DC came to mind, and "Thunderstruck" in particular. They turned the volume up to 11 and voila, success and a paper that caught the attention of many more scientists (and the popular media) than it otherwise would.

Music, and more broadly speaking, sound is mechanical waves that vary longitudinally (rather than transversely as with most other waves), so the use of it is not without merit. But this is not the first time that music in particular has been used to influence a chemical reaction. A little over 2 years ago, researchers in Kobe Japan used classical music to influence a chemical reaction. I don't know of any other reports of music influencing chemical reactions, but the leap from classical to rock was first suggested in a tweet from Vittorio Saggiomo.

I personally prefer Guns n Roses ("Take me down to Polymer city - where PLA is green and pigments are pretty - oh won't you please take me home...) so next time I'm in the lab and have an appetite for destruction, I may just see if a little GnR can be used for accelerated aging of polymers. I have this hunch that it just might work.

Previous Years

May 11, 2016 - How Cheap are Recycled Plastics Nowadays?

May 11, 2012 - What a Crappy Project

May 11, 2011 - Bouncing Jello at 6,200 Frames/Second

May 11, 2010 - Flow-Induced Phase Separation

May 11, 2010 - "9 Shocking Things Made from Oil" - Not!

May 11, 2010 - 10 Things I Like about Polymer Chemistry

May 11, 2010 - Follow Up on "9 Shocking Things Made From Oil"

May 11, 2007 - A much better QC test