Tuesday, October 06, 2015

DuPont's CEO Wins the Proxy Battle, But is Leaving the Company

In much the same way that great revolutionaries seldom make great post-revolution leaders, CEO's are usually incapable of leading a company through more than one set of issues. Great turnaround artists don't work well for maintaining steady, long-term growth. The same goes for great acquistionaries, great sales-increasers, etc. The most recent example of that is Ellen Kullman, whom PlasticsNews is reporting to be leaving the CEO position of DuPont, having spent much of the year fighting of a stupid proxy fight, (probably the stupidest one I've ever seen). While she won the battle quite handily, she doesn't seem able to handle the new challenge.

Earnings for the chemical giant have been lowered for the coming year in large part due to the stronger dollar. This is an issue that CEO's from all international companies have to deal with. Those with a financial background can better handle these types of issues. Being an engineer by training, this is something that is probably out of her league (heaven knows I would be just as unqualified.) Whether the board asked her to step down or she initiated it is unclear and may never truthfully be known. But we can be certain of this: plenty of ink will be wasted on contradictory articles supported by anonymous sources as each side attempts to spin, counterspin and outspin the other. (Just don't expect me to cover it.)

Previous Years

October 6, 2010 - A Rare Case where a Misnomer Might be Good Thing

October 6, 2010 - Sun Chips to Pull It's Noisy PLA Bag

October 6, 2009 - The Dog and Pony Show

Monday, October 05, 2015

Nobel Prizes and Polymers

This year's Nobel Prizes are being announced this week. The Chemistry Prize is announced on Wednesday and I doubt that it will go to anyone researching polymers. Since the first prize was given out in 1901, only 4 times has it been given to polymer scientists: Staudinger in 1953, Ziegler/Natta in 1963, Flory in 1974 and Heeger/MacDiarmid/Shirakawa in 2000. You could argue that polymers were never in the running in 1901, as it was only in the 1920's that Staudinger began his crusade to have polymers recognized for what they are - macromolecules and not just colloidal associations as others would have argued. In that case, there were only 62 chances to win since 1953, so the odds are quite a bit better than they originally appear. (Coincidentally, only 4 women have also won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, but that is a different discussion for another day.)

But regardless of the exact calculation, the slim number of prizes reinforces my long running argument that polymer chemistry is just a small fraction of the world of chemistry. Arguments that half chemists work in polymers have no merit. I ran some numbers earlier this year and came up with 8% or so as a more realistic number. This number in fact correlates rather well with the number of Nobel Prizes (4/62 = 6.5%).

Whoever does win, I do hope that their research can be easily explained to freshman. I have a whole class full of them and being able to include this as enrichment material on Wednesday morning would be wonderful. It's been a good year for making tie-ins with current events. The timing could not have been better for ytterbium to be reassigned a new atomic weight, since I had just been lecturing about how the fractional abundances of isotopes contribute to atomic weights, and suddenly there was this real world example. Similarly, the discover of flowing water on Mars (on the basis of sodium-/magnesium perchlorate) was perfectly timed with a lecture on electrolytes in water (thank you NASA!). So if the people in Stockholm could give me a heads up so that I have time to adequately prepare, I would appreciate it.

Previous Years

October 5, 2010 - On Units of Measure

October 5, 2010 - Plasticizers = Positive Drug Test?

October 5, 2009 - Duplicity and Siloxanes

October 5, 2009 - Public to Private and Back Again

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Microbeads as a Solution to Pollution?

(Thanks goes to Eric F. Brown for bringing this article to my attention.)

This might not be turning lemons into lemonade, but it could be close. Microbeads have recently become the cause de du jour for environmentalists fighting plastics in the oceans and other bodies of water, but a UC Santa Barbara researcher looks upon the beads as a solution and not a problem. By putting a carefully selected peptoid [*] coating on the beads, the beads can bind hexavalent chromium and remove it from water. Hexavalent chromium is the particularly nasty version of the metal made famous by the movie Erin Brockovich and is in the drinking water of cities as large as Chicago.

While hexavalent chromium ions are a worthwhile and newsworthy target, I imagine the technique could be applied to recovering other ions/elements as well. Arsenic is a problem in many parts of the world as are other metal/metal ions. And I can't see any reason why any particular bead wouldn't be able to recover multiple metals (although a mixture of beads targeting each individual metal could work too).

The article raises but doesn't answer the question of recovering the beads. Making the beads around a magnetic core would be a quick-and-easy option to allow for recovery, but buoyancy would be a concern. Smaller cores would help that, but then a stronger recovery magnet would be needed. Increasing the thickness of the polymeric shell would increase the buoyancy, particularly if it was foamed to any degree. But even if the whole concept of using microbeads fails, the peptoid coatings could still be used to coat other materials to reach the same end. Peptoids are apparently quite resistant to hydrolysis, which is crucial for application like this, so it's just a matter of finding an acceptable substrate with a large surface area and possibly sufficient porosity so that this doesn't end up as a giant filter removing the good (sea life from microbes on up to whales) as well as the bad.

[*] Peptoids are like peptides, oligomers of amino acids, but amino acids have their substituents on the α-carbon, while for peptoids, the substituents are on the nitrogen.

Previous Years

September 30, 2014 - A Mixing Demonstration using non-Newtonian Blue Maize Flour Suspension

September 30, 2011 - Now that we have the "Perfect Plastic", you don't need me

September 30, 2011 - The Research behind "The Perfect Polymer"

September 30, 2010 - Pyridine

Monday, September 28, 2015

Peer Review Week - How to Find Industrial Researchers [*]

Today is the start of international "Peer Review Week", a time to celebrate all the good that comes from peer review and to make sure that it receives its proper recognition as playing a key role in publishing research and awarding research grants. Blame it on my grey hairs for being jaded and cynical, but I expect all the commentary to focus on academic researchers performing peer review and either giving industrial researchers short shrift or no shrift at all.

Being until recently a non-academic researcher, (being an adjunct professor I am no longer so pure and pristine, but as I only lecture 3.5 hours a week, I spend far more time being non-academic than academic and so still relate more closely to non-academics), it goads me to no end to be ignored and otherwise taken for granted. Just this year alone I've already reviewed 14 manuscripts, and have not submitted any for review during that time (0 submissions is very common output for industrial researchers). You can't even take a proper ratio on that, but clearly as an industrial, non-academic researcher, I am contributing to the system greatly in excess of what I get out. Even if I had only completed 1 review, since I didn't submit a paper for submission, the system still would record me as a positive contributor. And that is how most industrial researchers are. We very seldom contribute manuscripts for publication, so we don't tax the system highly. Even for those researchers that do submit a manuscript or two a year, it wouldn't take much for them to pay the system back.

All of which is background to this: I got into a snit this morning on Twitter when someone tweeted about how valuable industrial researchers are to peer review, but they are "...more difficult to find (email/position only seldom listed in www)". So here are my suggestions to editors everywhere on finding industrial researchers that can help with peer review.
  1. Start with LinkedIn. It's like Facebook, but for professionals. There are countless professionals (about 200 million give or take) from all fields on it, they can be easily searched and emails/websites are readily available. Even if they aren't explicitly listed, as long as their employer is named, you can find them. There are two ways:
    • You know how every new phone comes loaded with pre-installed apps that you will never use and you can't get rid of them? Well, you're going to use one of them. There is this app on cellphones called the phone feature (I believe that this is where the name "iPhone" comes from!). Use it to call the main number for their employer (which you can easily find on the internet). Ask to be connected to the employee. It may take a little bit of time, but companies don't really try to make their employees miss out on calls from the outside world.
    • If the phone is too scary, email them. I know your response already ("BUT I DON'T HAVE THEIR EMAIL ADDRESS!"), but it isn't difficult to figure out a work email address. While personal email accounts can be difficult to guess, corporations like to give the appearance of transparency so no sneakiness is allowed. My work emails have always been some variation/combination of my last name and then first name/initials/... @companyname.com. Over the years, I've had jaspevacek@mmm.com, john.spevacek@aspenrearch.com, etc. Once you know the pattern that a company uses, you're practically there. Suppose you want to contact Elmer Fudd at 3M. There are only 26 possibilities: start with eafudd@mmm.com, ebfudd.com...ezfudd.com. For more common names such as John Q. Public, you might need to try jqpublic1@mmm.com, jqpublic2@mmm.com...I'm sure someone could write an app to auto-generate all the possibilities. All you need is to know the format that the company uses. And that's easy to figure out since sites like this have done all the work for you.
  2. Now that you have captured your first industrial researcher, treat them like a spark and build a massive fire off of them. Ask them who else they know and could connect you to. Build a network off of these people and keep expanding it.
Was that so difficult? I realize this is pointed and snarky, but that Tweet this morning really got to me. I've been writing for years about how industrial researchers are seriously overlooked as a potential source of manpower and for someone to complain about difficulty in contacting us was just unnerving. And while the RSC was ahead of the curve in contacting me years ago to be a reviewer (they got my email address off of this blog!), they have never bothered with step 2. Their loss. For Peer Review Week 2015, let's make this the year that industrial researchers are finally recognized as a vast, wasted resource that they are, and then start to use them. [*] Clever people will take these techniques and put them to other constructive uses.

Previous Years September 28, 2012 - The Largest Molecule September 28, 2011 - Hidden Problems in Heat Transfer September 28, 2010 - Blur, perception and Distance >September 28, 2009 - Marketing that anyone can love

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Rubber bullets are (usually) not lethal, but these new plastic bullets are

The website-with-an-obvious-viewpoint, BearingArms.com is reporting that polymer bullets are under development. The bullets are actually a polymer/copper composite (no idea of what the relative amounts of each are), but since they have less mass than a traditional round, there is less recoil when fired. But more interesting than the materials is the shape of the bullet. Take a look:
Plastic Bullets
They are rounded in the front (like many other ammunitions), but also scalloped in three locations. This design was not accidental (few designs ever are) and testing on ballistic gel has shown that this feature increase the lethalness of the bullet. Go to the article if you want the details; they are not appropriate for this column.

This opens the door to future designs that are even more "creative", since working with plastics is generally much easier than working with metals. And since we already have 3-D printed guns, it won't be too long before we have 3-D printed bullets too.

Previous Years

September 24, 2013 - Here's Research to Lift Your Spirits

September 24, 2012 - Bird-Brained Rheologists

September 24, 2010 - Biorenewables

September 24, 2010 - A Substitute for Aqua Regia

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Faking Plastic Currency

Canada introduced polymer currency back in 2011 in part due to their increase longevity compared to traditional paper currencies, and also in part due to the increased difficulty to counterfeiting. But that time is over. CBC News is reporting that fake C$ 100 are popping up in Regina, Saskatchewan. Take a look at the fakes (on top) and the real bills (on bottom):
Real and Fake Canadian Plastic Currency
The images are pretty well done; the only glitch is the silver tape (probably a vapor-coated aluminum PET) that was used instead of the clear holographic tape.

Somewhat ironically, this is the most science/technology oriented bill that Canada issues. The distinguished gentleman is Sir Robert Borden, a former Prime Minister (I had to look it up as my knowledge of Canadian PM's is limited to Trudeau and I couldn't pick him out of a police lineup), but there are also "stock" images of a women with an optical microscope (looks like it might even be a polarizing model), an EKG scan, the obligatory DNA double-helix and a vial of insulin.

But why the C$ 100 bill? Why not a smaller denomination like a 50 or a 20? A 100-dollar bill is likely to gather attention and closer inspection that a 20 and a 50 won't. 20's are standard issue from an ATM (although 50's are becoming more and more common) so people are unlikely to pay as close of attention. Unless the counterfeits are really that difficult to make so that the extra large denomination is the only way to make counterfeiter's scheme payoff, someone making smaller denominations could go on for a much longer time span before getting attention (and ultimately detention!).

Not having a criminal mindset, I don't know and never will.

Previous Years

September 22, 2014 - Back from Vacation

September 22, 2011 - Another Source of Ocean Plastics - Your Clothing

September 22, 2010 - Watch out all you Grandparents!

September 22, 2009 - Self-Healing Plastics