Thursday, February 04, 2016

"Those who can, publish; those who can't, blog"

Those words in the headlines were part of a published interview (open access) with Palentologist Jingmai O'Conner, and as you would expect, were met with quite a bit of negative reaction from bloggers (and twitter users). I'm not going to go into a full rebuttal - others have. Zen Faulkes gives a line-by-line set of counter arguments that are excellent.

I just going to make a quick couple of points that that I've not seen expressed elsewhere:
  • I blog and don't published because I am employed in industry. I can't publish, not because my research isn't adequate, but because my employer won't let me.
  • My publications are limited to patents.
  • But my biggest beef is this: In the interview, Prof. O' Conner is very respectful of pre-publication reviews. Well, I am a very active reviewer for the Royal Society of Chemistry. So how come Prof. O'Conner respects my pre-publication reviews, but my post-publication reviews are without any merit? It's the same brain and fingers writing at the same keyboard in both cases. Why the respect in one case and the disrespect in the other?

Or did the idea that bloggers can also be reviewers never occur to her?

Previous Years

February 4, 2014 - Is the Word "Plastic" Destined for the Trash Heap?

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

You can't push back the tide

Despite all the flaws in the new World Economic Fund/Ellen MacArthur Foundation report about plastic packaging in the ocean, someone is buying it - literally. To the tune of £500,000:
500,000 Ellen MacArthur PPL Cheque
Looks like they are going to beat me to the punch in developing that new super-polymer.

It's commonly said that lotteries are taxes on stupidity, but in this case, stupidity is a tax on the lottery. There are many, many more legitimate causes than this one that can do real good with this money. But having a good PR campaign and reinforcing peoples' perceptions rather than realities goes far. Trying to fight this nonsense about plastic is like trying to push back the ocean tide.

Previous Years

February 2, 2011 - Nitrogen Filling Tires

Thursday, January 28, 2016

There's something Fishy about so much Plastic in the Oceans's future

A long time reader of the blog, Alan Blayney, first brought to my attention the "splashy polymeric headline of the day" (his words, not mine) about the report released by the World Economic Forum/Ellen MacArthur Foundation (WEF/EMF) regarding ocean plastic. It's been all over the news, usually under the headline of how by the year 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish.

You can read a summary or the full report if you so desire, but I really would recommend against it. I found it very difficult to go any further than 2 sentences without grunting, slapping my head, rolling my eyes and otherwise expressing frustration. That this report took three years to put together is mindboggling. It really looks like a cut-and-paste job by a 7th grader. Seriously. While the vocabulary is well above a that of a 7th grader, the logic might even be below that level.

I cannot even begin to start with a detailed response, so let me give you a couple of high-level arguments which should be enough to support my previous comparison.

1) On page 14 of the full report, they have Figure 5:
WEF Estimates on the future of plastics in the oceans
Let's just focus on the oil barrels, showing that plastics consumption of oil growing from 6% to 20%.

My fist thought was Wow! Plastics are really going to explode like that? How come no one else is expecting such a boom? So then I looked into the details. The WEF/EMF relied on an IEA report for future oil production. The IEA report is actually fairly involved and looks at multiple scenarios for future oil production, including one called "New Policies Scenario", which is described as
"The New Policies Scenario – the central scenario in WEO-2015 – takes into account the policies and implementing measures affecting energy markets that had been adopted as of mid-2015 (as well as the energy-related components of climate pledges in the run-up to COP21, submitted by 1 October), together with relevant declared policy intentions, even though specific measures needed to put them into effect may not have been adopted."
There is also a "Current Policies Scenario" which is based on, you guessed it, current policies, rather than the wishful thinking of what politicians have promised. The New Policies Scenarios then assumes that less oil will be used for energy production, hence the relative increase in the percentage of oil used to make petroleum. No boom at all. It's all just slight of hand that may or may not happen.

But even if this does happen, the question remains: so what? Let's carry out the "New Policies Scenario" to an extreme and imagine that in 2050, all energy is petroleum-free (we're all driving Teslas and heating our homes with bio-methane, etc..), in which case plastics will consume about 50% of all the petroleum extracted (the other 50% going into non-polymeric chemicals as currently happens). Why is that a bad outcome? Or even if plastics consumes 100% of the oil produced, why is that bad?

The point of this figure is to create the illusion that plastics are growing like made and the reality is that they aren't.

A further argument against this illustration is that they are playing fast and loose with future policies and changes in consumer behavior. Because it helps their cause, the WEF/EMF assumed that changes will occur within oil production (the "New Policies Scenario"), but then rather than using a "New Policies Scenario" for the future of plastics, they use a "Current Policies Scenario" for plastics use. What wonderful logic. The mind reels.

2) The report is largely focused on plastic packaging, although there are plenty of examples where the distinction is not clear at all. But let's focus on the packaging aspect. On page 12 of the full report is Figure 3:
WEF estimates on economic loss from plastic packaging
While you can argue with the 95% number, an even bigger counter argument can be made regarding this illustration. Consider again petroleum production. 100% of it ends up in a combustion reaction and would anyone consider this an economic loss? Or is this energy consumption a basis for having an thriving economy in the first place?

Like almost all generic complaints against plastic packaging, the arguments always focus on the "single-use" aspect of it. And why it is certainly true that most plastic packaging is not reused, by focusing on just the very last activity, the bigger picture is lost. Plastic packaging is required to meet a very large list of requirements for a number of customers, not just the final consumer. Consider the hated PET water bottle:
  • It needs to seal the water in and all other contaminants out. That's pretty obvious, that's on the top of everyone's list, but for some people, they think the list stops there. It doesn't.
  • It needs to be made from materials that will not leach unsafe levels of chemicals into the water, or react with the water. The FDA monitors this, but some people are still not happy with the results.
  • It needs to not have any structural failure:
    • during shipment from the bottles' manufacturer (who is often someone different than the company filling the bottle) to the filling plant
    • while it is in the filling equipment
    • while the bottle is put into
      • the secondary packaging (often shrinkwrap)
      • into the tertiary packaging (a cardboard box)
      • additional packaging (such as to secure it to a pallet)
    • or during shipment via (multiple) trucks or boats
    • while on the shelf or rack, particularly when multiple layers of filled bottles are stacked on top of it
    • during the "normal" lifespan that the consumer has it
  • It needs to withstand temperature extremes from below freezing temperatures to 140 oF or more, as well as UV light which can degrade polymers.
  • The water needs to diffuse very slowly through the bottle's walls. Once too much water has evaporated, the bottle no longer holds the volume stated on the label, say 500 ml. Now it's mislabeled, and cannot be sold, so into the wastestream it goes.
Consider the consequences of just one bottle failing these requirements and leaking. At the very least, that water is lost. But depending on the location of the bottle within a shipment, additional bottles may be lost if the cardboard becomes wet and weakens, perhaps even and entire pallet full of water bottles. That is a true loss of economic value.

I could go on (and on. And on. And on.) but you get the point. If you want a good laugh, look at the "moon-shot" (yes, they used that word) technical innovations that they propose on Page 26. I can't wait to get started working on that new "super-polymer". Who's in with me? Maybe a Kickstarter project. We'd only need $50 million or so.

Lastly, I found the following comment in the report to be as filled with irony as any I've ever read:
"Society’s perception of plastics is deteriorating and perhaps threatening the plastics industry’s licence to operate. According to Plastics Europe, an industry organization, 'There is an increasingly negative perception of plastics in relation to health, environment and other issues'."
I wonder why?

Previous Years
January 28, 2014 - Dynamic Mechanical Analyzers - Male or Female?
January 28, 2011 - Miscellany
January 28, 2011 - Designing a Crematorium
January 28, 2010 - Holy Grail Projects
January 28, 2009 - Chemical Security
January 28, 2009 - So that's what it's called...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Another example of the lonliness of polymer chemistry

I recently discovered the Open Syllabus Project, a site that crawls the web looking for syllabuses and then looks at what texts are being used in the class. From this, they prepared ordered lists. While the Project openly admits that their methodology is not perfect [*], it can be considered somewhat representative of what texts are being used and to what degree. Can it accurately split the difference between #11 and #12 on the list? Probably not. But they should be able to clearly differentiate between #1 and #100.

You can filter the list by different fields. When the "Chemistry" filter is applied, the #1 text is "Chemistry: The Central Science" by Brown, et al. No surprise there - it's the text I use and I've always heard that it is extremely popular. There are 3 other General Chemistry texts in the top 10, as well as 4 Organic texts, 1 P-Chem text and 1 Analytical text, which is also not too far from what I would expect. Enrollment in upper level chemistry classes is always much smaller since all the premeds and other nonmajors have left, so P-Chem, Analytical and Inorganic would be expected to be lower.

Being a polymer chemist, I'm curious where the first polymer chemistry text is on the list. It's a disappointing #122 - Polymers: Chemistry and Physics of Modern Materials by J. M. G. Cowie. In fact, there are 9 biochem texts higher on the list than this. 9! Apparently polymer chemistry classes are quite rare, about as rare as the polymerization of a non-terminal olefin. Augsburg College, where I teach, doesn't have a polymer chemistry class (despite my efforts to create and teach one), and I suspect that that is true elsewhere given the data above.

This is all just another example of how lonely it is to be a polymer chemist. If you want to be rich and/or famous for writing a chemistry textbook, write one for General, Organic, Physical, Inorganic or Bio-chemistry. ANYTHING but polymer chemistry.

[*] Of that I'm sure. The syllabus for the class I teach is only available on the college's internal website - no webcrawlers allowed.

Previous Years

January 27, 2012 - Open Access, Curation and Seredipity

January 27, 2011 - Baroplastics

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

King Tut is now minding his own beeswax

Exactly a year ago, I blogged about King Tut's iconic mask being damaged, specifically that the beard had fallen off and was hastily repaired by the 3 Stooges and some 5-minute epoxy (all of which exposed him to TOXIC! levels of BPA). A German art conservator was brought in last fall to attempt a repair.

The National Geographic website reported back in December on his efforts. These included removing the epoxy by heating it and using wooden scrapers to avoid further damage to the mask. Prior to this, they performed a number of scans on the mask and discovered that a previous repair from 1946 had been done using a soft solder. But in this repair, they used an adhesive with ancient roots - beeswax.

As you might guess, beeswax adhesive is not straight beeswax since it is just a softish waxy material with little or no adhesive properties. It is typically mixed with rosin to increase the tackiness. That this is a "natural" adhesive is a selling point, but the repair is certain to not last an eternity (too bad, as Tut will need it that long). Another repair will be needed at some point down the road, but removing the beeswax adhesive should be relatively simple compared to an epoxy.

I wonder how they decided on beeswax, and more importantly, how much (and which) rosin to add to it. Like any tackifier, too much rosin will decrease tackiness, so getting the levels just right is important. Rosins also have varying degrees of unsaturation, all of which will be oxidized over time and potentially changing the adhesive. It would be nice to think that this was all studied and analyzed in great detail, but I suspect that might not be the case.

As for the fate of the artifact-altering-associates, they are facing trial for their "work". There is no word on what potential sentences they are facing, but I think gluing their fingertips together with an epoxy or a cyanoacrylate would be a good start.

Previous Years

January 25, 2015 - King Tut and BPA

January 26, 2012 - Viewing History through an Oil Refinery

January 26, 2011 - My Most Embarrassing Moment at Work

January 26, 2010 - Phosgene Death

January 26, 2009 - More on Dow and Rohm & Haas

January 26, 2009 - Biodegradation of Polymers

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

LA to Feds: Thanks everyone! We had a ball! (or 96 million)

Back in August to much hoopla, Los Angeles placed 96 million black HDPE balls on top of their water reservoirs. Plastics News is now reporting that the balls on three of the four reservoirs are being removed due to federal regulations.

Reaction to the balls has varied from the start and not surprisingly, some people were very suspicious going so far as to establish a Reddit community rife with conspiracy theories. That some in that community believe the balls leach BPA is hardly surprising.

It's not mentioned what will happen to the used balls. A massive ball pit is always a possibility, but most ball pits that I've seen use multicolored balls and not just black ones. Recycling options are somewhat limited as black HDPE isn't all that common. (Black is common in film form, but I suspect the melt index for these molded balls is far too high for film formation.) I think the most likely outcome will be a classified ad in Plastics News:
For sale: 96 million used black HDPE balls. 4" diameter. Available for immediate pickup in Los Angeles California. Cash only (We're still flirting with backruptcy!). Special consideration will be given to businesses in the St. Louis, Missouri area (we feel really bad about taking back the Ram -- we really do. NOT!)

Previous Years

January 19, 2012 - A Bad Day in the Operating Room

January 19, 2011 - What's in a Name?

January 19, 2010 - What's In My Inbox