Friday, September 19, 2014

Bayer's MaterialScience Spinoff

Plastics Today is reporting that Bayer is spinning off their materials science business, which include polyurethanes and their monomers, and also polycarbonates. There had been rumors for awhile that Bayer was going along this path, but I always figured someone would buy the business rather than have it spun-off.

I've never been party to a spin-off, rather I've been on the "spinning" side. While there are certain advantages (the company has more independence and can seek capital from a multitude of sources rather than just its new owner), there also disadvantages too (the stock markets are very short sighted and want good, consistent results every quarter). But spin-offs can also be a dumping ground for all the junk that the spinning company wants to rid itself of without any of the legal or PR issues associated with it. Want to cut your labor force by x thousand and not have to worry about the negative PR? Put them in the spin-off and let them bloody their hands while your hands stay clean. When there is a contract between a buyer and a seller [*], it's a lot tougher to shovel some dirt under the rug.

I'm just speaking in general terms. I have no idea if that will happen here at all. Just wishing everyone on both sides of the future spin-off all the best.

[*] Or should I say between a Bayer and a seller? Ha ha ha. I crack myself up.

Previous Years

September 19, 2011 - Recycling Paper Around the World - Literally!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Guess I won't apply for this job

I am not looking for a job but that doesn't mean that I don't receive an endless stream of emails from recruiters on LinkedIn [*]. A recent one came with this beautiful snippet:
"An Edisonian approach of trial & error, will not work for this role... this opportunity requires the ability to use theoretical modeling skills, fundamental / first principles knowledge, and deep understanding of polymer chemistry, in order to provide innovative solutions."
This is scary. That an employer would have such the expectation that experimentation is not needed and that computation and theory can be used to predict the properties of a polymer means that they will only be disappointed in the job performance of whatever poor soul takes that job. While there are some successes in such types of efforts to date, they are always for a single polymer genus and a very limited range of properties, such as this research relating reactor conditions for LDPE to the rheology. Not the mechanical properties of the LDPE, just the molten rheology. And again, this research is limited to LDPE.

There is no way I would ever apply for such a position.

[*] Sometimes I think that LinkedIn was start by recruiters for recruiters. Hence my low visibility there.

Previous Years

September 18, 2013 - "Dear, Do These Jeans Make My Butt Look Photocatalytic?"

September 18, 2012 - Toughening Up Hydrogels

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen, The Real World Blog

Eric F. Brown, author of the blog The Rheol World" signed off for the last time yesterday. His blog will be missed as during it's heyday around 2010, it was pretty active, being both humorous and informative. Sadly the posting frequency has slacked off greatly as of late and yesterday the end was formally announced.

I'm hoping Eric can restart the blog sometime in the future, so I will await that day patiently. My RSS feeder will be sure to alert me.

Do stop by his blog once last time and be sure to notice his unique logo with the built-in pun.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Plastics Scorecard v1.0 - I can't wait for v2.0

Being that I've spent my whole career working with plastics, I've had more than my fill of anti-plastic nonsense. But most of it is "harmless" statements about how bad plastic is. Statements such as "every piece of plastic ever made is still in existence" or any of a number of inane statements about "floating island of plastic in the ocean" or statements made by people thinking they are living a plastic-free life. When such statements are made by unprofessional individuals, I seldom get worked up or even respond.

But last Friday I ran across a new level of plasti-phobia that is so devoid of any technical support and yet, because of the graphics and table screams of respectability. It's all from this new "Plastics Scorecard v1.0" prepared by BizNGO. For reasons that are completely unclear, they have scored various plastics solely on the chemicals that are used in their preparation, or maybe more correctly, the chemicals that they think are used in their preparation. While that is a fair concern [1], focusing on just one aspect of a system is never a good idea and that applies in this case as well. So the fundamental logic of this scorecard is already incorrect. But what is really maddening is that the statements used in preparing this scorecard exhibit a new level of ignorance regarding chemical safety that I've seldom seen. Here are just a few examples of this. You can read the report and find more.

For instance, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) gets knocked heavily for its use of acetic acid in the preparation of terephthalic acid. Acetic acid? Yes, because the authors consider it toxic, even though the oral LD50 is about 3 g/kg. They are similarly upset about the use of ethylene glycol, even though its LD50 is higher yet at 5 g/kg.

The authors of this report have a very strange understanding of polymer chemistry. For instance, they are concerned about bis-(2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalate as an intermediate to PET, which it technically is [2], but it is never isolated in the process. Stranger yet is their understanding of the preparation of polylactic acid (PLA). They list glucose as the starting material rather than corn and they completely overlook the acids or enzymes used to hydrolyze the starch into glucose. No one makes PLA by starting with glucose, but rather from corn or some other source of a hydrolysable starch.

All of this shows a large shortcoming of this approach to scoring polymers: the starting point for a polymer is not always clear, and yet they are relying on the starting to point to make their judgments.

The summary report is filled with howlers, such as "It is clear that manufacturers can make significant progress towards producing polymers from inherently safer chemicals" No, that is not clear in the least. What would these people consider inherently safer chemicals? Water? And where are is the carbon for the backbone to come from? Carbon dioxide? Coal? And similarly for hydrogen, what would that source be? Hydrogen gas? Prepared from what toxic chemical? And even the oxygen that is needed for making many polymers toxic to human in its pure gaseous form. That the highest scoring polymer was PLA and it only managed 58 out of 100 points shows just how ridiculous the entire scheme is.

While it is easy to write this off as the effort of just a few powerless individuals, the authorities that they have lined up supporting it is frightening, including Ken Geiser, professor emeritus, University of Massachusetts - Lowell and Helen Holder, Material Strategist, at HP amongst others. I have to seriously wonder if these people really read the report before signing onto the effort. I plan to contact them and let them know my opinions and challenge them on theirs.

[1] I've always had the willies thinking about phosgene being used to make polycarbonate (even though everyone is much more concerned about it's comonomer BPA).

[2] The initial condensation reaction yields water which limits the molecular weight that can be obtained. Using this intermeidate "monomer" allows the polymerization to proceed without producing water.

Previous Years
September 15, 2011 - Follow Up on Yesterday's Post

September 15, 2010 - Purging

September 15, 2010 - A Strange Connection (if it even exists)

September 15, 2009 - Tires for the moon (and beyond)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Poster Sessions - Hey, My Eyes Are Over Here

Today and tomorrow are my companies annual internal poster session, so lab work will be down to zero as I will be presenting for both days. It is quite an exhausting experience, especially for a natural introvert like myself. But if you see me at the show, you would never guess I'm like that.

My attitude towards poster sessions has changed over the decades. At first I was trying to put as much information and words and data and graphs as possible on the paper, although I did know enough to ensure that the visual appearance wasn't too horrible. But the overwhelming thought was that the whole project would be there for someone to read while I stood silently by the side. If they had questions, I would gladly answer them. And when the session was over, I would judge it as a success if I talked to no one.

Coincidentally, my Powerpoint slidedecks were set up the same way. All the information was there and I didn't need to be there, although I never, never not even once stood there and read off the slides directly. That is and always will be a waste of time for all parties.

That all changed at my previous job where we did contract R & D. In a job like that, you are always selling yourself and your company. That's a big part of the reason you are reading this blog. It started as an aid to establish the credibility of me and my (previous) employer. And so despite being an introvert, I learned to engage people. And a great way to do this is to tell stories. There is a great story in every research project, you just have to find it. There is something about storytelling that attracts people. As long as people have gathered around a fire, they have told stories. I'm just tapping into that powerful aspect of human nature

So after 8 years of learning to sell myself and tell stories, my posters sessions have come to reflect that. The posters are now greatly simplified and stand as an aid to what I am talking about, a prop and not a crutch. Furthermore, I'm like a used car salesman - don't make eye contact with me. If someone slows or glances at my poster, I literally wave them towards me and start into my story. And to further freak them out, I talk to them face-to-face about my research. When I come to a point in my talk where a visual would help tell the story, I point to a section of the poster that has what I need. And then it's back to making eye contact until I need another visual. At the end, I now know that the person got the story I want to tell. And in most cases, I can tell that they are thankful. They will leave the session knowing at least one research project to some level of detail instead of it being a blur of endless posters.

Similarly, my Powerpoint presentations have over time had less and less on the slides to the point that now when someone asks for a copy of my slidedeck, I am quite sure that they will get very little out of it. Without me and my story, there is little there.

Unfortunately, I can't always get away with approach as often my slidedecks have to be approved/reviewed by others prior to my presentation. You can easily guess the feedback I get.

Previous Years

September 10, 2013 - A Pitch Drop Contest

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Plastics to Oil - Hype or Hope?

The Wall Street Journal had a video Q & A with Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council regarding efforts to convert plastic waste and other elements of municipal wastestreams to oil. This process, know as Plastics-To-Oil (PTO), is done by anaerobic pyrolysis - heating the plastic up in an oxygen-free atmosphere to temperatures that degrade it to low molecular weight liquids. The technology is not all that new - I discussed it here over 2 years ago. If obviously works best with plain hydrocarbons - polyethylene, polypropylene, EPDM rubber, etc. Heteroatoms such as oxygen from PET, chlorine from PVC, nitrogen from nylons, etc. make it a little more difficult to produce the pure hydrocarbon output so desired by refiners. But in all cases, the lack of sulfur in most plastics ensures that the output is a very sweet crude oil.

The title of the article, "Plastic May Well Be the Next Big Energy Source", however really bothers me. Of all the petroleum that is taken from the ground, 5% of it ends up being plastic. This then means that at most we can reduce our consumption of oil by 5%. And that's assuming 100% efficiency at recovering all the plastic from all wastestreams, and further that this process can be performed without any additional energy inputs.

The current reality is that about 10% of all plastics are recycled. Even aluminum cans, the paragon of recycling efficiency, has a recovery rate of about 60 - 70%. So 100% recovery of plastics is a pipedream. Even 50% recovery is probably too much to ask for. And of course pyrolysis requires energy to heat the plastics to over 400 oC, so that further reduces the net amount of petroleum that can be gained.

So can a 2 - 2.5% reduction in petroleum consumption through PTO be considered the "Next Big Energy Source"? Considering that petroleum consumption fell all of that and more during the Great Recession, I won't call it that.

Hat tip to Chemjobber (Blog and Twitter) for bringing this to my attention.

Previous Years
"blue"September 9, 2014 - Where's the Cheap Plastic We Were Promised?