Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Open Access Journals

I've always been envious of the progress that biologists have made in providing free access journals. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is the most visible example, but there are others. Chemistry has lagged quite far behind, but I was glad to discover this exeption: Polymers. This is a new free-access journal that is just taking its first steps.

I can't say that the name impresses me much. It's not the name per se that it the problem, it's that the name is so similar to the journal entitled Polymer. I can certainly see it being an ongoing source of confusion.

I wish the new journal well. The "Special Issues" list looks nice. I wish the "Click Chemistry" issue had a later deadline than January 31, as I would have a good paper to submit if given a few more months. The publisher is MPDI, and they already have 27 other open access journals going, so I think things should go well.

Monday, December 28, 2009

How to Improve Margins on Polypropylene

Having any sort of margin at all in resin production is tougher than usual these days, especially for commodity polymers such as polypropylene [1]. Adding something to the polymer, such as glass fibers (either long or short), colorants, is a standard manner to increase the price per pound and hopefully the profit margins, but here is something that I never thought of adding: cocaine. 750 kg of cocaine were mixed in with 25 tons of PP resin. I do not have any experience with this, but I would think that this was just a physical blend and that the cocaine was not compounded into the PP [2]. Recovering the drug a would be so much easier, as it would just be a filtering step, although I imagine that a not inconsiderable amount of powder would stay statically attached to the beads.

Let's run some math: At $100/g[3], the coke was worth $75,000,000. 25 tons of PP at $1/lb. is $50,000 (assuming this is the normal English (short) ton). The combined cocaine/PP blend is worth $75,050,000, with a combined mass of 51650 lbs. This works out to $1453/lb. Quite a markup; not something to blow your nose at (sorry, couldn't help it).

[1] The performance of PP is constantly improving, so much so that some people consider PP an "engineering" resin, but in terms of volume and closeness of the polymer's price to the price of a barrel of oil, it will always be a commodity resin in my mind.
[2] Just looking at the structure of cocaine suggests that it has way too much polarity to dissolve in a low polar thermoplastic.
[3] Again, I've never worked with the stuff, so I'm forced to use highly reputable sources.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Required Reading

xkcd is right on the mark today. If only this could somehow become permanently implanted into everyone's brains, the world would indeed be a better place. Think of all the endless hype, the mindless news stories, the misplaced research dollars that would be saved.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Some subtle, subtle surfaces

There's a new report (free access!) out about how something as simple as glass (you know, that inert material that is always the same once it's been cleaned) can cause problems with sample prep. In this case, microscope slides were silanized to allow for adhesion of some biomolecules. This is a simple, standard reaction, but one that many researchers were suddenly having problems with. After looking at every possible alternative, they had to look at the glass itself and found that its composition had recently changed (despite claims from the supplier that it hadn't). The point here isn't to blame the manufacturer, but to highlight that you shouldn't assume that "inert" surfaces aren't reeking havoc on your chemistry.

This is one of those examples that should be required reading for everyone early on in their careers. There are other examples in a similar vein where clean surfaces will start adsorbing anything they can from solution. Others have discussed this, and it's certainly well known (I hope?!) that cleanliness is essential in capillary viscometry (Ostwald-Fenske, Ubbelohde...). If you are working on very low concentrations, the bulk concentration will begin to noticeably drop. Or if you are working with polymers in small spaces, the adsorbed macromolecules will reach out quite far from the surface and entangle others in their vicinity.

It shouldn't be the first option to troubleshoot, but never rule out that the inert, unchanging surfaces in your equipment might not be so kind.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thermal Hystersis

Pretty much as long as synthetic polymers have been known, it's also been known that the crystalline polymers don't melt and crystallize at the same temperature. This doesn't violate thermodynamics as thermodynamics requires equilibrium and what is observed here is a matter of kinetics - the polymer is cooled too quickly to crystallize at the melting temperature. Going the other direction - from crystal to melt, the system is able to take in energy, rearrange itself (annealing) and then melt at or just below the equilibrium melting temperature. That is why it is common to run two melting passes on the DSC of a polymer. The first heating pass is the result of the most recent thermal history of the sample, while the second (run after slow cooling) will better define the true melting temperature of the sample.

As Uncle Al has observed, "Thermodynamics propose, kinetics disposes".
"Man Propose, God Disposes" by Sir. Edwin Landseer, depicting the fate of some early artic explorers.

I've never had a nifty handle for this behavior, but now, courtesy of biologists, I do: thermal hysteresis. A good name: succinct but able to communicate what the item is. As I mentioned, biologist are all over this term: All the "anti-freeze" proteins exhibit this behavior, as well as the newly discovered protein-free anti-freeze glycogen.

LyondellBasell to go East?

LyondellBasell is currently the worlds largest producer of polyolefins. They [1,2] have certainly seen their better days [3] as they are now in bankruptcy. The company is private and headquarted in the Netherlands.

Now comes Reliance Industries of India, the largest private company in India to try and acquire them on friendly terms. Reports are in the range of $6 - $12 billion, quite a big chunk of change. If this deal goes through, it will be another large plastics supplier that is now owned by a non-"Western" company (GE Plastics, now SABIC is another example). I don't have any opinion one way or the other, just noticing the trend, one that will surely continue over time.

[1] Lyondell was bought by Basell a few years ago, being formed from parts of ARCO (formerly known as the Atlantic Richfield Company).
[2] Basell was formed from parts of BASF and Shell (hence the name), with those parts having previously belong to Himont (which was a joint venture of Hercules and Montedison) and others.
[3] With all this mergermania, privatization, sell-offs and IPOs, someone is making money, but I don't think it is coming from margins on the resins.