Wednesday, February 03, 2010

We're just leaches

I've always loved giving the guys from Dow Corning [1] a hard time about their prices because of an apparent contradiction. Silicon is the second most common element in the earth's crust - look at any beach and you can can grab piles of it in its oxided forms. Compare that with carbon -15th on the list, almost 600 times rarer even more so if you consider that the largest source of carbon for industrial chemical reactions is from petroleum, not coal or natural gas.

So why are silicones so dang expensive? Especially compared to oil-based products that require huge investments in exploration, drilling and refining. This has question has nagged me for nearly 20 years, the Dow Corning reps have never had a good answer [1, again], nor has anyone else.

I think I stumbled on the answer last week through a long twisted train of thought [2]. Compared to the amount of petroleum that is turned into gasoline, the amount that is turned into chemicals is quite small. Much of it is impurities that would ruin gasoline. For example, anything with a double bond is trouble (which is why gas has a short shelf life) but that trouble is a great starting point for making polymers or anything else of interest.

So organic chemistry is basically just a leach on the world's petroleum business, and as a result, we (organic chemists) have cheap access to a supply that would otherwise be terribly expensive. Without internal combustion engines, the Aldrich catalog would be pretty small. The silicone industry on the other hand, despite having a cheap feedstock, has to process it all without the benefit of a huge non-chemical demand such as automobile fuel. If cars could run on a silicone fuel, things would be different.

[1] This is not to pick on Dow Corning or portray them in a bad light. It's industry wide. Other silicone polymer manufacturers could easily be inserted in here instead. It's just that I've had more contact with DC than the others.

[2] I was listening to Fresh Air Radio [3]and heard an ad for a local coffee supply company (sorry, can't plug the name as I don't remember it - I never learned to drink coffee so the company's name is pretty useless information to me) that delivers fair-trade coffee via bicycles. I'm sure the company thinks that they are saving the planet by not using a car or truck for delivery, but it also occurred to me that the only reason that they can use bicycles is because cars exists. Without all the cars in existence, we would not have all the roads that the bicycles ride on, the rubber for the tires or inner tubes or brake pads or lubricants or... (We actually would have them, but they would be terribly expensive.) But the end result is still the same - the bicycle delivery system is basically an option only because another larger option (cars) exists.

[3] I listen to the station for 2 reasons - 1) they play a great mix of blues and jazz in the afternoons while I am driving home and 2) they run "Democracy Now!" with Amy Goodman[4].

[4] CAUTION!! Only attempt this next procedure if you have a very strong tolerance for holding simultaneous contractions contradictions in your head at the same time. And I am talking about something far more puzzling than the particle-wave duality of light. CAUTION!! You have been warned.

This works best on a day where there is a major news story that everyone is talking about. Recent examples would be the Haiti earthquake or the State of the Union address. Put on Amy Goodman for a few minutes. Then switch it to Rush Limbaugh. Then go back to Amy. Then back to Rush. Repeat until you cannot take it anymore and then wonder how these two people can be contemporaries on the same planet.


Dan said...

My guess in footnote [4] is that you meant contradictions, rather than contractions... unless the implication is that Amy uses I'd for "I had" while Rush uses I'd for "I would"

John said...

Thanks for the catch. I've corrected the situation (and wonder if I'm going to start listening to what contractions both Amy and Rush use).