Friday, April 29, 2011

Bicycles - Old and New

Long time readers of the blog know of my love for bicycles but mostly if used for racing. So here a couple of short items in that regard:

Carbon fiber bikes have pretty much taken over the racing scene, so it's interesting that someone has found a process for recovering and recycling the scrap from their production as well as the frames themselves when they are retired.

The process seems to consist of more or less burning off the binder and recovering the carbon fibers for other uses.

Now for a polymer-free perspective or at least a synthetic-polymer-free perspective [*], two guys in England have built a bicycle entirely out of wood and they think they can produce a speed record on it of 31 miles per hour - not sluggish at all! It's a beautiful design just by itself:

The drive drain – chain free of course – is rather impressive. I'm surprised that the pedals are mere rods and not something broader. And I wonder how comfortable the seat is being that it is sloped so far forward.

I'm being picky, but those colors and letterings on the different segments of wood are not natural and must have a synthetic polymer binder. Regardless, it is still a neat idea, and a neat bike.

[*] Yes, wood consists of many different biopolymers – lignins, cellulose, the various proteins…

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Closing the Loop in Biotechnology

Of all the potentially significant biotechnologies out there, bacteria,algae and other microbiological options are the ones that I am the biggest fan of. I haven't written much about it (that is obviously changing here today) as I can't say that I am really knowledgeable in the area, but I really see some large potential for it in certain applications. While most people are focusing on fuel generation, the polymer chemist in me is looking for monomers not only to make my life more interesting, but also because these chemicals would command a higher price than fuels would, thereby increasing the economic performance of the operations. And beside, isn't combustion chemistry boring?

The huge advantages that I see are that the little critters can be grown on non-arable land (leaving crop land for food production) and furthermore, they can be grown year round (in reactors, as opposed to ponds), a particularly important requirement for large portions of the world remote from the equator.

This month's "Nature Biotechnology" has a report that discusses the use of protein as a food source instead of the usual carbohydrate option. There is quite a bit of genetic engineering involved to accomplish this in E. coli, but the overall result is that the nitrogen is removed from the amino acids and given off as ammonia. The remnants of the amino acids are keto acids, which can then be converted to monomers such as adipic acid (used in nylon 6,6) or THF or butanediols or ...(or fuels if you insist).

What really caught my attention however, was the big picture view that the authors had for this technology and its industrialization. The proteins for this operation could come as waste from an adjacent algae or fermentation operation, and the ammonia released earlier could be used as a nitrogen source for those operations. In other words, this breakthrough could be used to set up a symbiotic operation with greater efficiency than either technology could have on its own.

Given that nature is filled with such relationships where one living thing's waste is another living thing's food, a production site such as was proposed here would only be natural.

Monday, April 25, 2011

What Did You Use Last Time? (Redux)

Plastics Today has a report on increasing demand for large pipes (15 inch diameter (38 cm) or larger for sewers or such) that beautifully captures a couple of thoughts in recent blog posts.

The report states that while demand for plastic piping is increasing, demand for cement and iron piping is increasing faster. Why? Consider this quote:
"The past few years have heralded a new era in large diameter plastic pipe extrusion, with plastics processors and extruder manufacturers helping speed developments, but based on this report's predictions they still have plenty of work to do to conquer the incumbent material's inertia. Lighter weight, easier installation and so forth are great arguments, but it remains much easier for a building engineer to specify the same material he always has than to transition to plastics."
That sounds eerily familiar to two things that I said last week, 1) that using the same material that you've always used will seldom get you in trouble [*], and 2) that despite the technical advantages of plastics over metals and concrete, the plastics option is not something that we are entitled to.

[*] this seems to be especially (and understandably) true with civil engineers, who would be the ones installing such large pipes.

The New BioPlastics Symbol

I had blogged late last year about Cereplast's contest to design a simple icon to indicate that an item was made from bioplastics.

The winner of the contest has been announced:According to Plastics Today, it was designed by Laura Howard, a graphic design student.

I like the symbol for a number of reasons. First, it is simple which in my mind was essential. This is not just because simplicity can be communicative, but also because this design has to be molded into the item. The green leaves are pretty much essential as well (in order to communicate the "bio" base) but I also like the benzene ring - or call it a hexagon if you are chemophobic - which suggests the technical aspects of the plastic as well.

It's a good design and I hope it is adopted quickly by all.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Small is Not Necessarily Better (with Plastics)

The Special Report in this weeks Plastics News (April 18, 2011) discusses at length how plastic frames are not being chosen in the popular small electronic products arena (iPads and such). The reason: "...manufacturers favor metal for stiffness".

How this could surprise anyone is beyond me. Flexural stiffness not only scales directly with elastic modulus (and metals certainly beat plastics in that regards except in a few extreme cases) but also with the 4th power of thickness. How can you overcome that? A common trade-off in the plastics-vs.-metals war is the lighter weight of a polymeric materials, but with a small piece like this, the differences in weight are negligible. Another common trade-off consideration is processability - it's much easier to form a plastic piece to some complicated shape than many metals, but the simple, flat shapes of cases makes this also a non-issue.

What really bothers me in the article though, is the attitude in the article of entitlement, such as this line: "But there is no assurance of the future role of plastics in media tablets." I hope this doesn't surprise too many people. It's not like metals are disappearing, are they? (Hint: about 25% of the degreed scientists in our analytical lab are metallurgists.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What did you use last time?

Plastics News has a thought provoking article raising this question. The article largely features a talk given by a PP supplier, Perrite, who as you would expect, is trying to get designers to look at using PP in settings that it has not be previously considered. Before I get into it, let me be clear: I am not picking on this speaker or the company or its products. I'm just using it to point out that resin decisions can be complicated by non-scientific reasons.

The article cites one example of resin replacement that is quite catching and well argued:
"(The speaker Mark) Lewis cites the example of the humble electrical socket back plate, which is typically molded from polyamide, PBT or PC. The back plate needs to be physically tough for installation, but just once, notes Lewis. And while thermal resilience is also required, "two hours at 100 deg C is not particularly demanding," he adds. In terms of flame retardance, V2 or V-0 materials are typically used in the back socket but in actual fact, this level is not demanded. "The BS1363 glow wire flammability index is sufficient," says Lewis.

The material must be injection moldable, but tight tolerances are not required and while back plates are typically colored black, "there is no need for any particular coloration because the component is not visible," according to Lewis. Perrite has shown that impact copolymer PP filled with a 10% loading of talc is more than capable of meeting system requirements, meeting glow wire tests and also being RoHS and Reach-compliant."
As I said, the argument is compelling to make the change. But at the same time, I can imagine some years down the road sitting in a witness stand being asked questions by a lawyer who is giving me the impression that he had absolutely nothing more to do all day and possibly all week then ask me more questions. Consider this:

"Dr. Spevacek, given that our investigator's report showed the jury overwhelming and incontravertible evidence that the fire that destroyed my client's house leaving her a poor, penniless widow started in the electrical box, could you please tell the jury why you thought saving a few pennies by switching to this new, ahem POLLY-PROP, excuse me POLLY-PRO-PILL-ENE chemical would be a good idea?"

Let's just say that "well the supplier said it was o.k." would not be a good answer.

Again, let me be clear: I am not picking on this speaker or the company or its products. It's just that sometimes there are strong reasons for doing what you've always done and doing what your competitors are doing. Sadly, courts of law do not rely on scientific truth, common sense or reason. With two adversarial parties, there is no effort made to decide what is right, only who wins, and that decision can be made on emotional issues such as I tried to pose in my imaginary cross-examination.

I do very much support the actions and questioning that the speaker proposes. It is important to keep considering new options, but as we all quickly learn after a few years on the job, making a decision on scientific and engineering principles alone never happens.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Think of all those orphaned instruments

I was refereeing a paper last week that got me thinking. The paper was largely devoted to a new measuring technique, (rheologically based of course) that I won't detail here,since as you will see, the details are not important. The researchers had put a lot of work into making this technique better than what was out there, able to function at lower concentrations, smaller sample sizes...all the characteristics that you would like. And the final product worked well on the variety of samples that they tested.

But that was it. They created the instrument, and ran some samples on it. They didn't see anything particularly noteworthy, or surprising or wonderful. That of course is fine, as that is the nature of research. They certainly didn't know what to expect from their samples, so I'm not faulting the researchers for a lack a dazzle in the results. But after seeing these results, it hit me:
What's going to happen now to that wonderful instrument?
I imagine that it might be used for another paper or two, but I somehow can't see that it would ever be commercialized (I just don't think there is the demand for the measurement) or repeated in another lab (certainly not an industrial lab). As far as I know, they research group might be open to testing some samples that others send them (maybe for a fee) but I am not aware of that practice happening on a regular basis. So then I started wondering how many other setups out there are just like that? How many wonderful devices are built 1-time only and never repeated? They end up being scavenged for parts or thrown into the dumpster or worse yet I suppose, packed into a closet or drawer and forgotten about.

I know that was the case for instrumentation I developed for my graduate work, and I know it was the case for many of my schoolmates. If the instrument had found some really surprising results, it might have withstood this challenge, but even that is quite far from certain.

I'm not sure that anything can be done. The instruments are pretty sophisticated, so you couldn't profitably set up a testing company to run them unless there is great demand, and if the demand is there, then it will likely be commercialized anyway. A government-run center would also stand no chance in this day-and-age of tight budgets. So at the end, I don't have any suggestions how to end this routine. Anyone?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Packaging Tape as Art Media

One more than one occasion I've discussed art in this blog [*], particularly when the media is polymeric based. Artists have shown excessive creativity not only in their product, but also in their choice of media. Now granted, my post today is about the results of a contest that was sponsored by the manufacturer of a certain material, so it is not surprising then that the artists actually used that media, but the outcomes are certainly wonderful to look at. The media was packaging tape, and the sponsor was 3M. Here is the winning entry:

More pictures are available at the PR site. And here's a site revealing some of the magician's secrets. My suggestion would be to use a minimal amount of tape if you are looking for the clear look. More layers will trap more air and make it cloudy, although that could certainly be appropriate if you are looking for that effect.

[*] Just wait until you see my upcoming ANTEC talk. There's going to be art everywhere! (My bosses have promised a bootleg video of the practice session if you can't make it to Boston.)

Could I Get a Translation?

Yokohama tires has a new commercial that goes over my Minnesota-raised head. Take a look:

The problem I have is this: here in Minnesota, the game is not "Duck Duck Goose", it's "Duck, Duck, Gray Duck". So I'm kinda lost and I don't know if I will buy Yokohama tires for my Volvo station wagon.

The first time I was confronted with this geographic disparity was when I was in grad school in Illinois. Somehow the children's game came up in conversation in the dining hall and we quickly discovered that only those of us from Minnesota and northern Wisconsin played the "correct" version, and that everyone else was doing it wrong.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Show me a picture, please!

The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" seems to be falling by the wayside. I was reading an article on a novel biocomposite material yesterday and could not find a picture of what the new material looked like. Was it clear, cloudy, white, brown, yellow...what? And of course, there was not a description either. How can that be? Doesn't anyone want to know, as that certainly can be helpful in ruling in or out potential applications.

I complained about this same issue a few weeks back regarding research on highly accelerated UV aging of materials, and how there was not a single picture of the exposed material.

It's all the stranger given that most people have a camera on their cellphones, that digital cameras are now more or less disposable, and that photo processing software exists on every computer. Publishers certainly have fewer issues than ever in receiving the photos, handling them and making them available, even as online supplemental materials. So why are fewer and fewer photos showing up in our research articles?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

On the Move

The URL for this blog will be changing shortly, if not already, to It's the same as before, but without the "blogspot" in there. Why the change? I don't know. Ego? Regardless, I figured I'd make the change before it gets too big. (How's that for ego?)

As far as can tell, this should be a seamless transition. We've all heard that before and found out otherwise.

What's in a Name? Marketing Gobbledygook

Stryon, which was spun off from Dow not too long ago, is changing it's name to something that only a marketing firm could have thought of: Trinseo.

The rationale is provided by the company's PR release:
"(according to the CEO, Chris Pappas): The name Styron is strongly tied to the styrenics chain – particularly polystyrene and styrene monomer, which are an important part of our company – but we are much more than that."
Fine, I do agree that Styron strongly suggests styrenic materials of all ilks (PS, ABS. SBR...). Maybe they even have some marketing data suggesting that engineers only think of the company in that vein, so that a name change might be o.k. But here's where it gets funky:
"Our new name of Trinseo will communicate that we are leaders in a broader range of businesses, products and technologies, and it underscores our commitment to growth."
I'm sorry, but that completely goes over my head. "Trinseo" says all that? Well, maybe the next sentences will clarify this.
"The word Trinseo comes from “intrinsic”, which means belonging to a thing by its very nature, or belonging to or lying within a given part. The root of “trins” is combined with “eo”, the Latin verb root meaning “to go”."
STOP RIGHT THERE. The word "intrinsic" is not based on a root of "trins", but is based on the two words "intra" and "secus".
"Together these convey the concept that the company’s products and technology deliver “intrinsic” value to our customers. Styron products, technologies and expertise play an intrinsic role in our customers’ products, and are integral to their success. The name Trinseo also captures the vital role that Styron people play in collaborating with our customers to enable their next generation of products."
So overlooking the butchering of the Latin language, how does "To go intrinsic(ly)" come across as suggesting all that they were sold on by the company suggesting this name?

In all honesty, compared to some of the other horrendous names that the plastics industry has come up with lately (Lanxess tops the list of course), Trinseo is not that bad of a name. Just don't try and make it into something that it isn't, o.k?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Synergy in Carbon-Fiber Composites

One other thought that I've carried around for too long about carbon-fiber composites is this: You take carbon fiber, which really isn't good by itself for much of anything, and then mix it with some cheap resin which by itself is even more useless, and you end up with an extremely high performing final product. Now that's synergy.

Tipping Point for Carbon-Fiber Composites?

Every area of endeavor has it's Holy Grail, that magical combination of price and performance that always seems to be just out of reach, and yet if it could be obtained, would transform the world forever.

In biology and medicine, it's the $1000 genome.[1] Solar energy is always looking for that extra % of efficiency that would be a game changer. The car industry is afflicted with many such Holy Grails, such 60 mpg for a car bigger than a matchbox, or an all electric car with 400 mile range or the subject of today's post: carbon fiber composites made in a minute.

I don't have a tremendous amount of experience with carbon-fiber composites, so I never really understood why they weren't incorporated in automobiles more. I thought it was a performance issue, but apparently that isn't the case [2]. It's more a matter of cost, particularly as a function of cycle time [3]. I bring this up as in the last 48 hours I've run across 2 independent stories (Plastics Today and Composites Technology (which also has a separate editorial)) on this "1-minute" cycle time. Given this, we may finally see a significant increase in the utilization of polymers in automobiles.

[1] I'm old enough to remember when the computer industry use to crave a $1000 PC and nobody thought that was possible. Yes kiddies, the world really was once like that. Scary, huh?

[2] I certainly was aware that they were used in F1 racing bodies, but the demands for an F1 car are completely removed from those of a street car.

[3] Identifying a limiting cost only on the basis of a cycle time is pretty unusual. I'm not aware of any other case of this.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Time to School the Chemists

There has been a lot of discussion the past few weeks in some of the chemistry blogs that may seem to be disjointed, but in my mind all have a common thread. Specifically, In the Pipeline talked about processes that he won't use in the lab (including UV reactions), ChemJobber talked about what is the maximum size scale-up is possible, and the Gaussling mentioned problems with excessively viscous liquids.

So what's the common thread? I look at these posts and I see chemists that are still practicing techniques that have been used for decades, and these techniques are all dominated by transport phenomena.

If you're a chemical engineer, you know all about transport phenomena and how to minimize its restraints, but if you're a chemist, you probably don't. Transport phenomena are the mechanisms that move heat, mass and motion around in your system. While mass diffusion, heat transfer and fluid dynamics may seem quite diverse, they aren't as in some cases all three can be described by a common mathematical formulation: flux = - (diffusivity coefficient) * (spatial gradient). The diffusivity coeffecient can be a diffusion coefficient, thermal conductivity, or viscosity, but that's not what I'm emphasizing today. Instead, the focus is on the spatial gradient. And the larger the samples dimensions are, the larger the gradient is, and the existence of the gradient is the problem since your sample is no longer homogeneous. And that's why scaling up is so difficult.

So what can be done about such a restrictive set of all-encompassing laws? Nothing of course; you can't violate them. What you can do is minimize the effects. Getting thin is the way to go. These laws are really ugly for big fat volumes, but pretty much fade away for thin samples. So throw away your beakers and flasks and replace them with something thin.

Consider polymer processing. With viscosities that are off the curve compared to normal organic solutions, you can never work with them in a fat flask, so instead you work with very thin films that are squished between the screw and the barrel of an extruder. Suddenly heat transfer is much easier, and the amount of material being pumped is less so that you don't need a motor the size of Hoover Dam's turbines.

Same with UV light reactions and coatings and ... There's a whole big huge world of chemistry out there effectively making products in the real world where the reactions pretty much ignore the laws of transport phenomena. And then all the problems noted above are reduced or eliminated.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Plastics to the Rescue in Japan

There are times when the details reported in the news are far too sparse, and this is one of them. It has been widely reported that "resin" is being sprayed in one or more of the Fukushima nuclear reactors in order to contain radioactive water.

So what is the resin?

I looked all over and can't find any details. My suspicions: a polyacrylic acid of some sort, possibly of the superslurping genre (crosslinked PAA, neutralized with some sodium). Or maybe it's a reactive urethane that is going to seal everything off.

But my bigger concern is this: how is the resin going to hold up with all that radiation? Regardless of whether the material is going to (initially) crosslink or have its backbone cut [*], the longer term prospects are pretty clear: the material will completely decompose and fail. Are they planning on respraying the resin? (Oh, would I love to have that supply contract!) Oh please, someone give us more details.

[*] As I've mentioned before, both reactions will occur at the same time. In most cases, one mode dominates.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Scientific Thinking - What is it good for?

Derek Lowe had a post a month ago that I still keep thinking about, so now it's your turn to hear about it and my thoughts on it.

The point of Derek's post was that having a science-based outlook is very helpful for doing science and engineering, but not much else.
"...(1) the natural world is independent of human thought. Your beliefs may be of interest to you, but the physical world is indifferent to them. (2) The natural world has rules. They may not be very clear, and they may be wildly complex, but there are rules, and they can be potentially figured out...

It's surprising, when you look at the record, to find out how little this view of the world has held sway over human history. There were various well-known outbreaks of such thinking in the past, but it's really only been a continuous effort in the last few centuries, and not everywhere in the world, by any means.
I think Derek's comments were not as expansive as they could have been, so let me build on them.

First, let me be clear about what is not at issue here. Most humans understand that we are not purely logic-driven Vulcans and do not want to be. Emotions are an important, valuable part of being human, and I certainly am not arguing against feelings of love and hate, joy and sadness, ecstasy and pain, and all the rest. Nor am I arguing against music, the visual arts, prose and poetry or pretty much anything else created from the "right side of the brain". Applying scientific thinking to these subjects would utterly destroy them leaving us all worse off.

I am also not talking about politics either. Political decisions are based on values. (Why so few people see this is a complete mystery to me. Once you see it, then all the arguments become so simple.)

Instead, I'm concerned about the lack of scientific thinking in everyday situations in which it would be useful to have that perspective. Telemarketing/Internet scams selling products with (incredible) claims of healing/better looks/white shirts… are an easy target to pick on. Scientific thinking would suggest that you run an experiment (or two or three or…) with a control to look for differences in the performance, and yet that is never done. (In actuality, that is only the first step – any experiment of value would suggest additional experimentation and also would be compared to other data from the past, but that does get to be quite a bit more work.)

Sadly, I think that people assume that because they either 1) didn't like science in school, or 2) don't know much about science, that they can't think scientifically about something. And that's where they are wrong. Having a scientific approach to a problem can exist regardless of the level of knowledge that exists. None of us from Einstein on down can be said to really know enough about science as the more we learn, the more we discover that there is to learn. No one is seeing the end of science just yet. We have high school science fairs, undergraduate research, graduate schools, post docs, fellowships, sabbaticals,…and don't restrict science to only the top 100 people in the world. We all can and should be making decisions based on the structures of scientific thinking.


For prooof that some things in chemistry you never forget, consider this: yesterday for the first time since I was a Freshman at Minnesota (1980 - 1981) I ran a titration. Graduated column, phenolphthalein, the whole nine yards. I did a bang up job and had very reproducible results. Why was I doing such a thing? Well, one of our client's suppliers was running this is a QC test for semi-finished goods. I didn't think the test was very good and needed to prove it (which I did).

I always maintain that there are two activities in the world that make me feel young: stepping into the lab, and riding a bike.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Polly Mer Announces Presidential Run

April 1, Lake Woebegone MN. - The race for the office of President now has a second candidate. Following the lead of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, fellow Minnesotan Polly Mer threw her bonnet in the ring today and formally announced her candidacy for the 2012 Presidency. Polly Mer will be running on a platform of wood-polymer composites, biobased PLA bunting, and BPA-free polycarbonate teleprompters.
"Materials Scientists are getting into politics in record numbers. If Moscow can have a Mayor Resin, well then a President Polly Mer sounds pretty good to me. And everyone on both sides of the Atlantic loves my running mate, Sir Amic. I know people thought that Al Luminum was going to be my choice, but his name has been recycled too many times in the press and I looked at other elements in making this choice."
Polly's husband, Mano, said
"We talked about this for a long time and decided it was the right thing to do. Our kids, Copolly and Terpolly, reacted quite well to the announcement. They want to go block by block to form a chain of voters. I told them that was o.k. as long as they kept the effort alive."
Polly Mer's run will be challenging, as she has not yet been fully characterized. The number and weight of her distribution lists are unknown. Independent analyst Dee Esse of Aspen Research Corporation said
"She may or may not melt under all the heat and pressure of the campaign; we just don't know yet. Some people just decompose, and that's never a good thing."
Another analyst at Aspen Research, Rheo Thing, said
"It's important that she relaxes properly. There are a whole spectrum of possibilities, but she also needs to work on her tan - Delta has lots of flights to sunny spots and as long as she uses a good UV absorber, she'll hold up fine."
We here at "It's the Rheo Thing" wish Mrs. Polly Mer the best of luck in her candidacy!

P.S. I apologize right here and now for all the rheological puns. Everybody knows where they can find me - my email address is in the upper left. Go for it. Especially when I had to combine sentences in order to force a pun. Yes, I'm that desperate.