Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Bunte Salts

I was reading a patent yesterday and ran into the term "Bunte salt". I wasn't familar with the term, and from the context, it wasn't apparent what the term meant. The IUPAC Gold Book quickly clarified what a Bunte salt is, and also why I shouldn't have felt bad for my ignorance - they have declared the term is obsolete and its use, as of 1997, is discouraged. [1]
That message however, is not getting out, at least to industrial practitioners [2]. The first US patent to use the term was issued in 1960 and 171 additional patents using the term have been issued in the 51 years since, an average of 3.4 patents per year. But over half of those patents - 96 - have been issued in the last 10 years. I would love to do a literature search to break down it's use over time, but don't have any great tools available, so the patent results will have to do, and it is quite apparent that industrial chemists are thumbing their nose at IUPAC nomenclature. (But what else is new?)

[1] What a wishy-washy position to take! It is obsolete, but its use is discouraged. Dictionaries and grammar guides have to make a choice. They can either be descriptive (describing how people use a language without making judgments about it's "correctness") or they can be prescriptive (describing the correct way that a language should be used). Here, IUPAC is doing both.

[2] I'm using the term industrial practitioners as the vast majority of patents are written by them. I do acknowledge the existence (the ever growing existence at that) of university patents, but they still are an extremely small percentage of what is applied for and issued.

Monday, January 30, 2012

3-D Printing, Medical Organs and Piracy

3D Printing has been becoming more and more popular this past year. Plastics Today has declared that the printing of medical organs could be a real breakthrough/growth opportunity for plastics in the near future, but the (semi-)cynical side of me notes that the capturing all that potential will be difficult once the pirates show up. Yes, that scallywag site for sourcing digital media, The Pirate Bay, now has "Physibles", files for preparing physical objects with 3-D printers. This means that it is now possible to duplicate 3-D objects across the planet, the legality of which may be entirely doubtful. There aren't many files at present, but there is somewhat ironically a file for a copy of the Pirate Bay's ship:

But let's think about what happens when you combine these two stories: How long before someone can make illegal copies of an internal organ? And not just any organ that isn't overly important, but how about say, vocal cords? You want to sing like Adele? Or José Carreras? (And since people are already making 3-D printed versions of a Stradivarius violin, imagine the violin/voice duet that one person could perform!)

How long before we get into heart/lung transplants? Want the VO2 max of Lance Armstrong? And then the ultimate transplant - the brain of Einstein. His brain is preserved at Princeton - how long before someone steals a segment and uploads the relevant information to Pirates's Bay? People will never be able to say about you again "He's no Einstein!".

Clearly all this at present is more fantasy than reality, but if the history of the internet and digital technology has shown us anything, it is that keeping information locked up for more than 10 years, let alone an eternity, is a futile effort. Once your organs are digitized, everybody will have access to them.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Open Access, Curation and Seredipity

The issue of open access has raised itself up again this last week in the chemistry blogosphere. Rich Apodaca, author of the Depth-First blog, caused a stir when he came out in support of the Research Works Act, legislation that would at present prevent the NIH from requiring that research publications support by NIH grants cannot be placed in PubMed Central where they are freely accessible by anyone. (The bill of course, is written more broadly than that, but that would be the most obvious and immediate impact.)

But all this is prologue.
  • Rich made one argument that I strongly disagree with - that for a journal, the imprimatur provided by a journal is still valuable and needed.
    "Any scientist who has been an active participant in scientific publication as an author, reviewer, and consumer recognizes that the only remaining value added by scientific publishers today is imprimatur. Imprimatur is the implied endorsement received by authors who publish in certain scientific journals, particularly in those that earned a high level of prestige during the pre-digital period of publication scarcity."
    I disagree. The value of a "prestigious" journal is not the prestige, it is something far more valuable that we all are implicitly aware of, something that journal editors provide, something that gives the journal it's prestige and that is curation - deciding what is and isn't important. It is this step that provides the ultimate value of a journal. Without appropriate curation (lots more on that in a minute), the journal becomes a meaningless pile of data. Being peer-reviewed, it is accurate (more-or-less) but without guideposts.

    As I said, we are all aware of this already, but just not explicitly. When that prestigious journal brag about how few papers they accept, what the journal really bragging about how much they curate. They are able to make great decisions about what their readers want to see and what they don't want to see. Effective curation over time leads to imprimatur. Without effective curation, your journal has papers which may or may not be of great value, but a landmark article in the Upper Midwest Journal of Photochemical Interactions in Northern Blots will never give that journal any prestige.

    To me, if I was a journal that wanted to convince people that they should pay for it in this age when "information just want to be free" is the mantra, I would sell curation hard, very hard. All the other services that journals used to supply are now easily duplicated by all the disruptive technology available. But curation, and the ability to perform it well, is something valuable that still remains. It is what distinguishes Angewandte Chemie from Tetrahedron Letters. It needs to be recognized and it is worth paying for.
  • Let me go back to the subject of curation in a broader context.

    As long as there has been mass media, there has been curation. It has never been possible for a mass media source to publish/broadcast everything so choices were made as to what was and wasn't going to be put out for consumption. In the past, those choices were made by a small group of people. If you were unhappy about their choices, there was little you could do. With the internet, curation initially appeared to have died, as everyone could have access to everything. But even with all those choices, mainstream media sites still remain popular destinations because of their ability to effectively curate. As with very selective journals, when the New York Times makes the statement "All the News That's Fit to Print", they are referring to their curation abilities.

    Curation will never disappear. I would suggest that there is a basic human need for it. If it is lacking, someone, somewhere will create it. It is also fairly obvious that it is needed now more than ever. The information that we have access (or potential) access to is greater than ever before, and becoming greater with each passing day. Some of the most visited websites - the Drudge Report is a terrific example - are nothing more than curation sites. Matt Drudge decides what to link to on his page and doesn't provide any explicit editorial comment other than the headline for the link, and yet his sites has millions of hits per day because he has a great sense of what people want to see. If he ever loses this sense, his page will drop in its importance.

    Curation has also started appearing in our search engines. This is certainly a new concept, one that has never before occurred in our history. Early search engines on the Internet gave a haystack of results with little effort to prioritize the results. The searcher was expected to find the good from the bad. Google became a dominant player because it was able to prioritize webpages - decide what was more important. But they didn't stop there. It is now becoming more well known that Google will further alter search results based on information it has gathered about you from past searches. A recent example of this was seen in the engineering sub-reddit, where an engineer posted a screenshot of what the Google image search showed for "pump" - quite a few high heeled shoes, more than he would have liked.

    Here's what an identical search for me produced.
    A lot less shoes. As you can see, all the technical searches that I perform at work are then used by Google to slant the search results towards what I am most likely interested in. (I imagine that the reddit engineer was searching on a computer often used by his girlfriend.)

    I've noticed over the years that my Google searches have become increasingly productive. I used to think that it was because I was becoming a better searcher - choosing better search terms - but now I am not so sure that Google isn't doing a better job of providing the results. Regardless, Google's efforts to provide relevant search results is a rather desirable outcome - in most situations. I'm looking for specific information and I don't have a lot of time, so not having to scroll down the page at all is invaluable
  • And yet, there are times where curation is that last thing that we need. With the more poignant search results, it becomes increasingly difficult to stumble upon something new, something that you find interesting, something that you didn't know you were looking for. I'm old enough to remember when libraries had card catalogs - collections of cards in drawers that could be searched to find a book in the library. Searches were typically possible by the title of the book, the author and by subject. The unintended beauty of the catalog was that you could be assured that the first card you looked at was not the card you wanted, and so you then started flipping through more cards until you found the one you wanted. And sometimes in this search, you would find something that wanted without knowing that you wanted it - serendipity! Further, once you found the call number for the book, you had to wander the stacks to find it, which could lead to further unexpected results, although that was not as likely as books were generally arranged by subject. (Ethan Zuckerman notes that Harvard is considering enforcing serendipity by reorganizing all the books by size!)

    Now when we find books via computer search (either from libraries or Amazon), serendipitous outcomes are pretty much impossible. Even if you misspell a word, the search algorithms will overcome that and give you the "intended" result. Can you have serendipitous search results with Google? A decade ago when their algorithms weren't so refined, you could have. Now you can't. There is no "random search" option, no "show me something new" option, no "tickle my brain" option. And this is not to pick on just Google. Twitter will only show you what you have indicated that you want to see. Same with Facebook and endless other sites.

    Serendipitous results can be found, but ironically, you have to work at it. Reddit/Digg/StumbleUpon and similar sites are places where people send links that they think are interesting. Their main pages provide the top results, so you will certainly see something new, although it will be what is most popular, a description that makes me wonder about humanity's fate at times.

    Wikipedia is another place where it is relatively easy to get off the beaten path if you start following the links in an article or the "see also" links. And serendipity is why I enjoy the journals Nature and Science - they have research from all fields of science, not just the polymers and rheology that I specialize in. (I do note the irony that these journals are also very well curated. More journals of such broad coverage in the future would be another route to enforce serendipity!)
Curation and serendipity are opposite sides of the coin, but paradoxically, we need both. Curation seems to have the upper hand at present and that trend will continue for the foreseeable futher, while serendipity is being forced to the side, something that we have to struggle to keep alive.

And finally getting back to the issues of open access that this post started with, curation is still the last valuable service performed by journal publishers that cannot be replace by technology - at present. Can algorithms be developed that can perform the curation for us? I wouldn't ever bet against that. In fact, I would expect to see it in my lifetime. But the real question is this: do we want that? (Sadly, I think the question might be better stated as: How can we prevent that?)

As a last comment, the blog entry by Ethan Zuckerman, Desperately Seeking Serendipity is a wonderful read about serendipity in cities and other geophysical structures. It is a long article, but well worth the time. Mind-opening.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Viewing History through an Oil Refinery

It's probably a result of my education (but not my career path) in chemical engineering, but I love look looking at refineries and pictures of them. Hydrocarbon Processing" is my favorite trade journal to flip through because of the cover picture as well other photos inside. I am always amazed by the tangled pipeline, the endless columns, pumps,...such as I see at the Pine Bend Refinery located just south of town here:

When oil/petroleum refining was first developed, such complicated plants were not needed, and that was probably a great thing as no one would have been able to design such a complex monstrosity a hundred years ago. A distillation column, maybe a tank or two and some simple plumbing would have been enough. The outputs would have been just as crude - a cut for lamp oil, and maybe some gasoline, and then the tar at the bottom was probably just a waste pile until someone figured out that it would be good for roadway surface. But as the demands for these products became more rigorous, the demands on the refinery increased, and so did the equipment. More fractions could be taken, and the fractions needed higher purity. Things like sulfur became a concern, and so removing it required additional processes. Recycle lines were added along the way to increase productivity. The chemical industry was growing and was able to take undesired waste, but only if the waste was of a more consistent output. This continued until we have the huge plants that we see today. Yet at the heart of the plant is still the distillation column. The columns, plants and plant sites are all new, but the thought processes that justified the additional equipment, the history of the refining industry is still there for all to see.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Confusion over "Polymer"

When I wrote yesterday's post about the confusion in the general public on the term "vinyl", I thought it would be a stand-alone topic. But late yesterday I found an article that is forcing a followup. Only in this case, the confusion is not in the general public, but with theoretical physicists. And in this case, the word is "polymer". As in the title of this paper: "Polymer Quantization on the Half-Line". Here's the abstract:
"We investigate polymer quantization on the half-line, constructing a one-parameter family of polymer Hamiltonians that are analogous to the Robin family of continuum boundary conditions for the half-line Schrodinger Hamiltonian. Applications include the free particle, the attractive Coulomb potential, the scale invariant potential and a black hole described in terms of Einstein-Rosen wormhole throat dynamics. The spectrum is analyzed by a combination of analytic and numerical techniques. In the continuum limit, the full Robin family of boundary conditions can be recovered via a suitable fine-tuning but the Dirichlet-type boundary condition emerges as generic."
"...a blackhole described in terms of Einstein-Rosen wormhold throat dynamics"? Not exactly the polymer science that I am aware of, although I bet you get an incredible extensional flowfield going into a blackhole. If any one can explain this use of "polymer" to me, I'd love to hear it, but I'm not holding my breath. I've sent the first author an email and will see if I get a response.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Confusion over "Vinyl"

I recently had to clarify for someone what the term "vinyl" means. The confusion arises from the fact that it is commonly used by the general public, not just chemists. For the former group of people, the term refers to the polymer "polyvinyl chloride" (PVC), such as the vinyl drainpipes sold in hardware stores. For a chemist however, vinyl refers to a mono-substituted ethylene molecule, such as the vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) used to make PVC. [1]

You can see that the general public uses vinyl as a noun, while chemists use it as an adjective, a word to modify a noun, such a vinyl group, vinyl chloride, vinyl acetate, etc. But even for chemists, the use of "vinyl" for a mono-substituted ethylene group isn't consistent. α-olefins are a good counter example. 1-hexene is not ever referred to a vinyl butane [2]. I am unaware of any particular rules defining when to use and not use "vinyl", other than to state that it is not acceptable at all for IUPAC - they prefer the term "ethenyl".

The confusion that I referred to earlier came about with the term polyvinyl acetate (PVAc) and the perception that this polymer (the PVAc) would have some PVC in it, and in particular, chlorine. The "vinyl" in this case however, does not refer to VCM or PVC, but rather what chemists mean by the term vinyl - a mono-substituted ethylene group. In the case of PVAc, the substituent is an acetate group. There is no vinyl in polyvinyl acetate, there is no vinyl chloride in polyvinyl acetate, and there is no polyvinyl chloride in polyvinyl acetate.

A related monomer and polymer that I won't go into today are vinyl alcohol and polyvinyl alcohol. I've discussed them in the past, so you can look at this post if you want to find out about the monomer "vinyl alcohol" that doesn't exist, even though polyvinyl alcohol does.

[1] Di-substituted ethylene groups (assuming both substitution are identical substituents and are on the same end of the double bound) are called vinylidene groups, such as vinylidene fluoride, F2C=CH-, entities that are far less common than vinyl groups.

[2] Or would "vinyl butyl" be more correct for this incorrect construction?

Friday, January 20, 2012

Free Access to Polymer Research

I updated the page on "Free Access to Research in the Polymer Literature" (see the tab above). There are more sample issues, as well as a number of individual articles covering topics from branched polyethylenes to thiol-ene [*] prepared protein bioconjugates to solar photovoltaics. Something for everyone.

[*] Long time readers know that if there is thiol-ene article, I'm on top of it.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Bad Day in the Operating Room

This is an x-ray of a patient's lung. The small white stripes in the upper left are PMMA. How did PMMA get in his lungs you ask? Well, he was having back surgery. Still not obvious to you? O.k., here's the full story as explained by the article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The patient was having back surgery to fix spinal cord compression. The surgery involved injection methyl methacrylate (not polymerized) into the back, whereupon it does polymerize (with a nice little exotherm I might add). The procedure is called vertebroplasty. [*]

As is known to occasionally happen, some the the acrylate got into the bloodstream around the bone and was transported to the lungs. The plastic did interfere with the patient's breathing for a while (low O2 levels in the blood) as well as some mild increases in blood pressure. The doctors that submitted this image to the journal noted that in extreme cases, serious illness and even death can occur as a result of these types of complications.

The Wikipedia article on the procedure has quite a discussion about the effectiveness of the procedure, or more properly, the lack of effectiveness. Combine this with the risks illustrated here and I can certainly state that I would not want this done to me. I like plastics a lot, but only outside of my body, and most certainly not in my lungs.

[*] It's great to have Wikipedia back, isn't it. I missed them yesterday, but their blackout did get me to sign a petition against the SOPA/PIPA bills and contact me representatives in Congress about the issue.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Criticisms of "Atom Economy"

When I wrote about "atom economy" yesterday, I tried looking around for some serious criticism of the approach and didn't find much, so here are my thoughts.

Atom economy is defined by Barry Trost of Standford (subscription/pay-per-view) as the molecular weight of the product divided by the sum of the molecular weights of the reactants.

Chemists have in the past relied on yield percentages to measure the efficiency of a reaction. If there is 10 millimoles of A at the start of the reaction and it is transformed into 9 millimoles of B at the end, the efficiency is 90%. These yields are important, as many reactions are part of a multi-step synthesis. If a 5-step reaction has 90% yields for each step, the overall yield is 0.95 = 59%.

With that 90% yield however, there may be a mountain of chemicals, solvents and catalysts left in the wake of the reaction and that shouldn't be ignored. In one of my earliest jobs working with coating solvent-dispersed adhesives, we were all very much aware that for every 3 gallons of adhesive brought into the plant, 2 gallons of solvent (plus a lot of heat) went out the roof of the building to the thermal oxidizer, so certainly a "big picture" approach to chemical reactions is needed. It's just that I think atom economy is a lousy option.

  • The impact of atom economy is greatest for large volume, industrial situations, and not small academic labs. However, much of the research published on atom economy concerns academic research rather than industrial preparations. While in some cases, the difference between the two is mostly a matter of scale, in other cases, industrial processes are whole different than research lab processes. Worrying about the atom economy of a non-industrial reaction is a waste of time.
  • By focusing solely on the nature of the reaction and not the actual chemicals involved, atom economy overlooks process concerns such as ease of separation of the product, the hazardousness of the reaction and the byproducts, etc.
    • It inherently favor reactions without any byproducts (additions and rearrangements) and disfavors all others (substitutions, condensations and eliminations).
    • It also favors the upper rows of the periodic table. Lower rows, while often being more reactive, have greater atomic masses and are therefore disfavored by the calculation. Yet many preparations of fluorinated compounds are far more dangerous and hazardous than the chlorinated equivalents. Is this not a concern?
  • It is often unclear exactly what "the reaction" is. Taking the example again of (poly-)amide formation between an acyl chloride fluoride (lower MW in the reactant = GOOD!) and an amine. I'm not aware of any naturally-occurring acyl fluorides, so that material was prepared at some earlier point. Shouldn't that reaction be included in the overall calculation as well? And what if the amine also required preparatory reaction(s), shouldn't that be included in the atom efficiency calculation as well? How far back should this all be pushed? Is cradle-to-grave the proper approach? Or can we game this to a better starting point? (I find it rather ironic that the modern organic chemical industry itself is a "byproduct" of the petroleum industry. If the refiners had practiced better atom economy, modern organic chemistry would be much in arrears from where it is today.)

Just like yield percentages, atom economy looks at only one aspect of a reaction under the guise of being "green". A truly green approach however, requires some thought and critical analysis, not just a number that can be reported on a scorecard.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Amide Formation - A Case where Polymer Chemists Have it Easy

At the end of last year, Nature had a review article (open access) on amide bond formation. As polymer people, we all know and love amide formation as the basis for polyamides, also known as nylons. Given the apparent ease with which many polyamide bonds can be made (watch the nylon rope trick video), I've never thought about amide formation as being a particularly challenging aspect of organic chemistry. I was wrong. Consider this quote from the article's introduction:
"The current methods for amide formation are remarkably general but at the same time widely regarded as expensive and inelegant. Not surprisingly, in 2007 the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute (comprising members from major pharmaceutical industries worldwide) voted ‘amide formation avoiding poor atom economy [1] reagents’ as the top challenge for organic chemistry. Furthermore, even the best stoichiometric reagents often fail for the synthesis of sterically hindered amides [2]. The issues of waste and expense associated with amide formation are compounded when applied to peptide synthesis, and are responsible for the great cost of commercial therapeutic peptides. The chemical synthesis of proteins is largely prohibited by limitations inherent to traditional amide formation..."
(Footnotes are added by me and are located at the bottom of this article.)

In the nylon rope trick, the diacid is modified to form a diacyl chloride which then reacts with the diamine, in the process forming HCl. Fortunately, most commercial nylons are made from the straight diacid, or more correctly, the nylon copolymers such as nylon 6,6 are made this way. The diacid and the diamine form a isolatable, non-reactive salt which is then reacted at high temperature and pressure to induce polymerization. The nylon homopolymers, such as nylon 6, are made through a ring-opening polymerization of cyclic lactams. Most other organic compounds cannot tolerate the conditions or have an appropriate lactam, and so the search is ongoing for more and better techniques to create amides. Maybe some of these results will spill over into the polymer area, but I have my doubts. Just looking at some of the options
makes me thankful that we don't need to explore them.

[1] "Poor atom economy" refers to the molecular weight of the product divided by the molecular weight of all the reactants. It is a trendy way to quantify the efficiency of a reaction. I'll have quite a bit more to say about it tomorrow.

[2] All easy reactions fail for sterically hindered products. While polymaleic acid has been made, 2-olefins in general are still considered to be very difficult to polymerize.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Flying Cupcake Update

Time magazine is reporting that a bakery in Rhode Island has risen to the challenge of TSA-stricken cupcakes and now sells cupcakes ensembles that include a cupcake with 3 ounces of frosting, a first class boarding pass, and a picture of Richard Nixon saying "I am not a gel!"
Ah! American Ingenuity at it's finest!

Previous discussion on this subject.

Gels and Cockroaches

When last we met, we were talking about edible gels (or gel like materials) - cupcake frosting, and also cream cheese, peanut butter and other delicious foodstuffs. But not all gels are edible. A great example of the inedible sort, but one that also appears to be highly desired, is Du Pont Advion Cockroach Gel bait. I say highly desired as 13 tubes of it were reported as stolen over the weekend from the Manchester City Hall. Apparently nothing else was stolen, so either the thieves have the mother-of-all cockroach infestations in their homes, or they have some other nefarious activities in mind, although I can't imagine what.

If I had a cockroach problem, I'd gel up some linoleic acid. It's a very effective repellent - it's actually a necromone ("death hormone") that crushed cockroaches give off as a warning to others. So in other words, this cartoon drawing from the cockroach world is pretty unrealistic:
The coroner would be heading far away from the broken body.

The active ingredient of a linoleic gel is not only non-toxic, but also an essential oil for humans. However, despite all these advantages, you still wouldn't be able to take more than 3 ounces of this gel on a US plane.(Ever seen a cockroach on a plane? I can't imagine that they aren't there.)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Dangers of a Flying Cupcake

Or maybe more properly, the dangers of flying with a cupcake - one that is coated with lots of frosting.

The popular media has has a number of reports (1, 2, 3) of how "heavy handed" Transportation Security Agents (TSA) confiscated a women's cupcake as she attempted to pass through security with it. The frosting was considered by the TSA agent as a "gel", a restricted material, and the amount of frosting was judged to be in excess of the amount allowed on a plane in the US.

Although it certainly is fun to take potshots at the TSA and joke about how the agent was hungry and just wanted the cupcake for him or herself [*], rheologically speaking, the TSA was right on this one. Frosting is not a polymeric gel, but more of a "colloidal" gel with plenty of non-Newtonian behavior - certainly yield stress, but also likely shear thinning, and maybe even some thixotropy (I haven't measured the properties myself. If any readers have, feel free to add what you know in the comments box below.) And as the TSA commented regarding the incident, malevolent people are more likely to disguise their means as ordinary object and not give them a distinctive "explosive" appearance:
I submit the shoe-bomber and the underwear bomber as examples of potential explosives being disguised as commonplace objects. (Those particular examples didn't work, but that doesn't mean that a smarter/better chemist wouldn't succeed in the future.)

Unfortunately, this incident has come out as yet another example of a sweet innocent person vs. the evil TSA. While in many cases I do agree with that viewpoint, this is one where I clearly agree with the TSA.

[*] I can't imagine any agent eating anything that is confiscated from passengers. Would you really risk your health/life by eating something from an stranger? We're not talking about a box of donuts that's sitting in the breakroom.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Is the End Near for the Dow-Kuwaiti JV Disaster?

One more post on Dow, since this is an update on a story that I commented on quite a bit (1, 2, 3, 4) when it originally happened.

As you may recall, back in 2008, Dow attempted to form a joint venture with Kuwaiti's Petrochemicals Industries Co (PIC), with the PIC paying Dow $9 billion for some capital assets as part of the deal. The Kuwaiti firm originally thought they had the money, but as oil prices fell that year, they came up short so they cancelled the deal. This really hurt Dow as Dow was already planning on using that money to help purchase Rohm & Haas. Dow was able to complete their purchase by selling other assets, but has since sued PIC for damages that apparently were specified in the original agreement. Dow is stating that they are "confident" that they will soon be rewarded $2.5 billion. We shall see. Knowing only what I've read, it seems like they should be owed something, but the law has a funny way of distorting justice and reality.

What You Want May not be What You Need

Mark Rosenzweig has an commentary in the latest issue of Chemical Processing Magazine, entitled "There is a New Buzz on Campus" which discusses Dow Chemical's source of $25 million to a select group of American universities. The focus of the money is to finance a return to traditional research areas, rather than focus on the latest trends. To quote Dow:
"In the last two decades, there has been a shift in the U.S. academia from a focus on traditional skills of chemistry, materials science and chemical engineering toward bio-related areas. This shift can be primarily attributed to the greater availability of funding from both government and the private sector. The net impact is less research is being done in the fields that are less trendy, but key to the development of the industry as a whole, like catalysis, polymers, materials science and separations."
There is even a quote from William Banholzer, the Chief Technology Office of Dow (who has been in my crosshairs before for saying that all the polymers that can be invented have been invented):
"This unique and industry-leading investment will support breakthrough technologies and increase collaboration between Dow and leading universities, while helping to develop America's future pipeline of Ph.D.-level talent," notes William F. Banholzer, the company's chief technology officer and executive vice president of ventures, new business development and licensing. "It is vital that we support academic research to ensure universities can continue the tradition of excellence in chemical engineering, chemistry and materials science to help address the needs of the industry and our country."
Research grants always come with strings attached, some more obvious than others - it a variation of that old adage that whoever pays the piper requests the tune. Government funded research is increasing under public scrutiny, and so researchers are having to provide ever more information about the potential payoffs of their efforts - hence much of the hype that a new breakthrough will cure cancer AND reduce petroleum imports AND make your kids smarter. Dow's money will be no different - it's just that the tune will be changed. Dow is expecting these efforts to help their business which is based exclusively on large volume products with smaller margins [*], and the research will need that focus as well in order to be a "collaboration between Dow and leading universities". That's all fine and nice - I don't have a quibble with it, as that as how they have chosen to run their business, and researchers are free to apply for the money or not. No one is being forced to do anything.

But as I noted in my earlier blog post, Dow is clearly looking for large volume products that will be accepted in the marketplace quickly. Without these constraints, I find it quite surprising that Dow would be unable to take advantage of all the "trendy" research being generated these days. They specifically call out "bio" research as being so trendy (overlooking nanotechnology). Keep in mind that Dow was initially a joint-developer (with Cargill) of the polylactic acid Natureworks effort, a "bio"polymer if there ever was one, but sold out pretty early on - a move that in hindsight looks to have been a poor choice given the tremendous success of Natureworks.

Maybe Dow will be rewarded in this case with what they seek, but I have serious doubts that anything will be produced that they will want to invest further so as to have a large enough scale product quick enough to keep them happy.

[*] This is why Banholzer was so critical of any new polymers being invented. As far as Dow is concerned - looking for large volume materials - they have been. Or as was noted in the earlier blog post, large enough volume quickly enough.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Free Access to Articles in the Polymer Literature

I'm going to try something new this year - keeping a separate page going that lists the current state of open access to polymer literature. (This is an idea I've been kicking around since my previous post on the subject back in October.) There is a tab at the top this page with what I have so far (heavy on the Elsevier journals since they were easy to tabulate), but I will keep adding to the page as new articles are available and remove them when they no longer are. As is often the case, publisher will provide free access for a limited time. And I am calling this "free access" rather than "open access" to denote the difference. Open access, in my mind, is for all eternity, or at least there are no plans to remove the access.

Any error and omissions are my own fault, although I am (naturally) going to skew the selection towards areas that I have interest in. An article on a new catalyst to convert a alkene into an alkyne? Nah. An article on a new catalyst to polymerize an alkene? Definitely.

Lastly, as I make significant changes to the page, I will put a short note here so that you don't have to keep looking at the other page. Granted, this assumes that you are using an RSS reader or you have this page bookmarked and read every post I create, which is scary thought.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

How will the Law and Chemistry Interact? - The Sheri Sangji Case

While there has been much excellent discussion of the Sheri Sangji case elsewhere (Jyllian Kelmsly has the best coverage of the unfortunate women killed in a UCLA lab when a large volume of a pyrophoric chemical was spilled in a hood containing hexane), I see a common underlying theme in all the commentary. Being chemists, we take a strongly scientific view of the matter, looking at the reported facts, filtering them through our collective chemistry culture and producing a "factual" answer. This is the way we operate on a daily basis at our jobs, as well we should. We do a great job at it, but now we are being cast aside. You see, now that the legal system has gotten involved, an entirely new perspective will enter the picture, one that is well removed from the "reality" that we experience in our hoods and on our benches. Or as Rees Kassen said in a recent Nature editorial "Our mistake is to think that science will be given a privileged voice on an issue. This is almost always wrong."

Consider these thoughts in no particular order:
  • While the Constitution guarantees Prof. Harran a jury of his peers, consider what the makeup of those "peers" will be. Does anyone think it will be 12 other chemicals professors? Or 12 chemists? Or even 1 from either of those groups? Or even a single technically educated person? No, there will not be anyone of such background on the jury. If there was, the jury would be effectively reduced to the that lone technical person, as everyone else would defer to their technical background and experience. Instead, the jury will be made up of 12 people from all walks of life. Some young, some old, probably an unemployed person or two who is just happy for the income and free lunch. Considering that only 30% of the population has a college degree, that means only 4 people on average will so educated. Look at some of the comments on the "Trending Topics" from Twitter to see the intelligence level that Professor Harran is facing. So it will not be enough for the prosecutor to state that there was also hexane in the hood at the time of the incident. As chemists, we all understand that hexane is very flammable. The jury will not. They will need to be told that a component of gasoline was also in the hood, but at the same time, the only "experience" most of them will have had with hexane on fire is seeing a car explode in a Hollywood movie - an entirely different matter. And while the judge will have a law degree, he most likely knows nothing about chemistry either, so it would be pretty easy to snow him with some "less than totally accurate facts".
  • If the prosecutor had an easy case, he would have not waited until the statue of limitations nearly kicked in before filing the charges.
  • The way evidence is looked at in a trial is greatly removed from anything we ever see as chemists. As an example, know that until a few years ago, it was possible for a forensics lab to produce a one-sentence report against you stating for example, "The substance was cocaine"! It was assumed that appropriate analytical techniques were used, that the instruments were calibrated, that the results were interpreted correctly...Compare that with any peer-reviewed paper, or even a lab report that students turn it. There was nothing you could to about it except pay for testing the substance yourself, and then you would have competing reports and arguments about who was right and allusions that you found someone biased in your favor and... Remember that the constitution guarantees us the right to confront our accusers, but until the Melendez-Dias case reached the Supreme Court, that was not possible. The Melendez-Dias case opened the door at least to allowing the defense to actually question chemistry reports. Regardless, the law takes an entirely different approach to evidence than chemists do.
  • Any comments being made know by the UCLA lawyers or the Prosecutor's office are just PR blurbs. None of the people making the statements are going to be the lawyers arguing at the trial, so ignore what is being said.
At the same time, we as chemists/scientists/engineers need to approach the legal system in the same way that we perform our jobs. As the trial proceeds, we can't be content to just read what is being reported in the mainstream press or the chemical press or blogs or...The real answers will be in the primary literature and the raw data - the actual proceedings that occur in court. Only by accessing that information will be able to truly understand what occurred in the trial.

I make no predictions of the outcome as I see difficulties on both sides and no clear cut "justice" as an outcome. Cases like this are why we are taught to pray to "save us from the time of trial".