Friday, November 30, 2012

Spamming is not Marketing

There's something about this post at Plastics News that bugs me: "If American Moldmakers Marketed Like Chinese Moldmakers". It's about a LinkedIn group discussion in which a automotive parts supplier is looking for a moldmaker in Ohio, only to be inundated with offers from Chinese moldmakers. As you can gather from the title of her post, the author thinks Americans should be similarly aggressive in seeking out quotes.
"I wrote a response that I hope moldmakers in this country will take to heart. What I said was that if U.S. mold manufacturers would market their companies, expertise, and capabilities as much as the Chinese mold manufacturers, OEMs and Tier One suppliers wouldn't have to get in on a LinkedIn group to try and find a good moldmaker."
This is crazy. Any input I've ever received from Chinese moldmakers is something that is NOT seriously marketing "their companies, expertise, and capabilities". Let me show you an example. I get plenty of emails such as this one from my deleted messages file:
Dear Sir,

We would like to be Your Molds supplier in China.

We offer : Mold Design
Mold Manufacture
Rapid Prototype
Injection Molds
Die Casting Molds

Contact [company name deleted] today with any questions you may have regarding consumer electronics, home appliances and other industrial components.

Thanks & Best Regards.
[name deleted]
International Sales
This is spam, plain and simple. It is completely and absolutely useless to me as we do not do ANY injection molding here at Aspen Research. Lacking injection molding capabilities, I have no interest whatsoever in any of these offers. If my junk mail filter doesn't catch these emails, I delete them from my inbox without a second thought. Even if I was interested in mold design and moldmaking, I would still ignore this offer as it is not serious marketing, it is not serious selling nor is it any serious explanation of a company's abilities. Sure, you can admire the energy and drive behind someone looking under every possible rock for a lead (assuming that this email was actually sent under human direction and not by a bot), but no one can suggest with a straight face that this effort will pay off. And to use this as a model for others to emulate, and even worse, embrace it with the name of "marketing" is ridiculous.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

It's Biology, So The Laws of Chemistry Don't Apply, Right?

It is becoming increasingly clear that more and more chemical production in the future will be bio-based in one way or the other. Most likely there will be multiple "bio" steps involved, such as using microbes to ferment a grown crop into something useful. For example, we currently see this in ethanol production, in which corn, sugar cane or some other sugar source is grown, feed into a reactor inoculated with yeasts which then turn the sugar into ethanol. At this point, traditional chemical operations take over to concentrate the ethanol to the desired level of purity.

While this new alchemy may seem magical, the laws of chemistry still apply. In particular, mass balances. If your output is going to have carbon in it, you need carbon as an input. Yes, the microbes already have carbon as part of their biochemical makeup, but they aren't going to sacrifice it for your efforts. Look upon them as a catalyst - they help the reaction proceed, but are not consumed by it.

So when I read articles like this:"Biodegradable Plastic Manufactured From Air And Bacteria", you can understand my frustration. The article discusses an improved process for making polyhydroxy alkanoates (PHAs), and while it is true that the bacteria use air in the process, some of which ends up in the polymer output, PHAs have quite a bit of carbon in them. PHA's are class of polymers with this generic structure:
In all cases, n is 1 or more. [*] The R group can be hydrogen, methyl, ethyl...which means that there is at least 1 carbon for every oxygen atom.

While biological processes are outside of the traditional areas of chemistry and we may not be perfectly comfortable with them, mass balances still apply. And that means atomic mass balances as well. So where is all that carbon in the polymer going to come from? Not only does the article not specify it, but it doesn't even point out that it is required. No, just air and bacteria. It's magic! This is the equivalent to saying that my car runs on air. It most certainly does need air, but it also needs a gasoline as well.

While this may seem like I'm being overly academic, the source of the carbon will have a major impact on how "green" this process is overall. Does the carbon come as waste from some existing process? If so, great! Is it something that needs to be grown especially for this process? That's not so great, particularly is the yield of that feed crop aren't high.

But just as importantly, we need to recognize that the new bio-based chemistries that will be sold to us in the future still have to follow some basic principles, ones that we as technical people already know quite well. We just need to have the confidence to apply them to these knew technologies, even to ones with which we are uncomfortable.

[*] n = 0 is certainly possible and is actually known as polylactic acid (PLA). For reasons that are not very logical, it is not considered a PHA.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cheap Junky Plastic? Think Again

I sadly admit that plastic items are commonly thought of as being cheap and junky. Disposable. Of no monetary value. While I don't agree with any of those descriptors [*], the last one is clearly wrong, as recyclers have been saying for some time that your waste plastic is valuable and they want it.

As is human nature, whenever something is of value, criminal activity will soon follow. And that is happening with waste plastic. I've written before of criminals stealing plastic, but that was virgin resin. Stealing waste plastic for recycling it is something entirely new, but the LA Times is reporting that 47 cases have been prosecuted in the last year. What is most surprising is that these cases are investigated by a 5-person task force which specializes in the crime. Police forces will have specialized task forces for gangs, prostitution, narcotics, and other concerns, but plastics? We have hit the big time.

The article quotes cites that $6 million in stolen plastics was recovered, but I wonder if they are running the numbers "correctly". The stolen plastics are normally not in a ground or pelletized state, so they priced lower than they will be later. Just as the monetary value of drug busts are based on "street value" - how much the drugs will be worth when they are sold for consumption - and not on how much the dealers paid each other, the monetary value of the recovered plastics should also be priced by their street value, or maybe more correctly, their "hopper value".

[*] Well, there are some exceptions

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Should We Stay or Should We Go Now?

Here are two recent conflicting reports about manufacturing in the US. First, a "Good News" article about reshoring - the moving of manufacturing plants back to the US.
“It’s against the paradigm that people have accepted [about what is made in China]. But people are usually about a decade behind in their perceptions. Anything that’s got a significant amount of money on the bill for shipping to the US, you’ve got to consider making it in the US. The shipping that we’re saving, and the fact that we don’t have to carry so much inventory, frees up cash.”
My experience here at Aspen Research in helping companies reshore has been more from a concern about quality, but the point about carrying inventory on "floating warehouses" is also a real concern. Regardless, I always found it rewarding to know that I directly helped some Americans have jobs and that cheap labor is not the solution to a companies financial problems.

But then on the other hand is news that an American company is encouraging its suppliers to move their facilities out of the US in order to take advantage of cheap labor. That company: Boeing. Granted, they are suggesting Mexico rather than China as a travel destination, and while I realize that a company can do business wherever it wants, Boeing is more than a little indebted to US taxpayers. The company receives a good number of military and other government contracts to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. As expected, this news is not playing too well for many people with "...mostly negative responses to Boeing inviting suppliers to an event that will teach them how to outsource work to Mexico."

Such is the world we now live in.

P.S. I apologize to The Clash for blatantly ripping off the title of one of their songs. I hope their lawyers aren't too bothered. I certainly don't want London calling! (But you should if you don't already.)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Fantasy Images of the Great Garbage Patch

When people hear of the Great Garbage Patch(es), the mental image they have is something like this:

when the reality is much more like this:

I've mentioned before the words of Andrew Blackwell that the afflicted area of the ocean is more of a garbage galaxy than anything else - mostly empty space. This is a sadly ironic situation in that a very concentrated patch would be easy to capture and remove, while the reality is that the concentration of garbage is so low that removing it from the ocean economically is far beyond our present technology.

But even with this reality, some people fantasize in the other direction about the garbage patch being something so big, so grandiose that ... well, it's best if I let the pictures speak for themselves:

Wow. Wow. Wow. What a pile of garbage. Literally and figuratively. This is the first monthly installment in an ongoing series.
"Created by Joe Harris and Martín Morazzo, the book follows the young heir to an oil fortune who seeks to cut his own path by conquering the monstrous gyre, which in Great Pacific is represented as an actual island of refuse twice the size of Texas, and founding his own sovereign nation. Unfortunately for him, what awaits the ambitious young billionaire on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is much more dangerous than just trash."

If the gyres were anything like that, you would be able to see it from satellite pictures and Google Maps, like in this drawing:
and yet, as (the Scripps Institute notes), nothing of the patches can be seen from the air or space.

Sadly, others have had even more ludicrous thoughts of the garbage being used as living space. Not for a conquering hero is in the graphic novel, but as an actual community complete with high rises, a modern day Venice:

Looks lovely, doesn't it. Until the first tropical storm or typhoon comes along.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Is Ketchup Really Thixotropic? And Does it Matter?

It is becoming common knowledge that ketchup is "thixotropic". More and more people are beginning to talk about it, which means that this is a good time to put the idea to the test. In addition, the Grand CENtral blog is sponsoring a #FoodChem carnival this week, so this is my entry.

What most people have observed is that ketchup is a thick fluid, and in glass bottles in particular, very difficult to get flowing. However, once the flow starts, it flows quite readily, usually leading to too much ketchup ending up on your burger and fries. The question is how do rheologists describe this behavior and is this sudden onset of flow really due to "thixotropy"?

Before we can get into that discussion, there are a few terms that I will define as they all play a role in the rheology of ketchup. But before I can get to those terms, I'm going to discuss what I mean by shear and shear rate. While there are mathematical definitions, I'll skip them for today and just describe these ideas qualitatively.

For any liquid that is flowing, the velocity of the liquid that is right up against the wall is zero [1], while the velocity of the fluid elsewhere is not. This means that the fluid is being sheared. The faster the fluid is moving, the higher the shear rate is, but also, the smaller the gap in which the fluid is moving, the higher the shear rate.

For a run of the mill liquid such as water, the viscosity of it is constant regardless of the shear rate. That makes it a Newtonian liquid. If the viscosity is not constant, then it is a non-Newtonian liquid. Non-Newtonian behavior comes in many flavors, but I'm only to going to discuss three options today.

The first is "shear-thinning". A shear-thinning liquid is one where the viscosity decreases as the shear rate increases.

Second is the le mot du jour, thixotropy, which is similar to shear-thinning but also decidedly different. At a constant shear rate, a thixotropic material will show a decrease in viscosity over time.

Last is "yield stress". This is the idea that certain materials need a minimal amount of force applied to them in order for flow to start. If less force is applied nothing happens.

It is possible for a non-Newtonian fluid to exhibit any combination of these characteristics. Ketchup in fact shows all three behaviors. But enough with the academic terms, let's get on with the show.

Like most places of work with a refrigerator in the cafeteria, there is an old bottle of ketchup sitting in it, bought some time ago for the company picnic that gets used every once in a while to spice up a tater-tot hot dish (a.k.a. tater-tot casserole if you never learned to speak Minnesotan). This morning I grabbed the bottle, got out the big 45 mm plates for the rheometer [2], squirted a portion out and took some data. (So does this qualify for #RealTimeChem too?)

The plot below shows the viscosity of the ketchup as the shear rate increases.
It drops, so you can say ketchup is shear thinning. This an important property for ketchup that is in squeeze bottles, as it makes it easier to dispense through the narrow opening - a region of high shear.

The next plot shows what happens when I subjected the ketchup to a constant shear rate.
Over time, the viscosity drops, so yes, ketchup is thixotropic.

I would have loved to have taken the data for this last plot, but I have the wrong type of rheometer for it [3], so I am borrowing a plot from TA Instruments.
This plot shows that ketchup also has a yield stress. A certain amount of force is needed to get it moving in the first place.

So the question is this: when you get a big glug of ketchup shooting out of the glass bottle, is it due to the shear-thinning, the thixotropy or the yield stress?

Despite the trendiness of the term, the thixotropy is the easiest candidate to eliminate. Look at the small drop in viscosity. It's just not significant. And while the shear-thinning plots shows a large drop in viscosity, you need high shear rates to achieve that and you won't find that in the big part of the bottle - it's just too big a gap. So that leaves yield stress as the winner. Look at the plot of yield stress again. The viscosity suddenly drops by a factor of 1000 just by reaching a critical stress! That's why you suddenly get a massive amount all at once - you finally reached the yield stress.

While ketchup is indeed thixotropic and I am glad that more and more people are becoming familiar with rheology, that phenomenon is the least of your concerns in getting the ketchup out of the bottle.

[1] This is a very fundamental concept in fluid mechanics known as the no-slip boundary condition.

[2] This stuff is a pretty soft gel, so by using larger diameter plates and their associated larger torque, I am generating a larger signal for the instrument to pick up. Also, the plates were coated with 600 grit sandpaper in order to minimize slip at their surface.

[3] My rheometer subjects the sample to a strain (deformation) and measures the stress (force). The type of instrument I need for a yield-stress plot is one that subjects the sample to a stress and measures the strain. Santa, I've been a good little rheologist this year. Can I please have a controlled-stress rheometer for Christmas?

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Difficult of Getting Paid

I think I can probably state that ALL of my readers like to get paid. Even if someone out there is independently wealthy, they still like to get paid when they are owed something (you would certainly never get be independently wealthy if you didn't follow that practice). In most cases, getting paid for an owed debt is fairly simple as there are numerous laws and courts to help..."induce"...the transfer of money, but if the matter involves multiple countries, it can get to be more challenging. Or should I say, far more challenging.

That is what Dow Chemical is finding out. It has been waiting and waiting and waiting for a $2+ billion dollar settlement from the Kuwaiti state company Petrolchemical Industries Company (PIC). This all began back in 2008 when Dow and PIC started a joint venture to be called K-Dow. Dow was contributing assets and PIC was contributing cash for them. PIC was of course planning on using oil revenues to fund their side of the venture, but when the price of oil dropped, the Kuwaitis pulled out. This left Dow holding the bag. That in itself was bad enough, but Dow had already counted its chickens before they were hatched and had put an offer in to buy Rohm & Haas with the money that the Kuwaitis had promised them. One way or the other, Dow was able to complete the deal with Rohm & Haas but still sought compensation from PIC. They won a settlement of over $2 billion, and as of the beginning of this year, were still expecting payment shortly.

Flash forward to now and they are still waiting. So now they are looking at grabbing assets where ever they can find them. Wow. What a mess. What an horrible mess. It's not like grabbing assets is going to be the end of this, as that will lead to still more legal battles around the world. The only ones happy with all this would be the law firms as it means more work for them. Given that since this all began, oil prices have climbed to very high levels for a long period of time, you would have thought that PIC would have had no problem in setting aside a measly $2 billion, but that appears to not be the case.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Friday Fun: Easy to Make Self-Folding Polymer Objects

Here's a fun and simple example of a self-folding polymer, so simple that you can do it at home. Researchers at North Carolina State inkjet printed black lines onto polystyrene (PS) sheets and then exposed them to an IR lamp. The black preferentially absorbed the IR and caused localized heating in the PS leading to localized shrinkage on one side of the sheet. The result of these asymmetric stresses was buckling/folding of the sheet so that a 3-D object could be formed.

Here's several examples of the folding, with the original flat sheet on the left and the resulting folded product on the right:
You can see that by being creative and inking one side or the other that both peaks and valleys could be formed. Better yet, there is a video link at the bottom of the page.

I can see this being an amusing toy for children; further practical applications escape me for the moment, but won't for long. This is too simple a technique to ignore. Well done.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Plastic Pollution in the Great Lakes - and a Surprising Critic of the Report

While I've always been concerned about plastic pollution in the oceans, commonly wrapped up as the 5 Gyres matter, living near the North American Pole of Inaccessibility has made that pollution a distance concern (pun intended). Any of the plastic bags I see floating down the street will never make it to the ocean.

But when reports came out that the Great Lakes were similarly afflicted with plastic pollution, well, that struck closer to home (again, pun intended). Lake Superior is a beautiful lake less than 3 hours from here, one that I have visited countless times. Lake Michigan is a little farther, but one that I still see with great regularity. The waters are clear, cold and beautiful and need to stay that way.

What is most concerning - and surprising - is that the lakes were reported to have an even higher concentration of pollution than the oceans do. I say surprising, for a couple of reasons. First, the lakes are continually "flushed" as rainwater runs into and out of them, whereas the oceans are at the bottom of the hill. (This is the same reason that oceans are salty and the lakes are not. The salt in the lakes is carried into the oceans and accumulates there.) But secondly, the oceans have well established flow patterns, including gyres, and these gyres are what are necessary for the concentration of pollutants in the ocean. Without them, the pollution would be concentrated near their source - the shorelines. I have yet to see any documentation that the Great Lakes have gyres.

But what really struck me as odd was the criticism that the report received after it was published. Or more accurately, who it was that was criticizing the report: the 5 Gyres Organization. The very same group that supported the research. The criticism can be found here (scroll down to the 3rd comment from Stiv Wilson). In part, he said:
"I took these two samples on the 5 Gyres/Fredonia Great Lakes expedition that yielded so many pieces- but to say this constitutes a higher density than the ocean is false. The average ocean sample has about a third of the individual fragments as the two samples from Lake Erie. But they are way way way smaller than what you find in the ocean, not just smaller than 5mm but smaller than .5mm, so by weight, the concentrations in the Great Lakes are a fraction of what’s in the ocean..."

Stiv and I have crossed paths before (be sure to read the exchange in the comments) so his further comments at the Ecowatch page that " Heck, I’m public enemy number one with the plastics industry, but I work on facts, and this article pushes the bounds of reality and journalistic due diligence." self-referentially pushes the bounds of reality and journalistic due diligence.

What's going on? My guess is that Stiv is concerned that this report would divert focus from the oceans - his predetermined cause - to the Great Lakes. But if that is what the numbers ultimately show, well, someone who "works on facts" will just have to accept that.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

BPA - The cost of junk science and overhype

I've never been a big fan of the blog "Hands Off My Plastic Stuff", a blog largely if not entirely devoted to the BPA battle, and in this case, taking the position that banning it is wrong. I have no idea who the author is, but he/she admits to a lack of technical training and it shows at time [*]. Parts of the posts often ends up being as emotional as the opponents he/she faces. That said, two recent posts were very good and deserve a larger audience.

The first discusses a recent article pointing out the dangers of junk science - how government resources are diverted from non-junk science to respond to public concerns.

The second is on the UCSD researcher disavowing that university's recent PR blurb about how the real threat from BPA may be in the metabolized products. I written and complained loudly many times in the past of various university PR departments overstating research results, so I am glad to see others joining the efforts.

[*] Statements such as "BPA is short for bisphenol A, which didn’t mean anything to me until I started to look into this topic. Turns out it’s a polycarbonate (I’m still lost at this point, don’t worry) which means it’s a type of plastic" drive me up the wall. For the gazillionth time, BPA is a monomer used to make plastics, such as polycarbonate. Copolymerize it with phosgene and you will have the stuff of CD's and waterbottles. But by itself, it is a white powder.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Job Titles and Business Cards

Over the years, I've had numerous job titles. I won't go into the details, but most large corporations have a whole range of them, often with subtle little nuances that are not apparent to outsiders but mean a whole lot to insiders as to where one stands on the corporate totem pole.

When I first joined Aspen Research, I was told that I could put whatever I wanted on my business card for a job title as we were just too small to care. So I went big: "Principal Polymer Scientist" or some such nonsense. But what I realized in handing the cards out to (potential) clients, was that they were not interested in the "Principal" but in the "Polymer Scientist" aspect.

So when it was time for a new box of cards, I took a chance and went to the opposite extreme: "Polymer Scientist". Nothing more. No "Advanced", "Senior", "Specialist", "Fellow" or anything else.
The response has been even better. "Polymer Scientist. That's just what we're looking for." In this case, stripping the title to the basics does a better a job of communicating.

I realize that the type of person I am generally handing this out to is different than in the past. This card is going to potential clients, whereas in my previous employments, I was usually handing it out to suppliers. I still keep wondering if there is something better to put as a title, but regardless, this has taught me to think about what I put on my cards and not just go for the most impressive title I can lay claim to. What I put there says something about me and it just may not be what I think it is.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Publishing Industrial Research

The topic came up in another forum yesterday about how research articles published by industrial people either "reflect[s] work that is no longer mission critical to the company" or is"well timed [and] heavily scrutinized for IP purposes".

While that is certainly true in some cases (very few I suspect), there are plenty of exceptions. Before I address those criticisms, let me summarize what I have observed about industrial research and its suitability for publication.

First off, even if IP protection and trade secrets and keeping a competitive advantage were overlooked, most of industrial research is completely unsuitable for publication. Some of it is only relevant to the company doing the research, such as "What are the best conditions to run that modified reflux unit off the SW side of the plant when we are making product X-2134?" Does anybody in the world care at all? A competitor would hardly even care since they have an entirely different process or at least a different refluxer for making their version of X-2134.

In other cases, the research is very much oriented towards an end use and not towards advancing science. "What combination of comonomers will give our tape the best adhesion to 316 SSL?" A competitor would certainly want to know as they could then quickly duplicate it, but would publishing this suddenly make Dr. Rhe Surch at Stanvard University change direction in his research? And could you even get this published in a well-respected journal?

A tremendous amount of industrial research is done using designed experiments, a statistical procedure that is great when you have a large number of variables to explore. You are able to change multiple variables at once and still "understand" the results. I say "understand" as the output is a polynomial equation, the form of which is chosen a priori instead of being theoretically derived. As a result, the output does little to advance science since it is only useful in the operating window that was explored. I don't recall ever seeing a DOE published in JACS and doubt a reviewer would ever let it pass. (Well, then again...)

So given this, is it worth the effort to publish? You would either have to add additional experiments to attempt to make the research "science-worthy" or you could publish in a lesser journal. And what does it gain you? Companies reward their workers for developing new products that save money, generate sales,...Publications do none of this, so those industrial researchers who do publish usually do it because it is of personal interest, not of corporate interests.

There are exceptions, and my employer is one of them. While we do very little in actual publications, we do give a number of talks at technical conferences about what research we have done for clients, and we use that as a means to promote sales. Of course, the talks are heavily whitewashed so that we don't reveal any confidential information. We can get away with the lack of details in a talk, but I can't imagine any journals that would accept the equivalent lack of details in a publication.

So now to the criticisms from yesterday. "No longer mission critical"? It depends on how you define mission critical. If you are on mission critical research, you are far more concerned about getting it done than taking the time to write an article. Once the research is done, then there might be time to sit around, reflect and write something up, but in the heat of the battle when big bucks are at stake (and yes, mission critical means mission critical), there is no time for publications.

"Well-timed"? I'm not even sure what that means in this case.

"Heavily scrutinized for IP purposes"? Of course, but even academic research has these concerns given that the Bayh-Dole Act allows Universities to patent the results of their research.

I agree with what I think is the general feeling about published industrial research - it just isn't as exciting as academic research. But this cuts both ways, and the best example is to read the patent literature. Patents by industrial firms can be extremely exciting and revealing, but patents written by academics are some of the worst ones ever published. They are heavily oriented along the lines of a research article (I've read some that were almost verbatim their published research) and they show very little effort or creativity in broadening the claims.

Scientific publications are still devoted to their original mission - to publish scientific results so that other researchers can use them to advance their research and then publish their results so that other researchers...Industrial research is far more applied and so even if it wanted to be part of this cycle, it really wouldn't be a great fit. To complain about whatever research is made available is really missing the point and showing a lack of understanding about industrial research.