Friday, December 21, 2012

Holiday Wishes

I already know that I will not be posting all next week - the holidays and visiting company will ensure that. I'll try for something on New Year's Eve, and then hit it again hard in January.

I hope everyone gets to spend some time with family and loved ones in the next few weeks - we all need it.

Epoxy Resin Art from Klari Reis

I ran across some examples of the epoxy art of Klari Reis.

These are petri dishes filled with colored epoxies, all biologically inspired. You can see more examples in this San Francisco Chronicle article and at her website. I love the way that the epoxies can resemble glass, my favorite medium.

Long-time readers will remember that I mentioned the art work of Momoko Sudo, also epoxy-resin based, just over 2 years ago.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Copper Thieves Foiled by Plastic

Copper thieves have been active for the past 10 years or so, stealing copper pipes and tubing whenever and wherever they get a chance. Although copper prices peaked back in 2008, there is still enough opportunities for ne'er-do-wells to make a quick buck. Copper is fairly dense (the specific gravity is just under 9), so a little goes a long ways.

Contrast this with plastic tubing. The specific gravity is around 1, give or take (PVC is 1.4), so you need to steal 9 times as much just to have the same mass, and then the pricing is not so favorable either. Locally, scrap copper is going for about $3/lb, (~ 5€/kg), while scrap plastic is far less than a buck a pound. So, 1/9th the mass at say a fifth the price is not a good deal for even the most thick-headed of thieves looking to make a quick buck.

I mention all this as there was a local report yesterday that thieves had stolen copper tubing used to cool an outdoor skating rink here in St. Paul. The tubing will now be replaced, but with plastic tubing. And not just any plastic tubing, but crosslinked high density polyethylene (xHDPE). The crosslinking is great at toughening up the polymer, but worse yet, it makes it very difficult to recycle [*], meaning that even if it is stolen, no one will buy it.

It is important to understand this aspect of the polymer's chemistry, as the statement in the article, "The plastic-based composite material...has little to no scrap value..." could be taken as a broad-brushstroke about recycling plastics in general. Such a generalization would not be true, something I've written about in the past. Plastics can be cost effectively recycled and the demand for recyclable plastics is growing every year. Just not for xHDPE.

[*] This is why recycling tires is so difficult too - the crosslinking prevents the tires from being remelted.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Changes. Big Changes.

Today is my last day at Aspen Research.

This was not an easy decision as the 8 1/2 years I spent at Aspen were fantastic. The people are all great and are a huge part of reason that I stayed here so long here, far longer than any other position in my career. Please continue to use them for your analytical, compounding and technical consulting needs. The company is poised for fantastic growth in 2013 with the new 72 mm twin-screw extruder coming in and so it will be fun to watch all the big plans come true. It's just that I will be doing so from the outside.

The reasons for my move are personal and will be kept that way, but be assured that the separation is quite amicable on both sides. This means the big green Aspen Research logo on the homepage will be coming down [*], my contact information will be changing and a few other details on the pages will be adjusted.

Sadly for my long-suffering readers, I absolutely plan on continuing to blog, but the blog will be much more personally oriented, or closer to the point, the blog will be more clearly dissociated from my employer to the point of not mentioning them at all. This was not the case at present where an important function of the blog was to help sell the capabilities of Aspen. I expect it to take a few days to learn the ropes at the new place, so there might be a lack of posts for a while.

But I am very excited about what awaits me in my new position. It will be less focused on rheology. In fact I won't be running a rheometer at all, so you shouldn't expect too many posts about ketchup rheology. But don't worry, I still have a killer write-up (or at least, I think so!) on the rheology of a certain consumable liquid that most of us love. The report is in fact so good, that it will to be published in the Rheology Bulletin this January. I will let you know when that happens. (It's an open access publication from the Society of Rheology, so you will all be able to read it.)

So it's not goodbye to you readers, just my colleagues here at Aspen. Again, a wonderful bunch of pretty intelligent people whom I will miss.

[*] I still don't like it and no one here is really sure what it is. We are better chemists here than to think it is CH5. We know pentavalent molecules exist, but we seldom work with them. A former supervisor thought that it looked like a squashed cartoon turtle. Well, it certainly is unique, or as we would say here in Minnesota, "That's different".

Thursday, December 13, 2012

BPA and Estrogenic Activity and Lawsuits and...

I'm too busy to write much today, but I do want to point out that PlasticsNews has a nice, 3-part writeup on all the fuss over BPA (bisphenol A) and estrogen activity. This is a subject that I've discussed multiple times in the past, especially with regards to the horrible testing run by Plastipure and Certichem. It so bad that Eastman Chemical is suing them over the results.

For better or worse, I'm heavily quoted at the end of part 3.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Is this Duck-ageddon?!?!

Rubber ducks are in the news a lot lately. And they are getting bigger with time.

First, back on December 4th, US Customs seized a shipment of 36,000 rubber ducks that recently arrived from China.
The reason? The duckies were too high in phthalate concentration. (Sorry, no more details than that. What phthalate? And how high is too high?) Since phthalates were being used, I suspect that in fact the duckies were not rubber duckies but were in fact made of vinyl.

Thank goodness these were your run of the mill, bathtub sized rubber ducks. The other ducks in the news were much larger. On December 5th, Oxfam America had a 15-foot inflated duck on the US Capital Mall.
The reason? It's a lame-duck session of Congress.

But the monster-sized duck that invaded England today is the stuff of nightmares (or another Ghostbusters movie). Set your eyes upon the 50-foot tall inflated duck that floated down the river Thames earlier today as a publicity effort for Facebook.
So we've gone from a 3-inch duck to a 15 foot duck overnight, and then to a 50-foot duck in a week. So is this the end? Is this the way that the Mayans predicted our doom? That the earth will be overrun with ever larger ducks?

Fortunately, that doesn't appear to be the case. The plotted data suggests that we are safe for a while:
100 days from now, the ducks will still be just 120 feet tall, not a serious threat to civilization. Even 1000 days out (3 years) the height will only be 180 feet. No, we're safe for a while. But just remember the next time you see a giant duck that you were warned.

Getting something good from Mechanochemistry

Mechanochemical reactions, especially thermomechanical chemical reactions are the bane of my career. Regardless of what I am working with, I know that every process step that a polymer is exposed to will do something to break it down. Even in reactive steps, such as polymerization, crosslinking or chain extending, there is some sort of shear used to ensure good mixing [*]. And that means degradation. The higher the temperature, the greater the degradation. The more the shear, the greater the degradation. The longer the process, the more the degradation.

But few aspects of science are ever pure evil, and that is even the case with mechanochemical reactions. While the value of these reactions have been known for some time (the Wikipedia article suggests that starting a fire with two sticks is the oldest such reaction), studying the fundamentals has always been challenging. Without knowing the fundamentals, monitoring something as simple as the degree of the reaction becomes a trial-and-error project.

That is all changing due to recent work that uses high energy X-rays to monitor the real-time, in situ kinetics of mechanochemical reactions in a ball mill. High energy x-rays from a synchrotron means that you take your reaction to the x-ray source and not the other way around, which further means that this isn't too practical as of yet for just any old lab to run (or even afford). But as technology advances, these techniques or similar ones will become more available.

The obvious appeal of these type of reactions is that they are solvent-free. By not having to add and then later remove solvent, the efficiency of the process is greatly improved.

[*] The only exception that I can think of is photochemistry of thin films and coatings. But even that isn't pristine and pure, as there is always some photodegradation occurring. Granted, it is overwhelmed by the polymerization and/or crosslinking, but photochemistry always has a degradation element to it. Always.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Shrink Wrapping a Cucumber: A Waste of Packaging?

Most cucumbers that I see in the grocery store are shrink-wrapped on a styrofoam [1] tray such as this:
But then there are the occasional odd ones, long and thin [2] that are sold separately with their own shrink-wrap, such as this:
For reasons that are unknown to me, some people (1, 2, 3) are upset about the shrink-wrapped cucumbers. I say unknown as there is far more packaging materials in the former picture than in the latter, but it doesn't matter much as the bigger issue is that there is any packaging around the cucumber. The reasoning is that after all, there is no packaging on other vegetables such as broccoli, tomatoes, avocados, why on a cucumber?

As is typical with packaging, the situation is complicated with many hidden elements - there is more than just the initial appearance. A new book, "Why Shrinkwrap a Cucumber?: The Complete Guide to Environmental Packaging" addresses many of these issues. With regards to the film on the gherkin-wannabe, the authors write
"...research shows that a wrapped cucumber lasts more than three times as long as an unwrapped one. It will also lose just 1.5 per cent of its weight through evaporation after 14 days, compared with 3.5 per cent in just three days for an exposed cucumber. A longer life... means less frequent deliveries, with all their consequent energy costs, and, crucially, less waste. Globally, we throw out as much as 50 per cent of food, often when it perishes. It typically goes to landfill and gives off methane, a greenhouse gas."
The most poignant commentary that I've ever read on the whole packaging issue however, is this:
"Some materials, such as glass, hardly seem to register on [consumer's] environmental radar, while others, particularly plastics, are never off it."
Rational? No. Reality? Yes. And so goes the battle.

[1] Yes, I know that I should be saying expanded polystyrene foam or EPS, as Styrofoam is actually the registered trademark of Dow for their EPS that is used in insulation or floral arrangements. But it is so much easier to say styrofoam and it communicates better too...

[2] For some reason, they seem to be called English hothouse cucumbers and are seedless. Compared to the regular cukes, they are pricey, but a wonderful addition to my wife's šaltas barščiai (the Lithuanian version of cold borscht, made with buttermilk...)

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Criminals Beware! Plastic Money can Foil Your Plans

Forgive me for being "flushed" with excitement about this story, but it appears that the new plastic 20 dollar bills that the Canadian government recently introduced have an unexpected benefit in catching criminals: they float. Which means that they can't be disposed of as you would normal currency. Not that I am ever predisposed to quickly rid myself of currency or even thought about how to do it when the police are at the front door. So if you are like me (and I do hope you are), you wonder how do criminals try to dispose of bills quickly? Well, the Global Montreal website reports
"When Quebec UPAC officers arrived in Laval in October to and [sic] search the apartment of Gilles Vaillancourt [Editor's note: the former mayor], his cousin, who happens to own the premises, panicked. According to reports, as the police were about to enter the building, Ginette Vaillancourt tried to flush a large wad of cash down the toilet. Unfortunately, she didn't realize that these were the new polymer notes - so instead of disintegrating, the bills floated - and eventually blocked the toilet."
Canadian criminals beware! You now need to find other options for rapid disposal of money. My favorite choice would a 5-gallon/40-liter tank of boiling tetralin, but that's just me being a polymer guy. However, I'm glad that Canadians are realizing a benefit of the new bills, as it doesn't seem like they were otherwise well received by the public.

And lastly, I don't think that the old "paper" bills would have "disintegrated" as the report suggests, or at least not very quickly. The toilet would have still become plugged. If any Canadians are willing to perform the necessary tests, I would be happy to pass on the results, or if you have the cash but are unwilling to perform the tests, I would be happy to run the experiments. "What's that? Now that the experiments are done you want the cash back? Why no, you see what happened was..."

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Return of the "Perfect Polymer"

Oh no, not again. Not another PR blurb about a "perfect polymer". Please tell me I didn't just read this headline:
"In Search of the Perfect Polymer"
We've been through this just over a year ago, and here it comes again. As I said back then,
"We don't have "perfect metals", "perfect ceramics" or "perfect anything". All plastics have their strengths and weaknesses and there is not perfect plastic that can act as an adhesive and a high temperature aerospace material and a low temperature sealant and a structural material and be biodegradable in a landfill (but only once it knows that it is in the landfill) and costs next to nothing to buy and can be processed using an E-Z bake oven and...After all, that would be the perfect plastic in my mind and the mind of many others."

Are the alliterative properties of the phrase "Perfect Plastic" and "Perfect Polymer" really so attractive that all logic needs to be withheld? I can't think of any other reason that this phrase keeps popping up repeatedly.

Comments on "Cool, or Simple and Cheap..." by Whitesides

George Whitesides recently had an excellent editorial published (free access with registration) in the journal Lab on a Chip. The write-up is clearly aimed at academics, as it discusses a number of the non-technical issues associated with product development, issues that are often not well understood by academics looking to capitalize ideas and discoveries from their labs. He has a couple of really good zingers, such as
"The ratio of money spent to invent something, to make the invention into a prototype product, to develop the prototype to the point where it can be manufactured, and to manufacture and sell it at a large scale is, very qualitatively, 1 : 10 : 100 : 1000. We university folks—the inventors at the beginning of the path leading to products—are cheap dates."
To me there are a couple of competing ideas in this idea. First, the invention are indeed cheap, but at the same time very essential, as without the "Eureka!" invention stage, there are no follow up stages. The problem is that this stage is often overvalued and even society as a whole is somewhat to blame. We have built quite a legend around the image of the "lone inventor", the one creative person toiling along in the lab, creating a device so wonderful that "the world will beat a path to his door".

But secondly, what is not realized by most in society is the large investments noted above. More importantly, there is increasing risk aversion that comes with each step. As more and more capital is required to reach the next step, the money is invested by increasingly conservative investors. Making ethanol from the hybrid plant genius speciesific, var. wonderfulae seems like a great idea when oil futures are $100/barrel, but your billion dollar investment is a bust when the futures drop to $80. Are you really go to risk it? You might be better off starting small (meaning it won't be as cheap to make), and selling it to rich Hollywood people who can afford it. This would be a smaller investment but people are more willing to take a bigger risk on a small investment than the other way around.

George also wrote:
"You don’t really know you have solved the problem for someone until they like your solution so much they’re willing to pay you to use it. Writing a check is a very meaningful human interaction."
I love that beautiful phrase which is correct, but it only reaches half of the truth. Getting someone to pay you is essential, but you really don't have a successful business until they pay you twice. It is very easy to get a lot of hype and publicity and excitement at a product launch and have fantastic initial sales, but it isn't until someone has bought the product, used it and then buys it again that you can claim success. You may have fooled them once for the initial sale, but you can't fool them a second time.

Lastly, I strongly disagree with this idea:
"The manufacturers of a putative product...are usually agnostic about its paternity: problem ‘‘pull’’ or technology ‘‘push’’ are equally satisfactory."
"Pull" products are always easier to develop and sell because there is consumer demand - a market or potential market exists. "Push" products are far more challenging because the market doesn't exist and it is difficult to quantify its size. And that means that it is difficult to know if the payback for an investment will ever exist.

Take Post-It notes for instance. This was clear a technology "push". No one knew that they wanted them other then maybe in some very small, clearly limited applications. Who knew the market would be so big? No one. No one at all.

That is because "push" products are often revolutionary. "Pull" products are answering a documented demand, which means that both you and your competitors are working on solutions so the market will already be fractured. But a successful "push" product will blindside everyone - competitors and consumers alike, and that is a great spot to be. It can takes years for competitors to catch up, if ever (try and find Post-It notes made by a competitor of 3M). Just know that the "push" path is risky, really risky. There are plenty of "push" products that have failed because there really was no market for what was being pushed. And as I said above, a risky path is not one that has easy access to large investments. The end result is that all of this make the "push" approach even that much more challenging. So to say that manufacturers are agnostic on "push" vs. "pull"? No, no, no.