Thursday, January 31, 2013

Where's John???

I won't go into a lot of details about exactly where I was underground, but will give you a clue: this is a picture I took in the men's restroom of a nearby restaurant. There were newspaper articles hung over the urinals (a somewhat common occurance in men's rooms), and in this case, the sports pages. 6 articles were about a certain sport. It's now your job to guess the country I was in.

New Posts - Few and Far Between

It would be easy to blame my sporadic posting on my new job (and certainly that is true to some degree), but I have a far better reason for not putting anything up on the internet: There's no wifi-hotspot when you are hundreds of feet underground in a mine:
Now you know why Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey never had mining blogs, Twitter accounts or Facebook pages. I will soon be spending more time above ground, so things should get better soon.

Never thought that my career in polymers would take me so far underground. Just more reasons that I always advise young engineers to be flexible.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Clamshell Packaging Takes a Knock

I ran across a new twist on that packaging form that everyone loves to hate: the clamshell. You know, those clear packages that you can't open with scissors or a knife or probably even a machete. Unlike what the women in this picture is attempting, I do not recommend using your teeth:
If you do ever get it open, you risk hemorrhaging more blood than the Red Cross could collect from you in two years.

As I've mentioned in the past, I don't like clamshell packaging. I do understand the rationale for it, such as improved visibility and ease of displaying the products, the other argument that is relevent here is that it also reduces thievery - since the package is so big and difficult to open, it also means that would be theives can't open the package easily in the store and slip the small valuable items out under their clothing.

So while I was installing a few new smoke detectors in the house this last weekend, I was quite both pleased and shocked to find that the clamshell packaging was pre-perforated for easiy opening. Look at this picture:
You can even see in the upper right hand corner a small cut to insert your finger in. No scissors, knife or stilletto needed!
The packaging didn't tear perfectly along the perforations, but it still worked just fine. But doesn't this eliminate that one argument in favor of clamshell packaging?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Does Going Public Kill Innovation?

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article yesterday entitled "Want to Kill Innovation at Your Company? Go Public", which discusses new research that suggests that after a company goes public, innovation goes down. The researchers compared companies that went through an IPO (Initial Public Offering) with those that had planned IPO's that never occurred. There were able to "quantify" innovation by looking at the patents both before and after the IPO. Patents that were heavily cited by later patents were deemed more innovative than those that were less cited. They also looked at the key inventors and saw that many of them left the companies in the post-IPO period.

This methodology obviously has some serious flaws. First, it is limited to small companies that haven't gone public. While there are the occasional giant corporations that have IPO's (Facebook and Google being recent examples of mega-IPO's), most IPO's are with smaller firms, and as such, they are more likely to be one-trick ponies - they have one good technology in the bag and that's it. Innovative companies with a whole portfolio of technologies very seldom go public, as they most likely have a long time ago. Think about the IBM's, Samsung's, Apple's and 3M's of the world (just to name a few).

In considering the small innovative tech companies, the reasons for the non-IPO's can be manifold. The timing may be wrong, other funding may have become available, or maybe the technology is found to have serious shortcomings and more research/development is needed, meaning more "high quality" patents may result.

With the small companies that do have their IPO's, it's easy to say that "Increased scrutiny and accountability to shareholders may also affect the kind of research and development a newly public firm chooses to pursue" and there is a certain element of truth to that. Having worked for a private company that underwent change of ownership, (although this is quite similar to when a company has a new CEO) there's a period of time where it takes new management and the employees a while to reach an understanding of how the company will be run going forward. Productivity is reduced, but only temporarily. How much of the observed results here is ephemeral in nature?

And lastly, academic researchers and journal publishers all know the general uselessness of counting citations of papers as a way to quantify the "value" of the research. Doing it with patents is just as crazy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Assault with a Deadly Hair Removal Gel

Somehow all the rheology news of late is about death and injury. First there was the attempted suicide last Friday using expanding polyurethane foam and now this: a prisoner attacking his cellmate using hair removal gel. While we laugh, that's enough to get you felony battery charges.

Some questions: how did the inmate even get hair removal gel? And was it really worth the risk? It's not as if it was available at the commissary since this is a product that as far as I know is used exclusively by women. [*] If the other inmates knew this guy had the stuff, I can only imagine the taunting he would receive.

If this keeps up, rheology is going to really have a bad reputation, something bad hombres, criminals and thugs. We might need to start a public awareness campaign - "Gels don't hurt people. People do", and "If we outlaw rheology, then only outlaws will have rheology." So can we all try and dial it back a bit and keep our loss and storage moduli safe for our children and grandchildren? Please?

[*] Back in the day when I needed to have my legs hair-free, I used a blade in the shower. It's a good way to kill off a blade as your legs have the equivalent skin area to over a week's worth of faces. Why was I shaving my legs you ask? I used to race bicycles and it was de rigueur. If you dared show up for even the first training ride in the Spring with unshorn legs, the other riders would take turns pulling up next to you and plucking the hair. You only made that mistake once. Which then provides you with the real reason cyclists shave their legs: peer pressure.

And by the way, I just said no to performance enhancing drugs. That choice paid off in the long run as I have recently pulled even in Tour de France victories with Lance Armstrong.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Polyurethane Suicide

We've all heard of bizarre attempts of people to kill themselves through unusual means, and being a chemical engineer, ones using chemicals always catch my attention more, but swallowing unreacted polyurethane foam is a new one on me. Yet that is what an Indian man attempted this week. He opened up the hatch and downed a diisocyanate and a polyol (undoubtedly with some water in it)[*]. Catalyzed properly, these chemicals will react more-or-less on contact to create a hard foam. The man had access to the chemicals as he used them in his line of work to seal cracks around air conditioners.

I have several thoughts:
  1. How could he stand the taste of those chemicals? Maybe the polyol wouldn't be so bad (much like glycerin is), but an isocyanate?
  2. The man is lucky to be alive just because the heat of the reaction didn't kill him. The article cited above noted that the doctors found the internal temperature of the foam to be 94 oC!
  3. The man is lucky that he hasn't developed any sensitivities to the isocyanates, something that would result in cardiopulmonary issues

What is more surprising (or maybe not) is that this was not the first person to attempt suicide in this manner. The Journal of Trauma has a 2008 report ($-per-view) of a similar attempt, also unsuccessful.

For this newest case, the foam was easily removed and not surprisingly was in the shape of the stomach and the esophagus, reconfirming that drawings in anatomy books are correct:

This anatomically detailing reminded me of another suicide attempt in which a women injected elemental mercury. Much of it moved to her lungs where an x-ray showed the most beautiful imaging of bronchial tubes I've ever seen:

This also should make you question exactly how paranoid we really need to be when worrying about mercury from a broken thermometer or fluorescent bulb.

[*] The easiest way to foam a 2-part urethane is to include a little bit of water in the diol/polyol. It reacts with the isocyanate to form a carbamic acid, an unstable entity that decomposes to an amine and carbon dioxide.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Yes, polymers made from avocados. Just another example of:
  1. the creativity of chemists
  2. everyday things (including food) being made of chemicals
  3. turning waste into treasure
As I've said before, making plastic (or any other chemical) from something besides petroleum may appear miraculous to non-chemists, but no one else. The real miracle in my mind, is making them from petroleum. That sticky, goopy mess that we have to dig down tens of thousands of feet to find doesn't suggest to my mind feedstock for plastics or chemicals.

So if the avocados are certified as organic, does that mean the polymer is Organic-Organic? Double organic? O-squared?

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Two Ethylene Horses Race, But Only 1 is Winning

Dow is riding two horses in the polyethylene business - one that is based on the traditional petroleum-sourced ethylene feedstocks, and the other that is based on bio-produced ethylene. The jockey however, is not beating both horses equally.

First, Dow announced that they had restarted ethylene production at their St. Charles, Louisiana plant, and in almost the same breath, stated that they are seeking building permits for a 1.5 million ton polyethylene plant, the largest such plant in the Dow portfolio. The new plant would take advantage of the ethane production surges resulting from the boom in fracking here in the US.

As for the other horse, the bio-based ethylene is from the joint venture with Mitsui in Brazil. Ethanol produced from fermented sugar cane is dehydrated to yield ethylene:
H3C-CH3 H3C-CH2OH --> H2C=CH2 + H2O [*]
Sadly, while production of this green ethylene is continuing, Dow is declining to expand the operation citing the shale fracking strategy outlined above and legal/design issues in Brazil.

I wonder how long it will be before Dow announces the sale of their portion of the joint venture.

[*] Run the reaction backwards and you can produce high purity ethanol without having to use any nasty benzene to get past the azeotrope. Oh those clever chemical engineers!

Update: Doug Hawkins from Dow Chemical noticed that my chemical reaction wasn't quite ... copacetic. It is now. Thanks, Doug!

Monday, January 07, 2013

3-D Printed Guns are Improving in Durability

It's time to get back at this blogging thing.

Here in the US, the national consciousness is only beginning to fade from the Newtown school shootings that occurred back in mid-December - all of which makes this next story that more poignant. I had written back in October of the efforts of a group, Defense Distributed, to print a 3-D gun from plastic. Or at least, partially from plastic. Their initial efforts were unsuccessful as the leaser of the printer found out about what was intended and promptly cancelled the lease.[1] Somehow Defense Distributed has found another option for printing their equipment and managed to make a rifle lower and managed to get off 6 rounds before it failed.

This is still a long ways from an all plastic gun, if such a beast could indeed be made. Not only would discharging the bullet be difficult using just plastic, but the bullet itself would still most likely be metal. [2] However, I've learned to never bet against progress, ingenuity and creativity when people are motivated. And gun owners are certainly motivated these days.

I am going to go off-topic here and put in my personal plea - forget changing gun control laws as a way to prevent mass-killing sprees. There are too many guns out there to ever prevent someone from getting one, and as the innovations in 3-D printing improve, access will be that much easier. In my mind, the emphasis needs to be placed on mental health, and I am really appalled by the lack of political leadership on the issue from EVERYONE in Washington D.C. Mental health issues are one of the few remaining stigmas out there, being mostly viewed as a source of shame rather than of need. Until this changes, there will always be individuals that need help but will not seek if for fear of the humiliation that will receive in public. We have moved away from Bedlam, but not anywhere near enough. This most recent shooting was a perfect opportunity for the President or a Congressional leader to speak out and propose serious change both socially and in the health care system. And yet no one took advantage of the situation. Or more correctly, they did speak out and took advantage of the situation - to talk about gun control. There was endless discussion on gun control laws and arming teachers and...and nothing, NOTHING about mental health. Truly a shame.

[1] The irony is that licensed gun manufacturers can lease the same 3-D printer from the same supplier without any issues.

[2] While rubber bullets can be lethal in unusual circumstances, they are generally not considered as such.