Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Where There's Smoke, There's Bad Smells

NineSigma has another pie-in-the-sky Request for Proposal (RFP): Eliminating the Smell & Smoke of Burned Hair.

Hair is made up of the protein α-keratin. One of the defining features of keratin is that is a mechanically tough biopolymer. That toughness results from all the disulfide bonds that form between the cysteine residues [*]. And there are a lot of disulfide bonds. Human hair is between about 10 and 15 % cysteine residues, and the β-keratin that makes up feathers, fingernails and rhino horns is even higher in cysteine. All that disulfide crosslinking makes it difficult to work with those biopolymers. You can't dissolve hair in solvent and you can't melt it either. It doesn't even make a reinforcing agent for most thermoplastics. Sadly, most keratin ends up as waste.

If you've ever been unfortunate enough to have smelled burning hair, you know how wretchedly bad it is. Why? All that sulfur shows up in a mixed bag of semi-oxidized molecules and the human nose is pretty sensitive to most sulfur compounds at low concentrations.

Given all this, the idea that a simple device is going to eliminate that primal, emotional reaction is almost laughable, especially since the "...solutions based on mere ventilation, suction or gas displacement [and] solutions based only on fragrance addition or masking of the odor" are not acceptable. There are €200,000 up for grabs for someone who produces a winning proposal, but, as is the case with most of the NineSigma RFP's, I always have that feeling that if you really have a solution to the problem, you can make far more money by going it on your own. Patent it and license the patent to multiple companies, not just 1.

A year and a half ago I wrote about a new dithiol chemical that was virtually odor-free. Maybe that chemistry is worth a shot...if you can run the reaction in a fraction of a second without exposing anyone to any harmful chemical...

[*] Biochemists use the term "residue" to describe what is left of the amino acid after it is incorporated into a protein; I.e., after the loss of water. Just you can't find adipic acid in the backbone of nylon 6,6 even though adipic was used to prepare it - after the amide groups from with the loss of water, it's no longer the acid.

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