Friday, September 27, 2013

PPE. Collect (and Wear) the Whole Set!

I'm hoping I set some kind of PPE record yesterday. It was a heck of along tiring day, so a record would be nice consolation. The picture below shows less than half of what I wore.
Working from the top down, I had on
  1. Hard hat (hard rock miner's style) with head lamp
  2. Hooded Tyvek coverall
  3. Respirator with organic filters
  4. Ear plugs
  5. Reflective safety vest
  6. Rubber gloves
  7. Self Rescue Respirator (pictured to the righted)
  8. and
  9. Steel toed boots
  10. At other points in the day, I also had on
  11. Safety glasses
  12. and
  13. a Lab coat
8 pieces of PPE at one point in time, and 2 others in close proximity, all in the name of polymer chemistry. Beat that!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Here's Research to Lift Your Spirits

Now that my days of bathing in DOTP are over (at least temporarily), I am belatedly getting around to discussing a recent research article published in Polymer Chemistry entitled "Absolut 'copper catalyzation perfected'; robust living polymerization of NIPAM: Guinness is good for SET-LRP" (Open Access). You may recall the fuss from earlier this year when the Haddleton group from the University of Warwick published in JACS their efforts in aqueous, copper-mediated, living polymerization in tequila. Now they're back at it again, but in a bigger way.

No being satisfied with using just tequila, they expanded their work into a global effort:
"Taking advantage of the multi-national spread of researchers in the laboratory, and our considerable interest (and expertise) in alcoholic beverages, it was decided to initiate a search to study alcoholic solvents from each person's country of origin for this precision polymer synthesis."
All told, 27 different imbibitions were used, with various beers being the most common. 2 potables caught my eye however, the first being A'Bunadh Single Malt Scotch - a waste of a lovely Scotch if you ask me. But what really left my jaw hanging was the use of a 1973 Napoleon Brandy - 40 years old and into the reaction flask it goes. 40 years old! If you took all the 'o's I've used in writing this post and strung them together in the word smoooooooth, it still would fall short of describing a 40-year old brandy (even if it isn't graded).

Despite this lack of judgment on the part of at least one of the researchers, polymer chemists everywhere need to lift a glass of their favorite drink high and toast these efforts, and also never look at their drinks quite the same way again. į sveikatą!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Showering in Dioctyl Terephthalate

I have to admit that yesterday, while wiping up still more DOTP (dioctyl terephthalate)off the floor, that this was something that 5 years of grad school did not prepare me for.

I've been working with a sprayer system this week for spraying a 2-part polyurethane. DOTP is used as a flushing/storage fluid in the tank as it won't react with either part A or B, it has low volatility and is nonflammable. But since the sprayer had sat idle for 2 years and wasn't cleaned real well before that interval, there were a number of plugs/constricted hoses, joints, etc that need to be removed and cleaned. The geometry of the machine prevents containing all the fluid, much as you can't change a bathroom faucet without spilling at least some water.

So it was flush, clean, flush, clean. I think we might finally have it all cleaned so that we can actually spray what we want, but we shall see. This is my third solid day in grubby clothes. I'll be happy to go back to the normal business casual anytime.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Welcome to the Echo Chamber

C & E News this week had an opinion piece entitled "Do You Hear an Echo", in which the writer opines
"Although online communities tend to correct or at least challenge questionable information entered into this open system, their emergence also poses a problem. Bloggers I have spoken with agree that even the good science blogs tend to be echo chambers, read largely by like-minded scientists."

I find it very hard not to laugh at this naive opinion. Look at the larger world around us (and weep). With the internet, it is easier than ever to verify facts, and yet politicians are lying more than ever. Does fact checking matter? Or are people actively seeking the echo chamber. Research strongly suggests that they are.
"The social phenomenon known as motivated reasoning is largely to blame. "Most people don't base their opinions on the accumulation of factual material," said Karlyn Bowman, who specializes in polling and public opinion as a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Instead, said Bowman and others, people will weigh their own values and discussions with others when formulating opinions. And oftentimes, they seek out opinions that validate what they already believe." (emphasis added)
We can preach all we want against this, but it is human nature. We can successfully change that as much as we can change the sun rising tomorrow. Sadly, the internet, with all it's power to prevent this from happening, only adds to it.

Welcome to the future. Welcome to the echo chamber.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Dear, Do These Jeans Make My Butt Look Photocatalytic?"

That's the question that may soon be popping up in closets and clothes store everywhere. Researchers in Germany have found that by adding vinyl derivatives of various catalysts to nylon fabric and exposing it to 222 nm light (a KrCL eximer source! Couldn't a 254 nm UV bulb work as well?), the vinyl group reacted with the substrate while leaving the catalyst unaltered. The catalysts showed high durability, surviving in some cases, over 300 cycles of use and reuse.

As the researchers point out, the ease with which these catalytic supports can be made, shaped and recovered offers a significant advantage over more standard supported catalysts.

Catalytic clothing is not a new concept, but the previous efforts were around incorporating photocatalytic materials (such as TiO2) in a fabric. This is a much more versatile approach that allows for multiple types of catalysts to be incorporated into the fabric. The one advantage that photocatalytic catalysts have is that they work with gaseous reagents and products. The catalysts used here, such as dimethylaminopyridine are for working with liquids. Walking down the street and catalyzing the oxidation of car exhaust is one thing - nobody is going to be walking down the street catalyzing a Bayliss-Hillman reaction.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The iPhone5c and the i-Flex tire

Some short items about new uses for plastics.

The big news this week was the introduction of the iPhone5c with it's (gasp!) plastic case. But instead of being looked at as a negative, this parody puts a positive spin on the plastic case:

Another product introduction this week, where coincidentally (?) the product's name also starts with the letter 'i', Korean tire manufacturer Hankook is showing off their version of an airless tire/wheel combination called the i-Flex:
(I don't see any mini-USB ports, do you? They must be on the backside) While this is new for Hankook, other tire manufacturers have already introduced similar designs in the recent years, such as the Bridgestone:
and Michelin, whose "Tweel" is a portmanteau for "tire" and "wheel":
These tires would be of value for gangstas driving around, but probably not of much use for most of us.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Plastic Pounds

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Bank of England is experimenting with plastic currency as a replacement for the standard cotton-paper. How long until the US follows? By no means is England the leader in this movement. Other countries, many in fact being part of the British Commonwealth have already adapted plastic currencies, including New Zealand, Australia and Canada. The US will eventually make the move, but I've not heard any rumblings about it so it will be a while.

What I'm most curious about is how the people that are living "plastic-free lives" are going to handle the change. If they forego currency entirely, then they are forced to use charge cards, also made of plastic. There doesn't seem to be any escape from plastic. However, strictly as a humanitarian effort, I am will to accept all plastic currency from anyone wanting to rid themselves of it. I will ensure that it is properly taken care of. It's about time that this blog had a car to go with it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Laughs from the Spam Filter

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Sure, digital camera ratings is just what my readers (all two of you - hi Mom and Dad!) want.

What is really strange about this spam is that it is written in mixed fonts (look at the 'v' in however, the 'k' in like and the 'p' in pray for example). I guess someone thought that such an approach would outsmart the Google spam filter. They were wrong.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Pitch Drop Contest

The Journal of Improbable Research is having some fun with the Pitch Drop Experiment.
" homage of John Mainstone, the 2005 Nobel prize winner for the longest experiment ever, [t]wenty competitors will have to prepare the slowest flowing mixture out of usual kitchen ingredients. All at the same time, they will place it in one of 30 funnels: the winning mixture will be the one that will release the first drop as late as possible, but before the Harvard Ig Nobel ceremony will end."
(You will recall that Prof. Mainstone recently passed away without ever seeing a drop fall in the Queensland Pitch Drop Experiment).

I'm not participating in the event (it's in Paris - I'm in Minnesota), but if I were, here's what I would try:

My first thoughts went to using cheese as an base, but I think it would be too sensitive to batch-to-batch variations to really work well. Some kind of paté would stand a good chance, but I don't have much experience in preparing such concoctions. I think it would have to be a reasonably soft paté too, but then there is the risk that it would start to separate with some of the low viscosity liquids migrating to the wall and lubricating them so that your drop slides out prematurely.

As for what I would work with, I'd start with
  • Gelatin. Plain of course, and a goodly quantity of it with water [*]. That will give you the backbone and the resistance that you want so that nothing drops for a long time.
But you don't just want a solid that doesn't flow over the 3 months or so of the experiment, so you need to cut the viscosity a bit. To achieve this, I would add some
  • Alcohol. The alcohol would actually serve 2 purposes. Beside lowering the viscosity, it would eliminate bacterial growth. The big question is how much to add (to the mixture, not the formulator). Someone with lots of experience with jello shots (not me!) would have an advantage.
Lastly, I'm concerned about water evaporation over the duration of the experiment, so I would also add a layer of
  • Honey. If permissible, I would also coat the gelatin with honey once it is in the funnel in order reduce water evaporation. An oil would not necessarily be a good alternative as it would preferentially displace the water and wet the walls of the funnel to lubricate them. In comparison, honey is very viscous and water-based so it would stay at the top of the funnel. An additional advantage is that it is not going to support bacterial growth.

Time a brief interlude. This is a far more challenging contest than most people realize - it is not about just getting the viscosity, density and other aspects of the rheology correct. You need to prepare your mixture from food, but remember that all human food is never food for just humans. There are plenty of microbes, both airborne as well as on all non-sterilized surfaces that will love to dine on your experiment while it is still running. They will have months to chow down on your mixture and in doing so, will alter the consistency of it most likely not in a good way.

And that brings me to a second option for the gelatin. Instead of fighting with biology, embrace it. Take your alcohol-free gelatin formulation and add
  • Sugar. This may seem to be an odd idea as it would have little to no direct effect on the viscosity, but the sugar suddenly gives you a third lever to play with. Gelatin and sweetened gelatin in particular are going to grow bacteria and mold, creating a colorful and odoriferous material without any redeeming organoleptic value, but it might, just might, get the gelatin's viscosity to decrease at just the right rate that it delightfully delivers a dramatic drop during the awards ceremony, ensuring your enduring fame for decades. For a consistent degradation, you would probably want to have bacteria throughout so inoculating the gelatin with mold from a lovely mountain gorgonzola cheese, or a yogurt with live bacteria would be a consideration. The former, being an anerobe would like be a more successful choice.
So there you have it. 2 paths - the traditional create-something-so-viscous-that-it-will-only-drip-really-slowly - and the other, a trifecta of physic, chemistry and biology that instead of fighting off bacterial growth, tries to take advantage of it. I like the second approach as it seems far more appropriate for The Journal of Improbable Research.

[*} I don't want anymore controversy like the last time I discussed mixing gelatin and water so let me be clear - heat the water, add the gelatin, stir and let cool. Adding gelatin to cold water will not create a gel of an appropriate viscosity for this contest.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Where's the Cheap Plastic We Were Promised?

Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal has a write-up on what they improperly called "The Plastic Bag Paradox" (Sorry, $ for access to the story!). While the title makes for good alliteration, a better title would be the "Where the Cheap Plastic We Were Promised?". Fracking has resulted in ethylene prices dropping, but polyethylene prices have remained constant or increased. However, there is no paradox. As the article makes clear, the resin producers are to blame.
"Polyethylene makers, such as Exxon Mobil Corp. and Dow Chemical Co., are enjoying lower costs because higher natural-gas production increases the supply of ethane, a component of natural gas used to make polyethylene. Instead of passing on lower costs to their customers, however, they are reporting fatter profit margins. First-half earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization in Dow's performance plastics division, which makes polyethylene, were up 33% from a year earlier."

You may recall that Dow's CEO, Andrew Liveris a couple year ago wrote a book entitle "Make It In America". It's now pretty clear what the "it" is - not finished goods that consumers and businesses buy, but just the raw materials that go into the finished goods, and most preferably, raw materials from Dow.

Having seen many cycles of resin shortfalls and surpluses, I know the situation will eventually right itself and resin prices will come down, but not until the resin manufacturers have had a chance to make their stash. And see others making money that you were promised can make that "eventually" seem even longer.

Friday, September 06, 2013

A response to the ChemBark post (partially) about me

Paul Bracher, author of the ChemBark blog spent part of his post yesterday responding to my post from Wednesday, Fraud in the Literature, Blogs and Witchhunts. He had to use some slight-of-hand in order to somehow relate my broad, nonspecific post to his (ChemBark's) recent postings on fraud. Specifically, Paul stated "User “juicebokz” on Reddit called John’s post “a letter to ChemBark”, and I feel compelled to weigh in..." And so that comment by a third party opens me up to a direct response from Paul, even though I think it would be more properly directed to "juicebokz".

To be fair, Paul's comments were fairly general and could be part of a response to anyone criticizing his efforts, so I'm not going to respond to them directly, and I would have to little say against them as well. Instead, I'm going to try and clarify my thoughts from earlier in the week.

My post Wednesday was never directed at any individual in particular - especially individual bloggers - but to the commenters that pile on afterwards. As I said then, "Many of the commentators screaming for blood are young professionals you have yet to run a large, established research group, but who think that they will be able to do so flawlessly in the future."

It's no secret that most of the commenters on blogs and reddit are "young", is it? And yet this group of people is creating a very viscious environment which in 20 years or so they will inherit. Is this really what they want? Have they thought out all the consequences? It's a lot of fun now, but when the shoe is on the other foot (and it will be at some point), will you wish otherwise?

Is it so bad of me to offer advice against creating this sort of environment, or to at least proceed with some caution?

Lauren Wolf of C & E News got the message when she sent a tweet that quoted a concluding quote from my post directly:
It's the mob mentality, the anonymous individuals posting on blogs, Reddit and elsewhere (I presume - don't ask me - I'm no social media guru) that I am frightened of and that represents the worst of human behavior. Any single blogger is not a mob (not even a group blog like The Chemistry Blog).

As it was on Wednesday, I have no intention of speaking evil of Paul (he has recently written kindly of me). I've never met him, but I certainly would like to some day. His research seems pretty fascinating (the Chemistry of Prebiotic Earth) and I wish him all the best as he starts his very challenging career. If anyone in the mob is looking for a blowout, knockdown fight, Jerry Springer-style with chairs over the head, they'll have to go elsewhere.

Paul closed with a thoughtful question: "At the end of the day, I would love not to have to write about scientific misconduct because (i) chemists have stopped doing it or (ii) universities, journals, and government have created a good system for dealing with it.

Now, how do we make that happen?"

Data fraud is unacceptable and few would feel that we shouldn't fight against it. Paul (and other bloggers like him) are trying one approach. An unintended consequence of this approach - at this point in time - is that the original blog post can become a rallying point that brings out the worst in group behavior. Do we want that? Can we prevent it? Is it an acceptable price to pay? Is there a better approach to try?

I don't have answers to these questions (including Paul's), but we (chemists, one and all) need to discuss them and decide. It's our future, (more yours than mine), and we can have a strong influence over it. Let's make sure that it is the future we want.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Questions about Dissertations based on Retracted Papers

While I'm on the subject of retractions, I'm surprised no one has yet discussed the potential fallout on the degrees that are earned en route to the publications.

Retraction Watch just had a posting about a retraction that the authors themselves initiated once they realized that they had reach erroneous interpretations of the data. I'm not sure that a retraction should be called for, but the important matter here is that it was an honest mistake. No fraud was ever intended. Now suppose that that same (erroneous) interpretation was crucial to one or more student's dissertations. Should the dissertations (and therefore the degrees) be retracted? If the students are still around, it should be possible to modify dissertation, but what if the student graduated 5 years ago? 10 years? 20 years?

I have no answers, only questions. I'm sure some hardliners will want degrees revoked. Certainly in the case where a fraud has been committed, that response is appropriate, but what about the innocent mistakes?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Fraud in the Literature, Blogs and Witchhunts

These are heady times for many bloggers in the chemisphere. No longer content to just comment about what is occurring in their own labs, many bloggers are starting to become activists that are confronting examples of fraud, plagarism and other publishing infractions in the technical literature. And their posts exposing such matters are getting a lot of attention not just from other bloggers, but from chemistry trade publications and even the mainstream media.

I would advise caution as things proceed. With all this attention, there is a great desire in others to jump on the bandwagon and "out" dubious research and researchers. Some have called this a witchhunt, a term which may or may not have merit. I won't discuss that issue today. Instead, I (and my grey hairs and old eyes which have seen enough of the same mistakes over and over) have other advice to offer.

What goes around, comes around. Many are pleased to bring the axe down hard on someone's head, and hold as many people responsible as possible (from ALL the authors to the principal investigator and maybe even beyond that), but we need to keep in mind that publishing scientific research is a human effort and as such, will be imperfect at times even when no harm, deceit or other nefarious activity is intended. Many of the commentators screaming for blood are young professionals you have yet to run a large, established research group, but who think that they will be able to do so flawlessly in the future. Of course that won't happen. You will have failings and shortcomings and things will go wrong despite your most fervent intent to prevent it. Most people do not have a problem with that.

Most people. But there will be plenty of others wanting your head on the same chopping block and with an added level of glee since you were responsible for bringing so many down yourself. It's human nature. We can't change it, this perverse desire to bring down the people bringing down others. Worse yet, these efforts to trap you may be entirely without merit. That won't matter. "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes" (Mark Twain). Your name and reputation can be placed in the same trash heap as those truly deserving it far more easily than you can ever imagine. Despite your noble intents and purity of heart.

I strongly support efforts to ensure that the scientific literature is as correct as possible. With the internet it is easier than ever to find evidence of plagiarism. With software it is easier than ever to find evidence of image manipulation. With computers it is easier than ever to find evidence of falsified data. But once we have such evidence, we need to proceed with something less than a mob mentality. Unfortunately, that too, is human nature and not something that we can wish away. We need to constantly remind ourselves of it and be vigilant against letting it show its ugliness.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A Nonprofit Tries an Unusual Approach to Recycling Plastics

Late last week, Forbes discussed a Vancouver-based nonprofit that is attempting to use plastic waste to "Monetize plastic waste found in beaches and other waterways, turn it into a source of income for people at the bottom of the pyramid, and then recycle the stuff, so it’s not littering the planet. Oh yes, and give plastic collectors access to 3-D printers."

The concept is pretty easy to explain - people collect plastic waste and turn it in at a recycling or collection center. But then there is this unusual twist (or 2):
"So, someone, say, working in a gas station could collect all the bottles around, bring them to a local center, and exchange then for goods (not cash), at a rate of about 25 cents per pound. Each center would have a few basic items in stock. But mostly, people would order items from a catalog.

Or–and this is the really wild part–collectors can get access to a 3-D printer, which they can use to make items that have an impact on the community–a water filter, for example, or a sprocket– and then turn themselves into entrepreneurs by selling the stuff.

The more plastic they collect, the more they can lift themselves out of poverty."
The first twist - trading in the plastic for goods (most of which need to be shipped in at a later date) raised a few eyebrows in the comments section, as did the perceived irony of trading in plastic for 3-D printed plastic parts. My thoughts however, went to Brazil. As I learned at a recent plastics recycling conference that I attended, Brazil has very high recycling rates yet has very few established recycling programs. The success is due to people who pick up the trash for themselves and turn it in at recycling centers for immediate payment.

The proposed non-profit program has the paternalistic attitude of someone having decided that wastepickers need goods more than they need cash, or perhaps more properly, that in giving cash to the wastpickers, it would be poorly spent. Besides, unless there is extensive policing of the program, the goods could easily be converted to cash, and certainly for a lesser value than if the program had provided straight up cash.

This plastics-for-goods program adds an extra level of complexity to a simple program that has proven viable elsewhere. Is this really needed? I'm not convinced of it at all.