Thursday, October 31, 2013

Obtaining Innovation

Angewandte Chemie has a new editorial essay entitled "The Organization of Innovation - The History of an Obsession" which is worth a read. It has a short history of attempts by countries to have innovative companies. While it considers the years of 1920 - 1960 to be a Golden Era of innovation, it does caution against attempting to return to the past.
"If we want to get out of the spot we are in, we first need to figure out how we were maneuvered into it in the first place. This Essay is an invitation to make headway in this process. However, anyone who might be inclined to infer from this discussion that the solution to the problem would be a return to the 1950s would be on the wrong track. The epoch that spanned the years 1920–1960 yields insights into what has gone wrong today, but not into how to make things better for tomorrow. There is no going back to ivory towers and industrial monopolies; the solution can only lie in the future. But the crux of the problem with innovation is bound to remain the same: we will never know exactly what prompts it."
Bell Labs is discussed heavily, and I never knew the role that building architecture played in that environment:
"[Director of Bell Labs, Marvin] Kelly had come up with a concept of long corridors that the researchers would have to walk down to attend to some of their less cerebral activities (such as trips to the bathroom). This is where he pictured the all-important informal exchange of ideas taking place, outside of the established work groups...Statements by researchers who returned to universities after working at Bell Labs support the idea that this communications concept actually worked."
I find this rather intriguing as I've had managers who have quoted research that shows that the level of interaction between 2 people drops with the distance to some exponential power. I never believed it, as even at my current job, I spend far more time working with people from other buildings than with labmates. Now I have some ammunition to shoot back with!

As for the statement "we will never know exactly what prompts [innovation]", I think I have some insight. I've worked at 2 companies that were hotbeds of innovation. One was very large (3M) and one was very small (Aspen Research). The only common factor that I can see between the two was that they both hired good scientists and engineers with a wide range of backgrounds and let them interact with each other. 3M does this through their Tech Forum, an group of non-managerial technical people that provide a forum for researchers to present their research to the entire company through talks and semi-annual poster sessions.

Aspen had to take a different approach and that was by hiring intelligently. Aspen had about 20 chemists, engineers (chemical, aerospace, mechanical), physicists, metallurgists, etc., most with advanced degrees and ALL with over 20 years experience in multiple companies and industries. As a direct consequence, when it came time to brainstorm, I had to invite people with diverse backgrounds into the session. And the output showed the value of tapping this diversity. Crazy ideas came from all quarters [*], most of which died their well-deserved deaths, but the nuggets left behind made it all worthwhile. If it had been possible for me to pull together an equal-sized group of polymer chemists, the results would have been far, far less.

It's that simple. If you want innovation, get together a group of good scientists and engineers and let them interact. Whether it's the architectural approach of Bell Lab, the Tech Forum approach of 3M or the hiring technical diversity approach of Aspen Research, the result is the same.

[*] We use to say that it the brainstorming session wasn't over until someone had suggested an idea from Star Trek.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Making Plastic a Verb

I've never been a big Black Eyed Peas fan [*], but in a recent interview in The Guardian, said had some interesting thoughts about plastic waste that are close to what I've been saying for some time:
"The reason why a city doesn't recycle is because people don't see waste as a commodity. They see waste as waste. I was like wow, with the technology we have today it's only waste because we waste the opportunity to turn it into something else. So let's not recycle, let's upcycle."
As I stated in the not too distant past, the whole upcycle/downcycle concept is pretty meaningless, but the idea that waste is "...only waste because we waste the opportunity to turn it into something else" is very powerful.
"Let's make plastic a verb because right now plastic is a noun. Take a plastic bottle. Before it was plastic it was oil, before it was oil it was a living creature. Therefore it's not plastic at all. Plastic is a process, it's like a continuous reformation and transformation of an object. The brain is plastic; plasticity of the mind means your brain is always growing. If you go to the doctor and get plastic surgery they're not putting plastic on your nose, they're just altering it."
While you can argue that plastic is also an adjective, clearly understands the true meaning of the word plastic. Plastic deformation is an old concept from material science that dates back to the mid-17th century and refers to the ability of a material to have its shape altered. When synthetic polymers were being developed a hundred years ago, they had this properties in spades and so the name plastic was a natural fit for these novel materials. is taking it the next step and looking at the big picture that extends for eons.

There are a lot more interesting thoughts in the interview - I highly recommend reading it.

[*] Every time I see the name Will.I.Am, I keep wanting to follow it up with that old Chevy Chase line, "...and you're not".

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A New Chemistry Lab Building, But Without New Chemistry Jobs

It's just piles of dirt being moved around, but soon it will be a brand spanking new lab building for 700 technical people that should be finished in 2015.

Sadly, that does not mean that 700 new technical people are going to be hired. They already are employed, but will just being shifted around to the new building. One or more existing buildings will be razed after all the moving around is done.

Monday, October 28, 2013

SoBe, What Were You Thinking?

I can see environmentalists being angry with SoBe's latest ad campaign, as it plays on the old idea of "message in a bottle".
The only problem: SoBe's bottles are plastic. While SoBe is obviously not suggesting that people toss their plastic bottles in the ocean, the association is something that just should be avoided. Especially when it's one of the ads showing up on the Facebook page of an leading advocate fighting against ocean plastic, Stiv Wilson.

Unfortunately, the Huffington Post article cited above makes its own mistake using the picture on the right as representative of plastic in an ocean gyre. Ironically, it's almost too bad that the pollution isn't that bad. A scene such as this could be economically cleaned up and the recovered material could be reused to make some new products. Sadly, that is not the case with ocean plastic.

The picture on the left was take by Scripps Institute researchers and shows what plastic in an ocean gyre really looks like. It exists in such dilute concentrations (and such small particles) that economical recovery operations are just not feasible. Such a picture, despite being factually correct, makes it much tougher to sell the idea of pollution to the public. Presenting it as an "island of plastic" that is (twice) "the size of Texas" is much easier and brings out more revulsion from the public.

As I have said numerous times over the years, plastic waste has no business being in the ocean. The romantic, old idea of a message in a bottle does nothing to help matters and shows an insensitivity to a very large environmental issue, one that is a serious problem in its own right, but also one that decreases the public's respect for the plastics industry. SoBe really needs to rethink the ad.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Dear, Do These Jean Make My Butt Look Ultrahigh Molecular Weighty?"

In the never ending efforts to improve the fabrics of our lives (recall the earlier effort to make clothing photocatalytic, Plastemart reports (o.k., it looks like nothing more than a cut-and-paste job of a PR release) that Levi's jeans will soon be made incorporating ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fibers into the fabric. Arguably the strongest fibers in the world (at least on a per weight basis), these fibers should make for some pretty tough jeans.

I was first exposed to UHMWPE during grad school when I used it as part of my research. The production of the fibers with this resin is different than most fiber manufacturing processes, which simply extrude the molten plastic through a small circular hole and pull on it to orient and thin the fiber. Due to the very high molecular weight, such processing is well nigh impossible since the viscosity of the molten resin is too high and it would also undergo too much shear degradation. So an alternative method is employed: gel spinning. The resin is dispersed in a low viscosity liquid so it has 'gel-like' properties [*] which can easily be extruded and pulled thin. As the thinning is going on, the crystalliization expels the liquid leaving behind just the polymer. The liquid also helps lubricate the polymer chains so that orientation can be increased.

These fibers are going to show up in the Trooper styles of the 501 jeans. So nice time you get pulled over by a trooper for doing 50 in a 40, you can strike up a conversation about how strong his jeans look. Maybe he'll let you off.

[*] although it certainly doesn't meet the standards (either Flory's or IUPAC's) for being a gel.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Dog and Pony Show

I'm not going to be writing much today as we have a poster session in our lab in a few hours and there is still lots to clean and prep.

You may recall earlier in the year that I blogged once or twice that I was working in a new lab. New as in vacant lab space. New as in totally void of all supplies, equipment and chemicals. New as in nothing had been spilled and no foul odors had yet to be created.

That has all changed and we are fully operational turning out good results. We had an open house back in March to show off the new space and we are having another one today to show off to both our US and international colleagues what we are accomplishing. It should be a good, upbeat day.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Shale Gas - Biobased Chemicals New Best Friend?

I have to admit to thinking that the shale gas revolution would be trouble for any and all options of making monomers and other chemicals from biobased materials. With a suddenly-cheaper, petroleum-based feedstock, int would be a foul financial environment in which no new investments in biobased chemicals would be made and existing investments would possibly struggle to continue.

But a new paper suggests that not only might shale gas not hurt biobased chemicals production, but it might even be a boon to it. While the authors discuss a number of reasons why, this one plot is most telling:
I certainly knew that shale gas would go a long ways towards increasing ethylene production, but I had no idea that it would come at the expense of propylene and butadiene. And that's where biobased chemicals can make a difference. The authors discuss routes for biobased production not only of these chemicals, but other outputs as well (such as BTX) that are expected to become scarcer as more retrofitting is done to access shale gas rather than the traditional naptha feedstock.

There are enough specific companies named exploring these options that it is difficult to call this article a pie-in-the-sky dream radiating from an Ivory Tower. It does tend to focus on drop-in replacements for existing chemicals, which is both good and bad. Good in that it is easy to find markets for the outputs since these chemicals are commodities; bad in that it keeps us focused on using monomers (and other chemicals too!) that were the natural fallout of crackers, rather than those that are the natural fallout of biochemistry, such as furanics. Petroleum-based furanic-based polymers are terribly expensive, while those that are biobased are (or more correctly, have the potential) to be inexpensive, and we certainly haven't explored all the materials that we can make with these unique monomers.

Nonetheless, the idea that shale gas could help establish a biobased-chemical economy is a counterintuitive, but compelling idea. As the report states:
"It is often said that the Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones and that the age of oil will not end because we run out of fossil fuels. Ironically, one might indeed even think that the large-scale utilization of an unconventional fossil resource, such as shale gas, may usher in a new era of a more sustainable chemical industry that produces—at least in part—some of its main bulk chemicals from biomass."

Monday, October 21, 2013

Even More Pitch Experiments

While the Pitch Drop Experiment at the University is billed by both the Guinness Book of World Records and it's own webpage [1] as the longest running experiment, ScienceNews reported last week of other experiments that are similar in nature and one that is clearly the winner of the longest running experiment. I loved the article as I was not aware of any of these other experiments.

Two of the experiments are the design of Lord Kelvin. The first involves a layer of pitch in a shallow, broad dish. Corks were placed under the pitch and bullets were on top. Over time, the corks floated to the top and the bullets sank. What I find most fascinating was that this was used as a model for the now-deposed concept of aether which permeated the universe.
"Pitch was the only earthly material Kelvin knew of that could simultaneously behave as a solid and a fluid. He and other physicists of his era believed that a similar substance called the ether permeated the cosmos. Ether needed to be rigid enough to propagate rapidly oscillating light waves, yet fluid enough for planets and other objects to travel through it. Pitch was a great analog."
(The concept of aether was finally set aside for good when Einstein developed the concepts of relativity. While this experiment may have been the first time that rheology and cosmological physics crossed paths it wasn't the last. The same matrix calculations that Einstein developed for his Theory of Relativity are used today in many rheological equations.)

The second experiment, also attributed to Lord Kelvin, was an artificial glacier, in which pitch was placed at the top of a ramp and slowly crept down it over time, much how a glacier slowly flows down a moutainside or other slope.

But the last experiment described by ScienceNews tops all of this, even a couple of other experiments [2] that aren't mentioned.
"Despite its head start, the newly rediscovered 1914 pitch experiment in Wales has not produced a single drop. The funnel stem is about 80 millimeters long, Aberystwyth lab technician Stephen Fearn says, yet the pitch has descended a mere 6 millimeters in the century since physicist G.T.R. “Taffy” Evans set it up. At that rate, the pitch won’t emerge from the funnel — let alone form a drop — for another 1,300 years. It’s unclear what type of pitch Evans used and why it flows so slowly."
Obviously a much more viscous pitch, but still rheology trumps all as there is sufficient evidence from the last 99 years that it is flowing. As they say, "When the going gets tough, the tough get rheology".

[1] Be sure to check out the high res version!

[2] Including another one from Lord Kelvin - what was it with this guy and long-running experiments?

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Skin Off My Back

I've never posted a NSFW entry before, but after doing over a thousand posts, maybe I'm allowed a little slack. Don't worry; you'll have to scroll down a bit before you get to the fleshy parts. (Ooh, ooh! Tell me you can't wait! Just make sure you aren't reading this too close to your lunch hour. I don't want to be responsible for you losing either your appetite or your lunch. I told you it's not safe for work)

Last weekend, I was cleaning out the garage (or garage for those that speak British English) and I came across a box of 'work' stuff that I had forgot about. There were 2 things in particular in that box that caught my attention. One I will write about today (the fleshy one); the other will be written about in the future.

One more than one occasion (here and here), I've blogged about how at my previous employment gig, I literally gave the skin off my back to help with a client's project. The project was the development of a medical adhesive and the best way to test the performance of any medical adhesive is on human skin. The part of the human body most often used for testing is the back as it is large and fairly flat. And since asking for volunteers gets messy for a number of legal reasons [*], I had someone put strips of the new adhesive variations on my back and pull them off (using an Instron to measure the force). Some stuck more than others and some were rather painful; hence the skin off my back remark.

This is all well and good, yet I never submitted any proof to my readers that this actually occurred. But that box had a CD with pictures of the whole ordeal. And here they are.
My skin grew back of course, since it truly is a "SELF-HEALING" material (unlike what we saw yesterday).

The dynamics of this project were a little unusual. The client was buying an adhesive from a large corporation, one about a thousand times bigger in sales than us. The client loved the adhesive that I developed, but they never bought any from us. They just used it as leverage to get a price break from the big guy. So it goes.

[*]The Nuremburg Code, was developed after World War II and closely regulates human experimentation to ensure that all human subjects are voluntary and give informed consent.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Is This Really Self-Healing?

Self-healing materials are growing rapidly in popularity, at least as far as research topics go. I mentioned one example a couple of weeks back that was pretty impressive , but a new paper doesn't even come close to reaching what was achieved previously. (More on that in a minute)

From the well-respected Matyjaszewski group (a perennial candidate on Chembark's Nobel Prize predictions) comes this offering: "Introduction of self-healing properties into covalent polymer networks via the photodissociation of alkoxyamine junctions". The chemistry is also very trendy using not only ATRP (this is the Matyjaszewski groups after all) but also "click" chemistry [1] to build up a network with alkoxyamine junctions. The paper goes into extensive detail (lots of Electron Spin Resonance spectra) about how UV light can be used to breakdown the network thereby increasing the mobility of the chains so that additional UV light can be used to reform the network.

So I'm reading all of this, getting pretty excited until it is time to for the research to deliver the knockout punch - show me that this stuff self-heals! And for that, you get to see the set of photos on the right. The top set shows a "scratched" film [2], the second set shows the film after 2 hours of radiation, and the third shows the film after 24 hours of radiation. But that's all you get. No evidence that the mechanical strength of the film is x% of the original or anything else along those lines.

I don't think this paper was refereed very well. The chemistry aspects are all spot on, but when you are talking "self-healing", emphasis needs to be placed just as much on the mechanical properties and how much they recover after the healing is over with. This paper really falls short in that manner, and as I noted in footnote 2, it can be questioned if there was any damage that needed healing in the first place.

So is this polymer really self healing? At this point, I'm not convinced in the least.

[1] For crying out loud, polymer people, can we decide on what "click" chemistry is? Half the world wants it only refer to the the copper-catalyzed alkyne/azide cycloaddition reaction, (as is the case in this paper that I'm discussing) and the other half wants to include thiol-ene, Diels-Alder and a whole host of other reactions such as was originally proposed by Nobel Prize winner Sharpless. [†] I prefer the latter option myself, but more importantly, I prefer that we make a decision and stick with it.

[2] Scratched? They put 600 nm indentations into the film using an ATM in tapping mode! Scratched? Wouldn't compressed be a better word? I'm struck by how the "scratch" fills in from the bottom up (as you would expect from elastic rebound), even though the top of the coating receives the most light and should therefore heal faster. Maybe it is a scratch, but you better prove it, or at least make one in a more conventional manner that isn't open to questions.

[†] You don't suppose that the difference in usage is what sets off the Nobel Prize winner from the wannabe, do you?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Hiding behind Lawyers

We all hate lawyers. This is not a new feeling, but one that has existed for centuries. Shakespeare was the one who first wrote the popular saying "...let's kill all the lawyers" [1]. And so lawyers get blamed for many, many problems in society, often deservedly so.

But since it is easy to blame them for so much, it is also easy to overextend that blame. To hide behind them. To hide your weakness and lack of resolution. Doing this, in my mind, is worse than whatever else we blame on lawyers.

The bottom line is that if you hire a lawyer, they work FOR YOU; you do not work FOR THEM. You hired them; they did not hire you. As such, they are there to advise and counsel you, to use their experience and knowledge to guide you. But they are NOT there to make decisions for you, to make you say and not say certain things, to run you business for you...[2] Gather their input and that of others, mull it over and make a decision, but that decision is ultimately yours. You can try and say "My lawyer won't let me..." but that is a lie. That is a pathetic lie. That is you hiding behind your lawyer because you don't have the guts to come out and say that you made the decision yourself.

So when an apologist goes online to blames lawyers for the mishandling of the Scientific American blogging fiasco, that is just plain wrong. I'd be shocked if lawyers weren't involved to some degree, but it is still is the SciAm people who made the final decisions and they are the ones that need to be held accountable, not their lawyers.

[1] People will argue that this line is taken out of context. As it occurs in the play, revolutionaries are plotting to overthrow the king and see lawyers as part of the status quo standing in their way. Hence, if you like society, then the lawyers are good people keeping that society going and so it can be interpreted as a pro-lawyer comment. I disagree. Lawyers defend both sides (both pro- and anti-revolutionaries), so they cannot be seen as all good.

[2 ]We have all seen people testifying before Congress taking the 5th amendment, (that part of the US Constitution that gives us the right to not incriminate ourselves). Repeat after me: "On advice of counsel, I decline to answer that question..." What's that first part? "On advice of counsel..." That's right, the lawyer gave advice and the client took it and recognizes it for what it is - advice.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Turning Plastic Bags into Carbon Nanotubes

Researchers at The University of Adelaide have announced that they have a new process for making carbon nanotubes from plastic bags. This is all well and good, but you can probably anticipate the environmental "spin" that they will put on it:
" 'Non-biodegradable plastic bags are a serious menace to natural ecosystems and present a problem in terms of disposal,' says Professor Dusan Losic, ARC Future Fellow and Research Professor of Nanotechnology in the University's School of Chemical Engineering. 'Transforming these waste materials through 'nanotechnological recycling' provides a potential solution for minimising environmental pollution at the same time as producing high-added value products.' "
That wasn't too hard to predict, was it? Because we can now take your trash plastic bags and make something really valuable with them, people will be much more careful with disposing of them properly.

I am very skeptical as people easily could have reacted in such a pro-environmental manner when it was announced that the 2-D cousin of nanotubes - graphene - could be made from pretty much anything including chocolate, plastic, grass, dog poop, cockroach legs and even Girl Scout Cookies. But they didn't. And they won't now either.

It's a nice piece of research, but nothing earth shattering, or maybe more to the point here, nothing earth saving. At least they didn't mention this as a motivation for cleaning up the plastic in the ocean gyres.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Safety Glasses

While you know that I am a big supporter of wearing appropriate PPE when working with chemicals (remember this recent example where I had 8 different PPE's on me at one time), other people at the company where I work aren't. The company has decided to crack down.
I think this will work, unless you're feeling lucky...

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Preventing Oxygen Inhibition during Polymerizations

As chemists, we often work with oxygen sensitive materials and there are a variety of techniques for handling such materials. Today's post however, is about a slight variation of oxygen sensitivity - one where the reaction itself is oxygen sensitive, rather than the chemicals themselves.

Free-radical acrylate polymerization is a very common example. As a new review paper states,
"[Oxygen] may react with primary initiating (R•) or propagating radicals (P-M•) to form peroxyl radicals (POO•), which are not energetically favorable toward initiating acrylate polymerization. These peroxyl radicals tend instead to terminate polymerization through radical−radical recombination (forming peroxide bridges, POOP) or by abstracting hydrogen from an adjacent molecule (POO• + RH → POOH + R•), where often the newly formed radical (R•) has insufficient reactivity toward the acrylate double bond to reinstate the initiation process."
These issues are not a concern in traditional bulk polymerizations since the surface area contacting oxygen is very small, or the oxygen can easily be flushed from the reactor. For coatings on the other hand, the surface area becomes enormous and the impact of the inhibition - an uncured surface - cannot be ignored.

While the focus of the review paper is unnecessarily just on photoinitiated reactions (most of the schemes can be applied to any free-radical polymerization), the review does an excellent job of highlighting ALL the available options, covering both physical and chemical methods, including some options that I was previously unaware of such as the use of boranes and phosphines. This article will serve well as a reference for years to come.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

3 Small Bites

Some short thoughts about what I am reading elsewhere.
  • Retraction Watch noted that a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Polymer Science, "Drug release properties of poly(vinyl pyrrolidone)/acrylic acid copolymer hydrogels", was retracted as it was the third time that some of it had been published, a no-no if there ever one was. But I just wonder what the paper was REALLY about, since it had previously been published in places that I would never think to look for polymer research, the Arab Journal of Nuclear Sciences and Applications and also in Proceeding, 2nd International Conference on Radiation Sciences and Applications.
  • Gene Quinn of the IPWatchdog blog (a blog I highly recommend for anyone with an interest in patents [*]) last week discussed some surprisingly short claims that appear in recent applications, such as
    "Claim 1 from Application Serial No. 13/416,904:
    Asymmetrical 2,5-disubstituted-1,4-diaminobenzenes"
    According to the application, symmetrically substituted 1,4-diaminobenzenes are easy to come by; it's the asymmetric ones that are the challenge. I can't say otherwise, but I think I would have expanded the claims to include asymmetrically substituted diaminonathphalenes, anthracenes, and other polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
  • Ninesights has a request for a "Reduced Cost and Complexity Heating Plate" which is a laugher. They want this new heatplate to
    • Be applicable to plates between 5-10 inches in width and 10-20 inches in length
    • Work with 15 Amp, 115 Volt power (20 Amp is acceptable but not preferred
    • Provide uniform heat to the entire surface
    • Reach 300 F in 3 seconds or less
    • Be resistant to water, punctures and cutting by sharp objects
    • Be integrated with a power controller/temperature regulator that maintains 300 F when significant heat drain loads are placed on the plates
    • Presents a stainless steel surface
    15 Amps, 115 VAC will give you at absolute most 1.725 kJ/s of energy, which means you have to heat the entire plate up from RT to 149 C (a ΔT of about 127 K) with just 5.175 kJ of energy. Stainless steel has a heat capacity of 460 J/kg/K, so that means you can have no more than 88.6 g of stainless. Since the specific gravity of stainless is about 7.85, you have only 11.7 cm3 to work with. As the minimal area is 300 cm2, the thickness of the steel can be no more than 0.35 mm - foil for all practical purposes. And that means it will not be resistant to "punctures and cutting by shart objects". This also assumes that nothing else in the heating plate has any thermal mass at all. Any such mass will further reduce the thickness of the stainless. As will a power efficiency of less than 1. And energy losses to the external environment via conduction, convection AND radiation.

    Walt Disney famously said "It's kind of fun to do the impossible", but this is not what he had in mind. The conservation of energy and these undergraduate level calculations are spoiling the fun of a "Major Equipment Supplier". Gee, maybe there really is a STEM shortage. There appears to be one at this company.
[*] The blog is so good that other IP attorneys, including copywrite attorneys who should know better have copied entire columns and published them elsewhere without proper permission or even attribution. Gene doesn't like that. Gene takes action. Don't cross Gene.

Monday, October 07, 2013

1000 Posts

Somehow I've now written 999 post in just the last 7 years (minus 10 days). For my 1000th post, I'm going to look back at the blog through the eyes of Google Analytics. According to GA, the top 10 most viewed posts have been:
  1. I'm that Guy in which I confess to being the guy who's made it so difficult to open potato chip bags. This is the only post I've ever had that "went viral", as you will soon see by comparing the number of pageviews (45,658 pageviews)
  2. Swimming and Viscosity in which I take xkcd to task for assuming that adding gelatin to a swimming pool would slow down Michael Phelps (or anyone else for that matter) (12,448 pageviews)
  3. Bouncing Jello at 6200 frames/second which shows a pretty cool slo-mo video of bouncing jello (6,477 pageviews)
  4. Donuts which surprises me all the attention it has received since I only made a quick comment that the production operators running your experimental stuff are more productive with donuts (that you supply with your own money) readily available. (6,445 pageviews)
  5. A Monomer I won't Work With in which I discuss why I won't work with urushiol, the active ingredient of poison ivy, even though it makes incredibly beautiful coatings (4,683 pageviews)
  6. Peak Plastic? Not a Chance in which I emphatically disagree with Professor Chachra that we will ever see peak plastic. (She thought that since plastic is made from oil and since we will one day hit peak oil, then we will also hit peak plastic. A logical argument except that plastic can be and in fact already is made from things other than petroleum. Ooops! We may not be able to grow enough corn to replace all the oil that we use, but we can easily grow enough corn to replace all the plastic we use.) (4,334 pageviews)
  7. The Toughest Lesson from Grad School in which I discuss a mindset that my thesis adviser imparted on me to never stop thinking about pushing for more results from all experiments.(3,196 pageviews)
  8. The Largest Molecule in which I discuss molecules that are macroscopic in size and in some cases so big that you need a crane to lift them (only to then be trumped in the comment sections by astrophysical entities!) (3,004 pageviews)
  9. The Cox-Merz Rule Rules in which I profess my love for the Cox-Merz rule, that empirical relationship that allows us to take data from oscillatory shear measurements (in the lab) and apply them to non-oscillatory settings (real world processes) (2,677 pageviews)
  10. Rubber Gloves - They're Not All the Same in which I talk about how the ubiquitous nitrile glove may not be the best glove in all situations (2,476 pageviews) Sadly, because of the safety issues associated with this, the number of views needs to be much, much higher.
All told, there have been 450,397 pageviews. A goodly number to a non-blogger (Hi Mom!) but more about that in the coming days.

The audience has been worldwide, with the United States showing the most views (199960, which is about 44%), and with France coming in second (27005 pageviews), followed by the UK (23652 pageviews), China, Canada, Germany, the Ukraine, Australia, India and Belgium. Surprisingly, the English speaking countries were not in order of 1, 2, I write exclusively in English (other than the occasional Latin or German expression).

And what have I gotten from all of this? Well, just like when you referee a journal article, I can take all the money I've made from boggling plus 5 dollars and I can buy me a 5-dollar-footlong sandwich at the local Subway shop. Speaking of refereeing, the blog has given me enough visibility that I now actively refereeing articles for the Royal Society of Chemistry, something that I enjoy doing, but doubt that I would have been approached had I kept my silence within the corporate environment that I work in. I am honored by each and every request.

And speaking of corporate environments, this blog got started because the company that I worked for 7 years ago actually ACTIVELY supported its people participating in social media. I can't say that I ever had a client initiate a business deal with my previous employer because of the blog, but I do know that it helped seal the deal in many cases by providing credibility about my knowledge of polymers. It's totally difference with my current employer to whom social media really doesn't have much value. Except when it is done via their corporate outlets, all vetted by Legal department and ...

As I say in my bio on the homepage, these opinions are strictly my own. Any overlap between them and my employer must be considered an accident. To 1000 more!!!

Friday, October 04, 2013

The Effect of Ester Groups on Physical Properties

Compared to other areas of chemistry, predicting the impact of certain chemistries on the physical properties of a polymer is relatively easy. For instance, most undergraduate textbooks discuss how the length of a side arm alters the glass transition (Tg) of a polymer. Specifically looking at the various acrylate polymers, poly(methyl acrylate) has the highest Tg, while going to ethyl-, propyl-,... all the way to poly(octyl acrylate) you find ever decreasing Tg's. (A funny thing happens when you past octyl- to nonyl- and beyond; the side arms start crystallizing.) Another well understood phenomenon is adding ethylene oxide groups to the backbone to increase the flexibility of the polymer.

While these are considered fairly fundamental concepts, not all functional groups have been studied. That's why this new research,"From Polyethylene to Polyester: Influence of Ester Groups on the Physical Properties" caught my eye. What exactly is the impact of an ester group on the physical properties of a polymer?

While the article is behind a pay-per-view firewall, the abstract isn't, and this is one of those rare cases where the abstract tells you pretty much all you need to know. More ester groups decrease the melting temperature and the lamellar thickness of the crystals. What is somewhat surprising (maybe?) is how weak the effect is. Those numbers on the x-axis span a pretty large range, much larger than the simple methyl --> octyl example I gave earlier. But maybe that isn't so surprising. Had ester groups had a strong effect on polymers with an otherwise-saturated hydrocarbon backbone, someone would have noticed and documented it earlier.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Propylene in Space

The Cassini space probe, now orbiting Saturn, made unexpectedly huge waves in the news when it was announced that it had discovered propylene in Titan's atmosphere. What's the big deal with finding propylene? Nothing, nothing at all, other than as a scientific curiosity. So what's all the hoopla about? Because the press release, repeated ad infinitum without modification was that PLASTIC had been found in space. Here's some of the guilty parties:
Even more agencies ran with the "plastic in space" headline, only to later note (correctly) that propylene is not a plastic but on an ingredient in plastic.

But why all the fuss when the discovery of unsaturated hydrocarbons that are used in making plastic is old news. As Redorbit reported,
"The Voyager observations found all possible affiliates of the one- and two-carbon families in Titan’s atmosphere. However, the spacecraft only found propane and propyne from the three-carbon family, meaning the middle chemicals, including propylene, were missing."
So we already knew that ethylene, acetylene and propyne - all of which are polymerizable monomers - existed in Titan's atmosphere, at yet those materials were never called "PLASTIC IN SPACE". So why now with propylene?
" 'This measurement was very difficult to make because propylene’s weak signature is crowded by related chemicals with much stronger signals,' said Michael Flasar, Goddard scientist and principal investigator for CIRS."
Again, this is a scientific curiosity and nothing more.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Responding to Crackpots

Late last week, the New York Times Magazine had a Q & A regarding a scientist's obligation to respond to crackpots spreading pseudoscience and antiscience attitudes. The response was basically in 3 parts. First, if you encounter it directly in your job, confront it. Second, if you have a crackpot friend/family member/acquaintance who isn't really hurting anyone, then try at least once to correct their ways, but humor them thereafter. Third, if the crackpot now tries to spread their views to broader society, then you have to stop them.

If don't have a problem with the first two parts of the answer, but the third part is problematic. First, crackpotiness is not a binary state, but rather a continuum. John Baez has posted an Crackpot Index (as have others) with the output being a number. Some crackpots are going to score higher than others, so that should figure into how to respond to your crackpot neighbor. I would suggest that the urgency to respond is not linear with the degree of crackiness, as top of the scale crackpots are so goofy that most people won't take them seriously at all. It's the crackpots in the middle, the ones that are still sane enough most of the time that have the credibility to be taken more seriously.

The sentence "Now, that responsibility changes if the misinformation starts to spill into the rest of society" creates a huge burden for scientists. While the examples given (preventing them from teaching a 2nd grade class about unicorn, etc.) are pretty simple, society isn't just limited to our local geography which is what the additional examples in the Q & A are. More than ever, crackpots are posting their ideas on the web and interacting with others with similar ideas. Since the web is clearly "the rest of society", are we now burdened with the charge to respond to every site? To try and shut the sites down?

Beside reeking of censorship, this approach would be fairly ineffective at best. Crackpots revel in the idea of their lone genius taking on the whole world, and so taking aggressive attitude against them only spurs them on. And it is very rare that logic and facts could ever change their minds. Crackpots are people who have fallen in love with an idea and continue to seek facts to support it rather than question it anew. Something that even scientists (at times) are equally culpable of.

My advice would be to confront crackpots to follow the first 2 parts of the advice columns answer, but as for crackpots in broader society, confront them as you wish, but realize that you will be unable to change their minds. Put some effort into, but don't feel obligated to respond to anyone that you encounter. The reward is too little for the effort exerted.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

A New Self Healing Polymer of Interest

Now that I'm above ground again and my belly is against the bench, I have some time to get caught up on the recent flurry of research publications making the news.Tromping around in a mine is fun for a few days, but it's not something I would want to do my entire career. A tip of the hard hat to those that choose otherwise and provided us with most of the naturally occuring elements of the periodic table.

A few weeks ago, Spanish researchers made a splash with their discovery of a elastomer that self-heals at room temperature without the use of catalysts or other activating agents. It makes use of the lability of disulfide bonds. Sulfur-sulfur bonds are well known to be constantly breaking and reforming, so by incorporating them as crosslinking sites, the surfaces of a cut polymer can actively rejoin over time.

While there was a lot of hype surrounding this (calling in a "Terminator polymer" being the least of my issues with the hype), we do need to recognize that polymers that self heal at room temperature have been reported before. I discussed one such example based on poly(vinyl alcohol) not quite a year ago.

There are some significant differences between these two polymers however. The former recovers a whopping 97% of it's mechanical properties within 24 hours, while the latter system after 48 hours had recovered only 80% of its original properties. (Not that either of those 2 data are anything to complain about). The mechanisms for the self-healing are entirely different. The former system reforms covalent bonds, while the latter is based on the interdiffusion of polymer chains. However, the research does show that this new systems does rely on interdiffusion of the polymer chains do a goodly degree. A control polymer made without the disulfide crosslinker was able to recover nearly 50% of its mechanical properties, showing that the disulfide bonds are responsible for only that additional 47 percentage points and not the full 97.

Regardless, this is an exciting revelation, one that is easy to incorporate into polyurethanes and polyureas as was shown here. Incorporation into other polymer systems such as polyamides should also be possible. Acrylates? The free radicals might just take a not-so-innocent liking to the disulfide bonds. Other systems are left for the interested student.