Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dow Chemical Keeps Plodding Along and Silencing Critics

Dow Chemical has posted another good quarter of results and that goodness again included the plastics segment. You may recall that just over 3 months ago, Daniel Loeb, an activist investor, took up a nice share in the company and got the attention of Dow’s CEO, Andrew Liveris by writing an open letter stating that the plastics segment was a huge drag on Dow’s stock and should be sold off.

YOU get a new plastic and YOU get a new plastic - YOU ALL get new plastic!
Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical
Timing can often be everything, and it was so in that case. A week later, Dow announced a huge increase in sales and profits, led by – you guess it – the plastics segment. I would have thought Mr. Loeb would be busy wiping egg off his face, but he apparently was still able to meet with Liveris several times. After this quarter’s repeat performance, Liveris stated during the conference call with Wall Street analysts that Loeb had helped the company realize that increased “transparency” was a good thing, but as for selling off the plastics segment, that is still a no-go.

I take this as Dow being intelligently diplomatic, allowing Loeb to save some face in the public eye. A smart choice, even though it would have been tempting to follow this up with some strong taunting. As David Frost said, "Diplomacy is the art of letting somebody else have your way." I suspect that Dow is now hoping that Loeb will quietly slink away into the night, taking whatever profit with him that he “earned”. I can’t imagine that Liveris will be granting him another audience anytime soon.

Previous Years
April 30, 2012 - Another Set of Rants about a Rejected SBIR Grant

April 30, 2010 - Natureworks

April 30, 2010 - This Changes Everything!

April 30, 2009 - Skip the ER for potential heart attacks and find a spectroscopist instead

April 30, 2009 - This isn't even peer-reviewed

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Drop Not Heard Around the World

Without a lot of fanfare, the 9th pitch drop from the famous University of Queensland pitch drop experiment “fell” last week. Widely anticipated for over a year, the rheological event of the decade, and webcast in high def, the actual event was a seriously disappointing non-event.

While too many people claim that the drop fell, it really didn’t. At least not in the traditional sense.

Back on April 17th, the 9th drop made contact with the 8th drop that was still in the collection beaker. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, the staff at Queensland had already decided that when that occurred, they would remove the previous drops out of the way. And in doing so, Mr. Murphy decided to show up as a wobbly stand which resulted in the 9th drop prematurely breaking off. So while it did in fact drop, it was assisted by humans in a most unnatural manner.

They could have let the drop continue to fall – contact would do nothing to stop the flow anymore than water falling in a fountain is stopped by the water already in the base. The contact would have only slowed the time for the drop to actually break free, but it would not have prevented it.

So what else is there to do but be truthfully honest about it, mark the time that it occurred and more on. (I can just imagine a student writing this up as part of a lab report. “We tried to move the other drops out of the way but my dog bumped the stand and so…”) However, there is an upside to this result. As the University notes on its non-announcement announcement page, this drip will be the first recorded drop to start from a clean break. It will initially have the diameter of the outlet, but over time, the surface tension will force it into the deformed spherical end that we have stared at for so long. That should be fascinating to see develop over time.

But at the same time, I am greatly disappointed by this result and that the University isn’t doing more to straighten out the nonsense on the internet about the drop being broken off. The main webpage should have this information front and center, not buried on another page at the site. They needed 3 dedicated webcams just to show someone come in and knock the thread of pitch off?

Previous Years
April 28, 2013 - Sometimes the Best Reactions are Those that don't Run

April 28, 2011 - Bicycles - Old and New

April 28, 2010 - Phosphates in Life

April 28, 2013 - It's "Peer Reviewed", so It's gotta be right

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Museum of Design in Plastics

Doug Loeb of the Plastics News blog recently highlighted the Mueseum of Design in Plastics. The museum is located in Bournemouth, England and has images of much of their collection online. I am amazed by what good condition so many of the pieces are in. As we all know, plastics allow for some innovative design possibilities, but even a great design doesn't mean commercial success so there are lots of objects made during the last 80+ years, and unfortunately, the stories behind too many of these pieces have become lost.

Zhero Gravity shoes
So the museum is asking for help in identifying many of these objects. They even have a Top 10 "cold cases" page, featuring amongst other objects, the soccer/football shoes shown on the right. As Doug warned on his post, don't go to this site unless you have a lot of time to kill. It is very addicting.

Previous Years
April 24, 2013 - Hurricanes, Earthquakes and the Rheology of Water

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

From Pine Stumps to Polymers

A couple of days ago, one of the Xerox company blogs [*] had a post about making plastics from tree stumps. While tree stumps have yet to be fully exploited as a chemical feedstock, they have been partially used for decades to support the polymer industry. In particular, the rosin from pine stumps has been extensively used.

20+ years ago it seemed like every paper company had a chemicals division that was doing just, refining and modifying rosin from pine stumps to make tackifiers for pressure-sensitive adhesives, fluxes for solder, inks and toners, and much more. Consolidation of the broader chemical industry has been mirrored in the rosin industry. Many of the manufacturer's names from long ago are gone but the tradenames (Foral, Zonarez) are still around.

Abietic Acid
The largest component of rosin is abietic and similar acids. This can then be hydrogenated to increase the stability against oxidation, or esterified with a wide range of mono, di-, tri and tetra-ols. The new products then melt at a variety of temperatures. Despite these modifications however, the end product still has that sticky pine sap feeling. Once you get it on your fingers, you're not getting it off anytime soon.

While there is an ever increasing interest in biosourcing as many chemicals as possible, the rosin industry has been doing so for decades. Using these chemicals in polymers is hardly a recent conversion to green technology that might be implied.

[*] Yes, Xerox is still around.

Previous Years
April 23, 2012 - Can You Lift A Polymer From One End?

April 23, 2010 - Fito-Lays' PLA Bag

April 23, 2010 - Can't Tell the Players Without a Scorecard

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Week That Was(n't)

As some of you noticed, this blog was absent last week, as in completely inaccessible as the domain had expired. But it's back. Here's a brief explanation of what happened to those who were curious.

I publish this blog via Blogger/Blogspot which was acquired by Google some year back. Rather than having the blog URL be, for the low, low price of $10 a year I registered through Google for the domain name I put the billing on a credit card with autorenewal. That credit card however, is the same one that I use to shop at Target with. Target is a nationwide chains of everything-under-one roof store that has local headquarters - an upscale Walmart if you will. My family has been shopping at Target since they first opened in 1962 and we often joke about the $100 toothbrush we get there - you go into the store for a toothbrush and before you know it, you also have toilet paper, laundry detergent, lightbulbs and yogurt, etc. - plus a $100 tab at the checkout.

So when Target announced in January that their computers had been hacked and that 80 million US users credit card information was at risk, I got a new card. But I never updated the Google account until I started getting emails. The emails noted that I needed to login using my admin account. Admin account? What was that? I've been logging in forever and a day with another account and had no idea what my admin account was. Trying to get help from Google for fixing a free account was quite a problem too, but I eventually succeeded as you see.

Compounding all this was a double dose of bad timing. The day my blog went AWOL was the morning that my company started their annual internal showcase event, a massive poster session lasting 2 days with 4000 attendees from around the world. I was fortunate enough to have a poster to present and a killer demonstration (as Michael Martin Murphy sang in "Cherokee Fiddle", If you want to make a living you got to put on a good show). If any one was foolish enough to make eye contact with me, I waved into my division's booth, wowed them with the demo and then passed them on to my colleagues. It was a great show, but exhausting especially for an introvert. I got pumped up with Joe Satriani in the car on the way in and didn't dare turn on the radio on the way home. Nothing but silence.

And then it was the Easter weekend for good measure.

I got a call from a Google rep this morning and everything is now fixed and should be going forward. I'll get back to the polymer stuff tomorrow.

Previous Years
April 21, 2011 - Small is not Necessarily Better (with Plastics)

April 21, 2010 - Visible Light Photocatalysis - Even in the Dark

April 21, 2009 - The Double-Edged Sword of UV Light

Monday, April 14, 2014

Ketchup Rheology Video

I've discussed ketchup rheology a couple of times in the past (1, 2), but a new TedEd video really does a great job of visually showing the rheology and also getting into some of the details.

Early in the project I had a few emails back and forth with George Zaidan, one of the creators. He's has a great talent for writing scripts, so much so that I have forever sworn off even attempting to ever write one. You can read his writing and easily imagine the finished product - that's quite a skill. I've read screenplays out of Hollywood [*] that aren't anywhere near the quality.

Check out the video when you have 4:29 to spare.

[*] I have this friend who knows this guy who acted with...who got me the script for this movie. I had my people call his people so we could do lunch, but we never could DeNiro to show up and so the whole project fell through. (The first sentence is entirely true. The verity of the second one is left as an exercise to the reader.)

Previous Years
April 14, 2011 - What's In a Name? Marketing Gobbledygook

April 14, 2011 - On the Move

April 14, 2010 - Modulation

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tell Me What You Really Feel

Brutal honesty makes for shocking conversation, and even more so when it comes from a politician (after all, they are permanently running for re-election). Diane Savino, a state senator from New York recently let loose on a proposal in New York City to charge 10 cents for plastic bags at the checkout, with people on public assistance being exempt from the charge. And she did it on Facebook for all the world to see.
"i have already called my councilman and told him to vote NO. it is not the 10 cents a bag, although, exempting those on Public Assistance is absurd and insulting to the rest of us. if good Environmental policy is to work, it requires an all in mentality. we don't exempt those of limited means from paying the 5 cent deposit on bottles and cans, do we? now don't bet me started on the Bottle Bill, but at least the approach is consistent to all. if you don't want the plastic bags, ban them, don't make us pay for them. as for allowing the retailers to keep the 10 cents so they will "invest" in paper and reusables, please! ban the bags, and that will happen overnight and that will lead to greater compliance. not some half-assed, feel good, limousine liberal approach! there i feel better now."
I'll bet you do!

(All typos are in the original source. I thought about [sic]-ing them, but it would have led to a thoroughly unreadable quote. This was a Ctrl-A,Ctrl-C,Ctrl-V cut-and-paste.)

I do agree that letting the retailers keep the 10 cents is a bad idea. For the store buying bags, plastics ones are cheaper than paper, hence their widespread use and the resistance by retailers to the bans and fees. I don't see how letting the retailers keep the money would provide any incentive at all for them to invest in paper and reusables. The bags themselves usually cost less than 10 cents, so now the consumers are paying for the bags and the retailers are literally profiting from them.

Previous Years
April 10, 2013 - A Hodgepodge of Rheology and Polymer Matters

April 10, 2012 - Potpourri

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Those Rich Petroleum Engineers

The Wall Street Journal yesterday had a poorly written opinion piece that was a mix of odds and ends that never really seemed to find its stride. The overall message is something of the following: petroleum engineering jobs are paying extremely well ($97,000 starting) but most schools are doing research on alternative energies and are brainwashing students not to go into petroleum engineering. Or since many schools don't offer that major, the students are also being guided away from what the author thought was alternative majors, such as Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences?!? I told you it was a bad opinion piece. Chemical Engineering is the traditional alternative to petroleum engineering, not Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Lots of schools offer chemical engineering. It's a very popular major and showing no signs of dropping off, but saying that wouldn't help the author make whatever thin argument he was trying to stretch for.

Overlooking completely the implications
  1. that colleges should be guiding students to the most lucrative careers
  2. that research grants for improving petroleum processing are non-existent
  3. that research grants for alternative energy research are much more available
let me use this article as a platform to make a simple prediction about that shockingly high starting salary:

It's only going to get higher.

Whether or not the environmental movement is controlling this, that or the other thing, the petroleum industry is not going to go away anytime soon. While alternatives exist, they are nowhere near effective enough to replace the petroleum we are using, in large part because the magnitude of the world's energy needs is almost incomprehensibly large. You can put a number on it with a huge row of zeros, and as technical people we can say yes, that is a large number, but it is too large to really have a feel for what it means. So consider this anecdote instead: Drilling offshore oil wells is much more expensive than on land. Everything is far more difficult, the equipment is constantly corroding in the salt water. The ships used to drill the wells rent for $1 million a day and it can take a week or more to complete one well. Yet no oil company (independent or national) wants to stop making the investments. "Drill baby! Drill" is the battle cry.

Since the petroleum industry is not disappearing anytime soon and fewer people are apparently looking at petroleum engineering as a career, it makes it pretty easy to see that salaries are only going to go up. There is no choice. The industry needs the people and they can pay more to get them (and pass the costs onto you!).

I'm not opposing research into alternatives at all. At some point, they will play a critical role, but not yet, not any time soon.

Previous Years
April 9, 2013 - Can We All Get Along?

April 9, 2012 - Poor Posed Concerns About Chemical Safety

April 9, 2010 - A Neat New Set of Solvents

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The System Actually Works

Once people start distrusting the government, it is difficult to get them to reconsider, but this might: PlasticsNews is reporting that the Environmental Portection Agency (EPA) has told a New Jersey company to stop selling food containers with nanoparticles of silver in it.

The company had not registered the pesticide with the EPA as they were required to. "Part of the registration process is qualifying that a product does not put human health at risk when used as it is intended...".

It's pretty incredible isn't it, that the government actually wants manufacturers of food packaging products to establish that their products are safe. This must be a first. We all know how unsafe plastic containers are for food. Maybe the government will start looking at all materials that contact food.

For the sarcastically challenged (or for the readers for whom English is not their native language), the last paragraph was entirely satire. The FDA already takes a serious look at all materials that are designed to contact food. Getting approval for direct and indirect food contact for a new plastic is no piece of cake. I know. I've tried and have the bruises and grey hairs for the effort. And they do consider that people are going to save and reuse containers, put them in microwaves, fridges, freezers, maybe even ovens and boiling water and... If this company wants to keep making this packaging, they have a long road of testing in front of them. I see this as good news, that the system is actually working as it is suppose to, but for those that are cynically distrustful of the government, this will do little to change their minds.

Previous Years
April 8, 2011 - Time to School the Chemists

April 8, 2010 - A Proud Moment

April 8, 2010 - ANTEC Presentation

Friday, April 04, 2014

The Big 6 Plastics

Compared to the chemical industry, the polymer industrial is pretty undiversified. Just 6 polymers, high density polyethylene (HDPE), low density polyethylene (LDPE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) dominate the industry. Those six polymers combined make up 76% of all polymers produced. 76%! While the exact number of commercial polymers isn't real well established (the number 60,000 seems to keep popping up), the industry is as clear violation of Pareto's 80/20 rule rule as there ever was.

That dominance really boggles the mind. Imagine if chemistry were dominated that much by just 6 chemicals. That might be a good description of what the chemical industry was like 150 or 200 years ago. And yet that dominance has never directly affected me. I've never worked in the production of any of those 6, (and I've only met one person in my 25-year career who did) which means that I'm a 24%-er who's worked with the other 59,994 polymer chemistries (or at least a fraction of them). And that is more than enough of a playground to keep me going for another 2500 years.

But that other 24% is also where it is easiest to create new polymers of commercial value. Think you can devise a new polymer (especially a "green" biobased polymer) to displace anyone of the big 6? Think again. Those polymers are a permanent part of the landscape. It is a certainty that in the future the monomers will become biobased and fed into the same reactors rather than a novel polymer displacing any one of them. For instance, ethylene can already be made from by removing water from biobased ethanol and there is strong research into creation of biobased PET and PP monomers. No, the Big 6 Plastics are not going away anytime so.

Previous Years
April 4, 2013 - Venn Diagrams for Rheologists

April 4, 2013 - Plastics company finding a lack of math skills in job applicants

April 4, 2012 - BPA lives to fight another day

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

That Tiny Little Company Called ExxonMobil

Somehow by accident, I ran across this anti-petroleum website yesterday with the screaming headline of "Exxon to World: Drop Dead". It goes on to say:
"ExxonMobil is saying it doesn’t believe governments will keep their internationally agreed commitments to limit climate change to safe levels. This should not come as any surprise. Of course they don’t believe governments are going to address climate change adequately — they are in fact betting billions on the failure of climate and clean energy policy. And they’re shoring up their bet by buying politicians and spending millions to sow doubt and promote inaction."
I'm not here to defend ExxonMobil, but merely here to show how little a massive company like ExxonMobil is, but more importantly, how believing that they're "buying" of politicians is also of little consequence to the world.

The reason that owning politicians is of such little consequence is that most of the oil reserves in the world are own not by ExxonMobil, BP and all the other supermajors, but instead by National Oil Companies (NOCs) - Saudi Aramco tops the list, followed by the National Iranian Oil Company, Qatar Petroleum, the Iraq National Oil Company, Petroleum of Venezuela, the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Pemex (Mexico), the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, the National Oil Company of Libya and then Sonatrach of Algeria rounds out the top 10. (Source). ExxonMobil is nowhere on the list. And since since these are all government owned companies, there is no need for ExxonMobil or anyone else to "buy" government influence - the governments and the oil companies are one and the same. According to the World Bank, NOCs accounted for 75% global oil production and controlled 90% of proven oil reserves in 2010.

So ExxonMobil can literally tell the world to drop dead and it can own every single politician in the country and nothing is going to change. Or going the other way, it can go into Chapter 7 bankruptcy with its assets sold at 99% discount and nothing is going to change. ExxonMobil used to be the 900-lb. gorilla that no one could ignore and that everyone could blame all the world's problems on, but that isn't true anymore. It's still plenty big, it's still the largest of the independent oil companies, but it's just a tiny player in a massive, massive game.

Previous Years
April 2, 2013 - Improving Control over Polymerizations

April 2, 2009 - Hydrogels vs. Maggots

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Big Announcement

Enough of this Minnesota stuff. This winter was just too long and too cold, so I've decided to hang it up and go south permanently. Not to Iowa. Not to Texas, but further yet. Not to Mexico, or Venezuela, but further yet. To Brazil, and Rio de Janeiro in particular. And with the move, the name of the blog is changing too. From here on out, "It's the Rheo Thing" will now become "It's the Rio Thing".

And that means no more writeups on polymers, rheology, polymer chemistry and anything else technical. I'm now going to be covering Brazilian culture. Whether it's the hottest Axé band, the coolest Caipirinha drink or even the upcoming World Cup (and the 2016 Summer Olympics), this will be the one blog to turn to for all my thoughts on the latest news out of Brazil.
Carnival Outfit
When is Carnival?

And since Portuguese is the national language of Brazil, vou começar a escrever nele. E eu vou agora dizer-lhe que esta é uma piada de abril. O calor do Brasil ao longo do Minnesota é certamente atraente, a música seria ótimo (minha esposa tem este CD Banda Eva (Ao Vivo), que é tão animado e divertido que você quer saber como é que alguém no Brasil poderia ser triste), mas eu realmente don 't conheço nenhum português e que é muito grande barreira para o movimento. Espero que você goste da brincadeira. Eu tive um tempo divertido criá-la.

Isso tudo foi traduzido pelo Google translate página, então se é mal feito e tem algumas observações insultuosas nele, peço desculpas.

Previous Years

April 1, 2013 - An Open Letter to Justin Bieber

April 1, 2012 - the Trump Journal of Science

April 1, 2011 - Polly Mer Announces Presidential Run

April 1, 2010 - BPA - The Shocking Truth Revealed!!!

April 1, 2009 - Stimulus Bill Backfires - Bans All Plastics