Long-time readers of this blog may recall that I spent a good deal of time with my previous employer working with thiol-ene chemistry. I really loved working with that chemistry - it was very fast and versatile, although my wife never enjoyed the experience of handling my cloths at the end of the day. Upon changing jobs a year and a half ago, I've set those malodorous chemicals aside and moved on to other monomers. These new monomers are apparently lightly scented, but I always question why someone would be sniffing them at all. You see, I'm now working with isocyanates to make polyurethanes and polyurea coatings and those aren't chemicals you shouldn't be smelling as you are probably being exposed to too high a level of them.
Isocyanates present a unique hazard to the polymer chemist - sensitization of the skins and lungs to the chemicals. Akin to an allergic reaction, once you are sensitized, you respond to increasingly smaller levels of exposure [*]. While skin sensitization is (merely) a rash, lung sensitization can induce horrible breathing problems and in extreme cases, death. Contrast that with the diamines used to make polyureas. They are corrosive and burn your skin, eyes and whatever else they contact, but that is pretty much the end of the story. You can march back into the lab the next day and carry on (albeit being more careful than before). But get sensitized to isocyanates and you are done working with them for the rest of your life. That's a risk for me and anyone working for me that always leaves me wondering whether it is justified. Fortunately, good PPE exists now that allows us to manage those risks.
Another way to manage the risk is to eliminate the use of isocyanates altogether, typically by reacting a cyclic carbonate with an diol or diamine such as is seen here:Innovations in Polyurethanes blog may change all that and best of all it does so by using my old love, thiol-ene chemistry. As is seen below, by starting with a vinyl-substituted cyclic carbonate, a dithiol (or trithiol or tetrathiol...) can react with that moiety to quickly and easily produce a difunctional cyclic carbonate, ready for polymerization.published online some new research showing how cyclic carbonates can be made from unsaturated fatty acids and how they can be dimerized by...thiol-ene chemistry:
[*] But the analogy stops there. Sensitization is not an allergic reaction. An allergic reaction produces a flood of histamines in your body, hence the application of antihistamines. Those medicines are useless for combating isocyanate sensitization.