Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Response to the NY Times: "Choking the Oceans with Plastic"

The New York Times had an editorial on Monday by Captain Charles S. Moore, a long-time, outspoken advocate for raising awareness of plastic pollution in the ocean gyres. The editorial tells of the plastic pollution that he observed during his latest trip in the Pacific. While I do not doubt the veracity of his anecdotes, Moore uses a small subset of his observations to portray a wholly inaccurate image of what the pollution is like in the gyres in the Pacific and other oceans.

Throughout the editorial, Moore attempts to paint an image that all this pollution is concentrated together in a large mass. The sad reality is the pollution in the gyres is a very dilute soup made up of mostly small pieces of plastic, most less than 2/10th of an inch across. I say sad, as that very dilution is what makes recovery of these plastics impossible. The lack of concentration makes recovery not only economically unfeasible but even more challenging is that any attempt to filter these pieces from the ocean would also result in the removal of plankton and other small forms of sea life, potentially creating a larger problem than that of the plastic itself.

Moore’s imagery is created by using inaccurate words such as “glutinous” to describe the accumulation zones, and by describing a unique large collection of buoys from oyster aquaculture as an “island” that could be walked upon. Were these collections of pollution that large and concentrated, satellite image of these atolls would be readily available. The absence of these photos is proof that such “islands” do not exist in the gyres.

Moore also observed an “enormous increase in the quantity of plastic waste since my last trip in 2009.” This finding is inconsistent with a recent study showing that the amount of plastic in the oceans is remaining constant.

Moore also makes a large number of inaccurate statements regarding plastic processing in just a few sentences: “Plastics are a nightmare to recycle. They are very hard to clean. They can melt at low temperatures, so impurities are not vaporized.” Plastics are hardly a nightmare to recycle. The demand for recycled plastics is outstripping the supply resulting in ever increasing prices for them. Recycled plastics are so valuable that their theft is a common occurrence. Indeed, the Los Angeles Police Department has a 5-member task force specializing in just the theft of plastics.

With the exception of agricultural plastics that are heavily soiled, few recyclers complain of dirty, uncleanable plastics. While plastics do melt at temperatures lower than that needed for melting metals, the organics volatiles in the plastics are easily vaporized at the processing temperatures used. This is in fact, not desired as the volatiles can include antioxidants and other chemicals used to protect the plastics from rapid degradation over their lifetime. As they are lost, additional amounts of these additives are needed to replace what was lost.

All of these exaggerations and misstatements of Moore will do nothing to solve to problem of pollution in the ocean and only lead to a loss of credibility. His well-documented biases show a lack of the objectively needed to address the problem in the honest manner. Pushing for more bag bans will not solve the problem.

In the end, the problem will be solved by what was proposed in the closing line of the editorial: We need to “shut off the flow of plastic to the sea”. Finally, that is something we both can agree on.

Previous Years

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Ebola outbreak would be so much worse without plastics

There are a lot of dangerous jobs in the Ebola hot zone right now, but the possible worse job would be that of handling the bodies of those that have just died. Despite the general recommendation to avoid touching people with the disease, these bodies do need to be handled in order to dispose of them without furthering the spread of the disease. And the only safe way to do that is by using plastics and polymeric materials to encase the corpse and protect the workers. A recent Buzzfeed article highlights the dangers faced.

Just looking at the article's photograph shows that the PPE being used is all polymeric. Goggles with elastomeric straps, a Tyvek suit, a mocked up respirator and nitrile gloves are all polymers. The corpses are placed in polyethylene bags. It's hard to imagine how much worse the outbreak would be without all of those polymers.

While single-use plastics are readily picked on by various advocates, their use is seldom challenged is healthcare, and this particular outbreak really emphasizes their need.

Previous Years
August 26, 2011 - Diary of a Summer Intern

August 26, 2010 - Scanning Plastic Films for Defects

August 26, 2010 - Grammar

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why is recycling plastics so confusing?

The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) has a blog called "In the Hopper" which just yesterday had a nice review of the history of the SPI recycling codes, those little symbols with the numbers 1 through 7 and the chasing arrows.
SPI Recycling Codes
The blog also discusses the confusion that the public has over the symbols, something that I have been baffled by in the past.

What always seems to be missing from these discussion about recycling confusion however, is any mention that all plastic recycling is local. Even here in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, two cities that share miles of a common border, there are significant differences between the cities on what can and cannot be recycled. Throw in the several dozen suburbs around the core cities and you have an even bigger patchwork of regulations. That means that if a local TV station says that everyone can recycle polystyrene food containers in their collection bins, they are adding to the confusion. And so when a national site like the Huffington Post gives out one-size-fits-all advice on recycling plastics, it only adds to the confusion.

The message that cannot be repeated enough is that all recycling is local, so check with your city/county to find out what applies to you.

While doing this will clear up the confusion about what can and cannot be recycled, it won't clear up the confusion of this older women who had her own unique interpretion of what the chasing arrows meant. I still get a laugh every time I think about that dinner.

Previous Years
August 20, 2012 - Cleaning Up the Lab

August 20, 2010 - Plastic in the Oceans

August 20, 2010 - Preventing Spam on this Blog

August 20, 2009 - Potpurri

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Death Ray returns to my backyard

Back in February I wrote about the Death Ray that I had in my back yard. This Death Ray is formed from sunlight reflecting off of the curved panes of glass on the south facing windows of the house. Back in February, the curvature concentrated the sunlight enough that it could melt snow, even though the sun was fairly low in the sky and the air temperature was only 10 oF.

6 months later, the Death Ray has returned. Now that the weather here in Minnesota has gone from extremely wet (and cloudy) to extremely dry and sunny, the Death Ray is wreaking havoc on areas in my lawn. Here is picture taken from a similar location to the ones I shot last winter:
This is looking to the west and the sun is off frame to the upper left. The sunlight is coming down from there, reflecting off the windows and hitting the grass. While the overall lawn is not especially green due to the lack of rain, it is scorched in the area encircled in red, and the unusual lines are tipoff to the cause.

In this next photo, the encircled area on the right has a bright caustic in it where the sunlight is concentrated after reflecting off the window:
You can block the sunlight that is directly hitting that area and the caustic is still visible since it is coming from the right while the direct sunlight is coming from the left. The encircled area on the left shows the path that another caustic traced out recently.

Back in February, Chemjobber suggested that I build a snowman in the path of the Death Ray, ala "Goldfinger". While I would love to have the Death Ray eliminate weeds in the yard, that area is devoid of any. Crabgrass and broadleaf weeds are easily eliminated via modern agrochemicals, and the quackgrass invading my yard, for which chemistry has no answer just yet, is well removed from this spot. Maybe some sundried tomatoes? It's a great idea, but there is nothing diabolical about it.

Previous Years
August 19, 2013 - Defects in Crystalline Polymers - Part 1

August 19, 2010 - Updating Your Resume

August 19, 2009 - What I did for my summer vacation

Monday, August 18, 2014

9 Activities that BOTH Academic Researchers and Industrial Researchers Perform

Once again, another tired editorial from another academic editor, which much like a previous editorial from another academic bemoans the difficulties of finding academic peer reviewers for their journals (and grant proposals).

I've suggested in the past that journals branch out to industrial researchers as we not only outnumber academic researchers by a factor likely on the order of 25, but we are still not close to being tapped out. But what is even more maddening about this editorial is that it implies that there are certain things that only academic researchers do and that industrial researchers don't participate in activities at all. That needs correcting. So here is a short list of activities that are undertaken not just by academic researchers, but also industrial researchers.
  1. Write research papers
  2. Review research papers
  3. Attend technical conferences
  4. Present papers and posters at technical conferences
  5. Write grant proposals
  6. Review grant proposals
  7. Teach university classes
  8. Give seminars at universities
  9. Serve as editors for technical journals
Personally speaking, I've written and reviewed research papers, attended technical conferences, presented both posters and papers at technical conferences and written grant proposals (and had them shot down too). I've not done the last 4 items yet, but they are on my bucket list and I would welcome any opportunities when they arise.

So please, enough of the "academics only" attitude. If you can't find peer reviewers or only find ones that are too busy, it's because you are ignoring the great number of industrial researchers out there. Dry your tears, go to your computer and start searching for us. There's this site call LinkedIn...

Previous Years
August 18, 2011 - Names for Biobased Polymers

August 18, 2010

August 18, 2010 - The Wall Street Journal and "Glass Transition"

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Oh Brave New World!

I start a new aspect of my polymer chemistry career today - my first attempt at synthesizing an inorganic polymer. Up till now, acrylates, urethanes, ureas, polyesters (with and without styrene) and countless organic biobased substrates have been my playground. Today however, I need to strike out in a new direction, one where silicon and oxygen will now be the atoms of the polymers backbone. Carbon will still be around, but only as a moiety.

It's pretty exciting, not just because of the new chemistry, but also the chemicals themselves. I will be polymerizing silanes which react rapidly with moisture and many are flammable, all of which is in stark contrast to the organic materials listed above. We conducted our internal hazard review yesterday (more on how that works sometime soon - I promise) and got the green light to proceed.

With apologies to the Bard (The Tempest; Act 5, Scene 1, Lines 181-184)
Oh, wonder!
How many goodly chem'stries are there here!
How beauteous nature is! O brave new world,
That has such pol'mers in’t!

Previous Years
August 14, 2013 - The Pitch Drop Experiment for the Impatient

August 14, 2012 - Polymerizing Antioxidants

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A No-Brainer Approach to Turning Biowaste in Thermoplastics

Given all the incredible technology we have available in our labs, there is often the temptation to make our work more complicated and involved than it needs to be. Why measure molecular weight with an Ubbelholde tube (and the Mark-Houwink equation) when you can use the GPC with multi-angle and dynamic light scattering detectors? Why measure viscosity with a falling ball when you can use a stress-controlled rheometer? Why model something on a PC when you can use a parallel processing machine and get (the same) answer a few seconds faster?

While the sophisticated methods are often necessary, many times they are not. Simplicity can be a breath of fresh air. Such is the case with the new research in which waste biomaterials were turned into usable thermoplastics by simple soaking them in trifluoracetic acid (TFA). Cocoa pod husk, rice husks, parsley stems and spinach stems were used as input. The resulting polymers showed some decent properties, with moduli as high as a few thousand MPa and tensile strengths up to 60 MPa.

There are some obvious downsides, such as
  • the long soaking times of 3 to 14 days – who’s going to build a factory that has that much material in process? We’re not making alcoholic beverages here
  • the moisture uptake - as much as 40 wt% adsorption!
  • the brittleness (often 10% strain or less
but I still love the simplicity of this approach.

The question is, can this simplicity be enough or do we need the NMR with Cross Polarization Magic Angle Spinning?

Previous Years
August 13, 2013 - Limits to Innovation in F1 Racing

August 13, 2012 - A New Perspective on the Great Garbage Patch

August 13, 2010 - More Aspen Research Video Available

August 13, 2009 - More fun from the New England Journal of Medicine

August 13, 2008 - My only political comment and it's not political at all

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

So you want to develop sustainable polymers, do you?

Here's a short description of the polymer production industry and what the challenges of bringing a new polymer into the world.
  • 6 plastics dominate: high- and low-density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyethylene terephthalate and polyvinyl chloride. They make up 76% of the market. These polymers are produced in factories that cost endless billions of dollars of capital and more are constantly being built around the world.
  • Nobody is going to idle all that capacity without a fight. Besides, these plants are "source-blind". They don't know and can't tell whether the monomers being fed into them are petroleum-based or bio-based. Ethylene in, polyethylene out. Ethylene can be made from the dehydration of ethanol and routes are being developed to biobase the other monomers that make up the Big 6. Petroleum will disappear, but these polymers won't.
So what about the remain 24% of the market?
  • You can try and develop a new thermoplastic that will fit into a multitude of applications (as the Big 6 do) but successfully commercializing a new thermoplastic is extremely challenging taking large amounts of time and money. It took GE 15 years and $50 million to make a success of Ultem. Carilon, Hivalloy, Index and Questra are just a few of the tradenames of other thermoplastics that didn't make it despite being backed by Shell, Himont and Dow.
  • A further fraction of that is where I've spent most of my career - making pretty specialized polymers that are custom made for a limited range of applications. These are the polymers made from the incredibly versatile buildings blocks of acrylates, polyurethanes, epoxies, etc. While there are lots of opportunities, there is not a one-size-fits all solution. Each application requires a unique chemistry and that means a lot of time and development effort is put in, and failures can still happen quite often.
So when I read statements from a large new research effort such as this:
"The CSP is taking a comprehensive approach in tackling this challenging goal. Abundant and sustainable plant-derived biomass will be converted into plastics by combining new methods in synthetic green chemistry with innovative processing techniques leading to polymeric materials that can be fashioned into innumerable items of commerce. These products will be non-toxic in use, endowed with the ability to be degraded, recycled or incinerated by environmentally sound methods, and attractive to consumers from both a cost and performance standpoint."
I just have to roll my eyes. Efforts are already pretty far along for biosourcing the Big 6 without this new research. Is this group of researchers trying to develop the next great thermoplastic? Fine, but plan on 15 years and $50 million. Or are they going for a niche product, such as coatings for implanted medical devices, an area that they could do well in, but would be a drop in the bucket in terms of getting us off petroleum-based feedstocks. Yay rah rah! See our effort in Sustainable Polymers. Yay rah rah! Nothing has even happened yet and the hype-machine is already turning.

Previous Years August 6, 2013 - Where There's Smoke, There's Bad Smells August 6, 2012 - The Secrets of Oobleck Revealed - Partially August 6, 2010 - Backlash on BPA - Infertility Report

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Safety Label

We have monthly safety inspections around here and I am always getting dinged on my labeling. It's quite problematic because in many cases, the chemicals that went into the jars (and their associated hazards) are not the same as what is currently in the jar - they have polymerized and now have a new name and new hazards (or lack thereof). Since it is different people each month making these inspections, each one has their own expectations of what I should have on the safety labels. These labels can be quite small, just a few square inches, so to have everyone's fears and and concerns all on that tiny little piece of paper, well, here's what I really want to say to the inspectors:
"Consider again that label. That's here. That's the jar. That's the chemicals. In it every chemical you love, every chemical you know, every chemical you ever heard of, every chemical that ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident hypotheses, theories and paradigms, every alchemist and wizard, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every Nobel Prize winner and high school chemistry drop out, every young coupling reaction in progress, every petrochemical and bio-based feedstock, hopeful product, inventor and explorer, every teacher of chemistry, every corrupt researcher, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our science is reflected there – on a mote of paper adhered to a bottle."
You may well recognize that this is a awful corruption of Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" quote:
"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Sagan's quote has always resonate with me, in large part because he spoke it to me before it became widely known to the public. Did I say me? What I should have said was me and 18,000 other people and further more, that he spoke it in future tense. He was the graduation speaker at the University of Illinois in May of 1990 when I was receiving my doctorate. The actual Pale Blue Dot photo was only being taken at that time and would not be sent to earth until later.

Somehow I doubt my saying would come across as wonderfully as Sagan's did, but gosh it might be fun to try it one month.

Previous Years
August 4, 2012 - Sometimes You Can Sew A Silk Purse From a Sow's Ear

August 4, 2010 - A New Option for Accessing Research - Renting

August 4, 2010 - You can't do that!

August 4, 2008 - Oh No! Harold and Kumar...