Thursday, October 30, 2014

"No one uses IR anymore" !?!

Fellow blogger Derek Lowe normally writes a pretty good post, but on more than one occasion - especially when it is something related to polymers - he falls short. Today he wrote:"...even good old IR, which no one uses much any more..." It's not the first time he has bashed IR. Consider "Fellow chemists, raise your hands: Who's taken an IR spectrum in the last six months?" or "I know, for example, that hardly anyone takes IR spectra any more." or "It still does some things very well...but as far as I can tell, no one cares"

While I understand that this may be true for small molecule organic chemistry (Derek's playbox), for polymers, IR is the first go-to technique for solving the "what this polymer?" question. Slap the sample in there and take the spectrum. In less than 10 minutes, you have your answer. No solvents needed (or desired). At my last employment situation, we had multiple IR instruments (with multiple libraries) and they were in constant use. Other analytical labs are similar. Just yesterday in fact, the Polymer Solutions Blog discussed the use of IR for their customers.

Sorry Derek, IR is used far more than you realize, especially for analyzing polymers.

Previous Years

October 30, 2013 - Making Plastic a Verb

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Comparing Burger Chains and Oil Companies

According to, the top burger chains in the US are
  1. McDonalds
  2. Burger King
  3. Wendy's
  4. Sonic
  5. Jack in the Box
  6. Dairy Queen
  7. Hardee's
  8. Carls Jr.
  9. Whataburger
  10. Steak and Shake
  11. Five Guys
  12. Culver's
  13. Checkers/Rally's
  14. White Castle
  15. In-and-Out
  16. Krystal

I haven't eaten at all these chains as some of them are limited to certain portions of the country. But Krystal? I've never even heard of them.

According to, the largest oil and gas companies in the world by reserves are
  1. Saudi Aramco
  2. National Iranian Oil Company
  3. Qatar General Petroleum Corporation
  4. Iraq National Oil Company
  5. Petroleos de Venezuela
  6. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company
  7. Kuwait National Petroleum Company
  8. Nigerian National Petroleum Company
  9. National Oil Company of Libya
  10. Sonatrach (Algeria)
  11. Gazprom
  12. Rosneft
  13. Petrochina
  14. Petronas
  15. Lukoil
  16. Egyptian General Petroleum
  17. ExxonMobil
So the next time you are tempted to think of ExxonMobil as this HUGE company that has incredible influence and is leading us down an irreversible the path of petroleum dependency, climate change and pollution, and away from renewable energy and a green, sustainable future, think again. They are the equivalent to a burger chain that is smaller than Krystal. If the Krystal chain disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn't notice at all. If ExxonMobil disappeared tomorrow, would it really change anything? Nope.

Previous Years

October 29, 2013 - A New Chemistry Lab Building, But Without New Chemistry Jobs

October 29, 2012 - More Open Access articles in Polymers and Rheology

October 29, 2010 - Garbage Patch Vacuum Cleaners

October 29, 2010 - Good Advice

October 29, 2010 - UV Scale-up

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Who put the "plastic" in plastic surgery?

"Plastic Surgery" is the hot topic of the day (especially as it relates to Renee Zellweger) and so the question arises as to what plastic is used in plastic surgery.

The word "plastic" is an old word that is used in many diverse settings. In materials science, there is plastic deformation. You also have the macromolecules that are the subject of most of the posts on this blog and you have the surgery. It may be surprising, but these uses are all based on the same meaning that the word "plastic" originally meant. "Plastic" comes from the Greek plastikos, meaning moldable.

The use of the word in the area of material science is the oldest application of the word and it refers to an irreversible deformation of a material. All materials can be stretched or bent to some degree so that when the applied force is removed, the material bounces back to its original shape. This is referred to as elastic deformation. But when too much force is applied, the material is permanently deformed - it has undergone plastic deformation. Whether it is a blacksmith pounding out iron, the steel for a car door being stamped or the drunk guy squishing his aluminum beer cans, its all plastic deformation. The material is being molded into a new shape.

With the development of polymers in the 20th century, macromolecules quickly became associated with the term plastic because they are quite moldable. Compared to metals which usually required large amounts of heat and force to mold them, polymers required comparatively little heat and force. The association is so strong that the word "plastic" to most people refers to polymers and little else.

Hence the misunderstanding of the term plastic surgery. The term was originally based on the idea of molding parts of the body through any of a number of techniques, most of which do not involve polymers. But because the word plastic has become equivalent to polymeric materials, you can have Joan Rivers joking about having her dead body donated to Tupperware. In fact, the etymology site noted above states that the term plastic surgery was first used in 1839, well before polymeric materials were described as plastic.

So who put the plastic in plastic surgery? We all did. But keep in mind what the word plastic really refers to: moldability.

Previous Years

October 23, 2013 - Dog and Pony Show

October 23, 2009 - Polymeric Auto Glass

October 23, 2006 - Polymers in the Proceedings

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dow Chemical's Earnings Keep Improving

Dow Chemical has announced their 3rd quarter earnings and as passed along by the Urethane Blog, they are up nicely.
"EBITDA(3) grew to $2.3 billion, up 24 percent versus the prior year, driven by ongoing productivity actions and improved market fundamentals. Performance Plastics achieved record quarterly adjusted EBITDA results (up 31 percent versus the year-ago period). Performance Materials EBITDA grew 61 percent with increases in most businesses, notably in Polyurethanes and PO/PG. Electronic and Functional Materials also delivered record quarterly EBITDA (up 11 percent)"
Normally I don't comment much on earnings reports, but this year has been different ever since the activist investor Daniel Loeb took up a stake in the company back in January. Unfortunately for Loeb, the company has been doing very well since then, providing plenty of egg for him to wipe off his face, such as that great earnings report that came out just 6 days after his initial critical comments. But might be expected for someone who has forgotten their calculus lessons.

Somehow I don't think Loeb will be commenting anytime soon (other than to announce that he threw his arm out trying to pat himself on the back for the great job he did in improving Dow's performance since January).

Previous Years

October 22, 2013 - October 22, 2013 -

October 22, 2012 - White Isn't Always White

October 22, 2010 - Thoughts on Losing Electricity

October 22, 2010 - Plastics - They Have a Future, but no Futures

October 22, 2010 - It's Not Easy Being Green

Monday, October 20, 2014

Martin Sheen and His Hypocritical Hate of Plastics

Last Friday I wrote of Lindsay Lohan's love of plastics. Her feelings are not shared by all of Hollywood however. Martin Sheen is a good example. On Saturday, he had a new boat christened after him. The boat is a research vessel for studying ocean plastics. While I've written many times that plastics have no business being in the ocean (or polluting any other part of the natural environment for that matter), the importance of ocean to plastics to mankind's survival to debate. Sheen says
"The biggest risk and danger to the world today are plastics in our oceans."
The biggest danger? Bigger than nuclear proliferation? Climate change? Chemical weapons in the hands of terrorist? Starvation? Disease? Poverty? These are all less of a danger than plastics?

Psst. Martin, take a look at the pictures of the new boat you're standing on.
Martin Sheen - I hate plastics. But the ones on my boat don't count, right?
You know what I see? Plastics. Lots and lots of plastics everywhere on that new boat. The blue and white paint on the side - plastics. The unpainted wood - coated with plastic. The ropes going every which way - plastics. The sails - plastics. The microphone that you are speaking into? Wires that are coated with plastic insulation (as are many of the wires carrying the electricity from the powerplant to the microphone.) The ink that was used to print your speech? Plastics are in that. The paper that your speech was written on? Plastics are in that too.

Looks to me Martin like your boat is only adding to the problem, not solving it. You better drydock it ASAP and help save the world.

Previous Years

October 20, 2011 - Who Invented Kraton?

October 20, 2011 - The Inventors of Kraton...

October 20, 2009 - Patent Quality and Value

Friday, October 17, 2014

Linday Lohan and plastic bags

I last wrote about Lindsay Lohan in April of 2013. Since that time, she has kept a pretty low profile as far as the plastics industry is concerned. But that all changed this morning when the Daily Mail published photos of her and a plastic bag:
Lindsay Lohan being a plastic bag
That's her behind the bag, leaving for home(?) after performing onstage in London last night. (The article has more photographs that show that it is indeed Lindsay.)

She can get away with this in London, but pulling the plastic bag stunt in California is going to become pretty difficult. The state just past a law banning plastic bags. So what are all the actors and actresses going to do? Hide behind a paper bag? That would make them to butt of way too many coyote jokes. Maybe Hollywood will need to change their stance and call for a repeal of the ban. Their privacy needs to be respected.

Previous Years

October 17, 2013 - Is This Really Self-Healing?

October 17, 2012 - Overlooking the Obvious: Self-Healing PVOH Hydrogels

October 17, 2011 - How to (NOT!) Determine PVC Rheology

October 17, 2006 - Off and Running

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Polyethylene Production coming to North Dakota

While my homestate of Minnesota remains a frack-free zone (due to Mother Nature's choice to stock us with iron, copper and other minerals rather than even a drop of petroleum), our neighboring state of North Dakota is pretty much ground zero for the effort. And we hear about it a lot since many people have taken the day's drive out there for the good paying jobs. Western North Dakota is not highly populated, so manpower is short. If you can pass a drug test and supply your own housing, you can get a job. (And many hiring managers will say under their breath that they might let one of those conditions slide). Minnesota is also affected by the transportation of the flammable, petroleum liquids along the rail lines in our state. And the sudden increase in demand for the trains causes other logistic nightmares for anyone shipping anything else by rail.

Now comes a report from Plastemart that North Dakota will soon have their own world class polyethylene production facility - a $4 billion dollar investment. $1.5 million metric tonnes a year of HDPE - from North Dakota. That is pretty impressive.

In my mind, it was just a matter of time before this happened, although I've not heard anything previous about it unlike the plant being built in West Virginia to take advantage of the Marcellus shale production. At the same time, I bet that this plant will be far more expensive than the original estimate for many of the reasons I already discussed. The labor to build the plant will need to be imported - there aren't too many pipefitters out there and they are already kept busy with the existing fracking operations. And the housing shortage will only increase. While transporting polyethylene by train is much less risky than transporting petroleum liquids, it is not as efficient. The bulk density of polyethylene is about 0.5 g/cm3, a good fraction less than any hydrocarbon liquids. So that means more strain on the train network.

Looking at the very-long-term picture, at some point fracking production will dry up, and so the question be what happens to the facility. Will it be abandoned or will it continue to operate, albeit with a biobased source of ethylene, such as that produced by dehydration of ethanol? North Dakota isn't a very large corn producer, but over the coming decades, alternative biofeedstocks for ethanol will be developed, including some that could be raised in the dry regions of North Dakota. Either way, I'm prety sure that I will not see that future. It's too many decades down the road. (Yes, fracking will go on that long.)

Previous Years

October 15, 2013 - Turning Plastic Bags into Carbon Nanotubes

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Yet more activist investors thinking they can run a chemical business

I've been writing a fair amount this past year about Daniel Loeb and his efforts as an activist investor to tell Dow Chemical's CEO how to run his business (1, 2, 3, and 4).

Since Dow is doing so well (no doubt as a direct result of Loeb's guidance (/sarcasm_off), Loeb is looking for a new place to produce similar results, now setting his sights oversee on DSM. He wants DSM to sell off the low profit plastics business and focus exclusively on the baby food and nutrition supplements business which operates at much higher margins. In other words, he want to be able to cherry pick and be appreciated as a business genius for doing so. While it might be easier to divide up the DSM pie than the Dow Chemical pie (i.e., there is less overlap between different operating units within the company), to say that this will "create value" is something I don't see. (A + B) = A + B. This is a really simplistic example of the associative property, but we've seen in the past the Loeb isn't very good at math.

And lest you think that Loeb is the only one being a pain in the posterior for the chemical industry, think again. C & E News reported a few weeks ago that Dupont has their own activist investor complaining to management. Such are the times we live in. If you have a stack of cash, you can get Wall Street to listen to you even if you are full of skatole-type compounds.

Previous Years


Monday, October 13, 2014

Dinosaur Mode

I had some very strange dreams towards morning including this gem: a cellphone that would mock me. Every time I would try and do something with it such as texting, a picture of an apatosaurus-type dinosaur would appear on the screen, implying that I was using an old, outdated technique and that faster, more efficient options now existed. That's not fair! I can't text as fast as my son (whose replies seem to violate the space-time continuum), but I'm more than able to find an efficient option for most tasks.

If any cellphone manufacturers want to use this idea, go ahead. It's yours for free.

(That's all for today - I'm booked solid. I'll get back to polymers tomorrow.)

Previous Years

October 13, 2010 - Calling Mr. Murphy...

October 13, 2010 - Pushing the Laws of Science and Man

October 13, 2010 - Never Mind

October 13, 2009 - Diodes, Diodes Everywhere

October 13, 2008 - Another Unusual Water Soluble LCST System

Thursday, October 09, 2014

An Ironic Effort from Greenpeace

Here's today's newest example of irony:Greenpeace succeeded in pressuring Lego into cancelling a toy give away with Shell. (Fill up with at least 30 liters and get a free Lego toy). Greenpeace was going after Shell because of Shell's efforts to extract oil from Arctic regions, but the irony is that Lego toys are all made from petroleum-based plastic (ABS). So does this change anything? Anything?

Previous Years

October 9, 2013 - Preventing Oxygen Inhibition during Polymerizations

October 9, 2012 - Some Open Access Articles from Wiley

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

"Let's Get Rid of the Mole"

Being called one-dimensional is usually not a good thing. But a recent letter to the editor published in C & E News (hat tip to Chemjobber) is proposing that we all take one step closer to that state by getting rid of the mole, the counting unit used in chemistry. The proposed alternative is we use the yotta (= 1024) instead since it is pretty close to Avogadro's number (6.022 x 1023). And after all, learning about the mole is so difficult for high school students and we should all adopt to their needs.

To show the silliness of the proposed idea, let's consider getting rid of all our basic units of measure and just go with one. Length. The meter, the yard, the light-year, it doesn't really matter. Everything can be measured with our 1-unit system and school kids will thank us forever.

Let me show you how to do it. For our given unit length - call it the Spevy, denoted by [1]. Light in a vacuum will span that distance in a certain time interval t. t = /c. If you take c as dimensionless, t is now measured in length as well. And now we are off to the races. Literally. Velocity is next. That is a length over time, both of which have identical units and so velocity is dimensionless. Similarly, acceleration would have units of inverse length.

The gravitational force between 2 masses is proportional to the mass and inversely proportional to their separation, so that is the yet-to-be defined mass squared over length square, F = M2/L2. This is also equal to mass times acceleration F = M a. Set these two equal and solve for M: M = a L2. Since acceleration has inverse length, mass has a unit of length.

No more moles kids! It's all Spevy's from here on out. What's a Spevy? It's something about that long. Doesn't that make chemistry so much easier? It's all just distance. No more worrying about counting the yotta-number of atoms sitting around in a flask, just pull out a Spevy-stick and go at it.

Equally extreme would be to make every measurement as a basis unit with no relationship between any one measurement and the other. It would be the Humpty Dumpty approach where the units means just what I choose them to mean — neither more nor less. [2]

The best approach is to find a middle ground, somewhere between 1 and infinity. The SI system is at 7. But even at that, there are thousands of other units that people still use because they are convenient. Astronomers use light-years not to cause confusion, but to reduce it by keeping the numbers manageable, just as particle colliders measure areas in barns (and millibarns and...). And other units are valuable because they can be more clearly understood. Take gasoline mileage. In the US, we use miles per gallon, but this can easily be reduced to an inverse area. Miles are a length, and gallons are a volume, a length cubed. Divide a length by a length cubed and you end up with an inverse length squared = inverse area. Elsewhere in the world, liters per 100 kilometers is used for mileage, so that can be reduced to an area. But in either case, is any information more clearly communicated than using the non-standard units?

As the letter-writer states, the mole arose during a previous time when our knowledge of atoms was so much less, but that doesn't mean that the unit should be discarded anymore than we should discard other units developed in earlier times, such as the second, minute and hour (all of which were based on the presumption that astronomical motion was so much more precise than it actually is, hence the need for leap years and leap-seconds.)

I'm not worried that anyone is going to stop using the mole at any point now or in the future. We have too much existing literature that would be unintelligible if that change could suddenly occur. And while I very strongly emphasize for the difficulty of learning high school chemistry [3], there are far more challenging ideas to be learned as the education continues. If someone decided not to pursue a chemistry career because they didn't understand the mole, they were not going to have a successful career in chemistry regardless of whether the idea was taught or not. Quantum mechanics, despite it's probabilistic nature, would guarantee the end.

[1] That's a backwards 'S' to further emphasize how backwards this whole idea is. The HTML code is & #4343 ; if anyone wants to pick up on the idea and run with it.

[2] When you look at the yields of some published reactions, you sometimes get the feeling that that reality is closer than we think.

[3] I know this from personal experience. I had a truly horrible high school teacher that left me ill-prepared for college chemistry. By the second week of freshman chem, I was already in trouble. But I put in the extra time and succeeded.

Previous Years

October 8, 2013 - 3 Small Bites

October 8, 2012 - A World-Wide Diaper Shortage? Yeah, but that's just for Starters

October 8, 2010 - What is Resin and What is Plastic?

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

A New Plastics-to-Oil Operation - In Syria?

I written in the past 1, 2 about "Plastics-to-Oil" (PTO), the process for anaerobic pyrolysis of plastics which ends up creating a sweet, crude oil. There are a few smallish operations here in the US but at this point in time, it does not play a critical role in our economy. And with gas prices continuing to fall (I saw $2.99/gallon yesterday for the first time in about 5 years!), that won't change soon.

But is Syria, the story is different. There, all fuels are at a premium and so PTO suddenly becomes a life changer. One crude operation is run by Abu Talal:
"'We get plastic materials from areas and buildings that are deserted after being shelled by the regime forces. We collect all the plastic we find, such as water tanks and drainage pipes.' After Talal and his team gather the plastic, they cut it into smaller pieces and put 50 kilograms in each barrel, along with 20 meters of piping to cool the water that runs in and out of the barrel. They contain narrower tubes, which contain the fumes that come from the burned plastic. Then they light a fire. 'It takes two to three hours to extract as much as possible from one batch of plastic,' he says. 'In the last stage, we get the temperature to 100 to 115 degrees to extract a kind of diesel. The temperature must be accurate for the diesel to come out and for it to burn well, so it can be used in cars and motorcycles.' "
This is not exactly how PTO is run on a larger scale. Rather than inserting an inert gas, the air in their reactor must be displaced over time as the plastic starts to degrade, forming near-anaerobic conditions. Also, PTO is typically run at much higher temperatures (800 oF or so), but regardless of these details, the system still works well enough. And it serves as a reminder of how creative people can become during desperate times.

Previous Years

October 7, 2013 - 1000 Posts

October 7, 2010 - The Strange History of Bubble Wrap

Friday, October 03, 2014

Carcinogens I've Worked With

The Department of Health and Human Services issued the 13th edition of their Report on Carcinogens this week. The list is not just chemicals, but includes physical hazards such as gamma radiation, and biological agents (hepatitis B and C for instance). I decided to take a look at the list and see what I've exposed myself to over the years.

The list is actually split into two categories - those known to be human carcinogens and those reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens. The former is a rather short list and I haven't worked with many items on it. Some UV lights, some X-rays, some wood dust, but that's about it.

The anticipated carcinogen list is much more exciting to read. Acrylamide, acrylonitrile, phenolphthalein, styrene and toluene diisocyanate. (Note that the list includes "urethane", but they clearly indicate that this is only referring to ethyl carbamate and not the polyurethanes that make up so much of my current chemical life). Thinking back on my school days, I would have to add carbon tetrachloride, naphthalene, and o-nitrotoluene. So 243 substances and I've worked with 11 or them - 4.5% pretty clean living I guess. However, that number is sure to rise over the coming years as more studies are completed.

I can't close however, without mentioning one item on the list that I've never worked with. That chemical grabbed my sense of irony and shook it hard - cisplatin. A drug used to fight cancer likely causes cancer. It does make you wonder...

Previous Years

October3, 2013 - Propylene in Space

October 3, 2012 - 3D Printing a Gun

October 3, 2011 - Rheology Analogies for Computer Networks

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Rubber Gloves and Ebola

The Atlantic has a an article today about subject that I first wrote about back in August – that polymers, and rubber gloves in particular, play a critical role in the fight against Ebola.

The virus itself is thankfully not all that contagious. It is not spread via the air, but rather by direct contact with bodily fluids. A simple rubber glove, just a couple of mils thick, is more than enough protection, and yet sadly, the article notes that such a simple item is missing in many health care situations in West Africa.

"Malaysia, the world's leading manufacturer of rubber gloves, sent 20 million pairs last month to the five affected countries. Direct Relief said that between Malaysia's gloves and the organization's own donation of 2.8 million pairs, there will be enough gloves to last for 130 to 260 more days. But that doesn't account for 'correct glove sizes, breakage, distribution considerations, or exponential growth of the disease. Nor does it include burial teams, disinfection teams, ambulance transport teams, and investigation teams. It also doesn’t consider the preexisting need.' "

This outbreak of the disease will be ended in the same manner as previous outbreaks – via public health measures, not through vaccines. Rubbers, plastics and other polymeric materials will be a large part of those measures. (And most of it will be that dreaded “single-use plastic”, I might add.)

Previous Years

October 2, 2013 - Responding to Crackpots