Monday, June 29, 2015

Resonance in Plastics and Metals

The Reddit website has a popular subreddit ELI5, short for "explain like I'm 5", where people can post question that they would to have answered, but answered to someone without the technical background and jargon that is usually used. It doesn't mean to literally explain it as if you were talking to a five-year old (five-year olds wouldn't be asking most of these questions anyway), I take it as if you are talking to the general public who wants to know more.

Yesterday the question was posted as to why when an object is struck, metal objects ring louder than plastic ones. Here's my explanation, albeit it is nowhere near appropriate for ELI5:
A object rings because it has acquired energy in a way that it resonates - it vibrates at a frequency and with enough energy to generate sound waves. As long as the object has sufficient energy, it will continue to ring. It cannot ring forever as the sound waves gradually reduce the amount of energy that the object has. But generating sound waves not the only way that an object can lose energy, One of the ways that plastics differ from metals is that plastics are better able than metals to dissipate energy internally. Any plastic object will show some amount of viscosity dampening since all polymeric materials have a non-zero loss modulus curve. Metals can also have internal dissipation mechanisms, but they are far less prevalent than in plastics.
Another example of this same phenomenon is seen in springs. Both metal and plastics springs exist. Given weight considerations alone, plastic springs should be everywhere. But springs are used because they store energy and return it. The same internal dissipation mechanisms that quiet ringing plastics also result in energy loss when the spring is compressed. A pogo stick with a plastic spring would be no fun at all, and speaking from personal experience, a plastic slinky is nowhere near the fun that a metal one is.

Previous Years

June 29, 2011 - BPA Followup (2/2)

June 29, 2010 - Tapes in Space

June 29, 2010 - Pretzel Logic from the Supreme Court

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Don Featherstone, of Pink Flamingo fame, has died

The US plastics industry lost a significant figure on Monday, Don Featherstone. You probably don't recognize the name, but his most famous product is something quite familiar to most Americans, even if it is seen as kitschy and TTFW [1] - the plastic pink flamingo.
A Flock of Pink Flamingos
PlasticsNews has a short obituary that fails to mention that Don won the 1996 Ignoble Prize in Art for his creation. [2]

Tom Herzing co-authored a book with Featherstone documenting the plastic pink flamingo and in an interview said
"...but I think you have to remember that initially, they were a sign of taste. People thought that they were actual attractive decorations for their lawns. It was only after the snobs among us decided that this was a sign of bad taste, and then we had cities ban them..."
I've never owned one, but I have faint memories from 45 or more years ago that my parents might have had one or two. (I'm sure only to pull a joke on a neighbor, sticking them in their yard under the cover of darkness.)

You do have to wonder how many plastic pink flamingos will be on his grave, both at his funeral and in the years to come.



[2] 1996 was a good year for the Ignobles. The Chemistry award was given to George Goble for lighting a barbecue in 3 seconds with the help of liquid oxygen.

Previous Years

June 24, 2014 - Why are polymers more complex to recycle?

June 24, 2011 - Art - from Ocean Beach Junk

June 24, 2010 - Environmental Stress Cracking

Monday, June 22, 2015

Startups, both Real and Wannabes

Word has reached me that the division I last worked in at 3M is being shut down. The division was rather unique for 3M in that it was quite small and built from scratch. Normally "new" divisions are made from combining divisions, dividing divisions, shuffling parts of division around or any combination of these options. In all cases, there is already an infrastructure available to some extent, including existing lab equipment and lab space, administrative personnel and all the regulatory support that is needed. This division however, was built from scratch, one researcher at a time. We moved into previously abandoned lab space and had to purchase all the equipment needed to get the lab up and running.

But it all came crashing down when the executive VP overseeing the division gathered everyone together and announced the shutdown. Some of my former colleagues are being assigned to existing divisions while others are "unassigned". One of my colleagues had for some time compared it to being in startup, although having worked for a startup (arguably two), I assured him that it was quite different. This shutdown is a perfect example of a real and significant difference between a real startup and a wannabe in a large corporation. The startup that I worked for, Envoy Medical had been in operation for 7 years without any sales prior to my joining it and it was another 7 years before it sold its first product. That is 14 years of living on angel funds, venture capital and whatever other funding sources the company could get money from. If the first investors didn't want to invest any further, the company was free to look for other investors. This is in direct opposition to 3M shutting down their division. The executive VP, the sponsor of the new division, decided to pull sponsorship and there was nothing the division could do. No one would dare ask another executive VP to sponsor them due to the great risk of ending their career right on the spot.

While I feel for my former colleagues who are unassigned, my heart really goes out to the undergraduate student that was helping me out part-time. I spoke with him last we and it still isn't clear if he will keep his job. He hasn't even graduated and may already be facing his first layoff.

Previous Years

June 22, 2012 - Towels in America

June 22, 2011 - More on Drop-In Replacements

June 22, 2010 - Poor Economic Analysis

June 22, 2010 - Full Disclosure

June 22, 2009 - It's finally time for bifocals

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Glassy Materials on Mars - And the Inevitable Connection to Potential Life There

Glassy materials have sparked controversies in the past, and I suspect that the latest news from the surface of Mars will face the same future. NASA scientists have discovered impact glass, glass materials that form during/after the impact of a large, searingly hot meteoroid. But that's not newsworthy by itself, as such glasses are well known here on Earth. What make the discovery potentially more controversial is that they are proposing that signs of life may be locked into the glass:
"During the past few years, research has shown evidence about past life has been preserved in impact glass here on Earth. A 2014 study led by scientist Peter Schultz of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, found organic molecules and plant matter entombed in glass formed by an impact that occurred millions of years ago in Argentina. Schultz suggested that similar processes might preserve signs of life on Mars, if they were present at the time of an impact."
Glasses containing biological material exist elsewhere too, such as the bugs trapped in amber that gave us Jurassic Park and all the endlessly bad sequels. (Why don't the dinosaurs go after the movie directors and producers that hoist these stinkbombs on us? Call it "Jurassic Park goes Hollywood".) But the sap that forms amber is soft and gooey at "normal" conditions, not the red-hot heat of an impact crater, so given the apparent rarity of life on Mars in the first place, I would expect looking for signs of life in impact glasses to be the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack effort. Count me out.

But tying the discovery to "potential life on Mars" is a Standard Operating Procedure for NASA. Look at what other discoveries, interesting in themselves strictly from a scientific viewpoint, have been tied to "potential signs of Life":Is there any discovery that NASA has definitively stated as a non-potential sign of life on Mars? So then let's stop making the connection between any discovery and life on Mars. How about a moratorium on "potential signs of life on Mars" until it's actually found? (Violators would have to face off with a velociraptor.)

Previous Years

June 17, 2014 - Where did the polymer's chemistry disappear to? Here it is!

June 17, 2013 - Dow Chemical Hit With Triple Damages for Price Fixing Case

June 17, 2011 - BPA Absorption from Receipts? I Don't Think So

June 17, 2009 - At least here the Editor loses his job

Monday, June 15, 2015

Is a Vegan Tesla even Possible?

Don Loepp of PlasticsNews raised the question last week of whether PVC is vegan or not. The issue came about regarding the all-electric Tesla cars. Apparently they don't offer a non-leather interior for vegans.
"A Bloomberg report from Tesla’s annual share meeting noted how one buyer, Mark Peters, had to go through “extreme measures” to get a Tesla sedan not only without leather seats but without any leather trim at all for his vegan wife Elizabeth Peters."
Don suggested PVC as an alternative, but unfortunately, that likely won't be a viable option either. PVC usually has some stearate salt in it as a lubricant and the most common source of stearic acid to make that salt is animal fat.

The use of stearates goes far beyond PVC. They can be an additive to polyethylene, polyproplylene and a variety of styrenic polymers, mostly as lubricants, but also as acid scavengers to help with thermal stability. This is not just a concern for vegans, but others with restricted diets. That most stearic acid is made from a variety of animals (including pigs) causes concern for those wishing to keep a Kosher diet since many food packaging films have stearates as lubricants. Kosher stearic acid is available, but I don't know of any plastics producer/compounder that uses it.

But back to the Tesla discussion, I find it quite ironic that someone buying a Tesla, presumably because they are concerned about lessening their environmental impact, would prefer non-sustainable petroleum-based plastics to be part of the car.

Previous Years

June 15, 2011 - Sustainability

June 15, 2007 - PVA - Err, is that alcohol or acetate?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Plastic Windows for the Orion Spacecraft

It's not exactly breaking news (I'm still in the mode of getting caught up, so forgive me), but NASA has is going forward with replacing glass window panes with plastic for the new Orion Spacecraft. The Orion is the new 4-person spacecraft that is anticipated to be in non-orbital space for long periods of time, as much as 270 days. Plastic is obviously lighter than glass, so every pound saved in the windows means another pound of more valuable payload can be rocketed off the earth.

The windows are triple-pane, the redundancy being driven by safety concerns. So far NASA has tested replacing just one pane with an acrylic, but since that swap was successful in initial testing, a second pane will soon be swapped out. It doesn't appear that replacing all three panes is under consideration at this point in time.

Every time I read about plastics in space though, I have to shudder thinking about what the radiation (mostly gamma) will do to the poor plastic. I've blogged in the past (1, 2 and 3) about using plastics as a radiation shield, and the surprisingly positive results, so I know that the plastic can endure, but still...

I hope all goes well with this program. It would be exciting to see people leave earth orbit again (yes, I'm old enough to remember seeing the Apollo launches and Armstrong's walk). That no one, from any country in the world, has done this in over 40 years is pretty surprising.

Previous Years

June 12, 2013 - Future(?) Retractions in the Polymer Science Literature

June 12, 2012 - Guar Gum Shortage

June 12, 2009 - Front row seat to a horse race

June 12, 2009 - Guar Gum - It's not just a thickener anymore

(What's with all the Guar gum on June 12?)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What's in a Name? Marketing Gobbledygook #2

Last year, Bayer announced that it would spin off it's business group that supplies polycarbonates, polyurethanes and their components and also adhesives and coatings, a unit currently called Bayer MaterialScience (yes, there is no space between Material and Science). Since they will no longer be part of Bayer, the name needs to be changed. It was announced last week that the new name would be Covestro. And of course, such a name needs an explanation and they have a doozy of one:
"The name Covestro is made from a combination of words that reflect the identity of the new company. The letters C and O come from collaboration, while VEST signifies the company is well invested in state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities. The final letters, STRO, show the company is strong. It is strong in innovation, strong in the market and with a strong workforce."
Some questions:
  • Doesn't this "explanation" suggests that the company should really be called Coveststro, not Covestro?
  • Why choose a name that can only be explained in English?
  • Doesn't this just reek of being a poorly constructed backroynm?

This explanation is almost as bad as the one given a few years ago when Stryon was spun-off from Dow Chemical to become Trinseo. I think we can rest assured that both these names were decided by some overpaid outfit that sat around sipping Chardonnay, coming up with new, fun sounding names and then pasting together a horrible backstory for them all while receiving a huge paycheck and being nominated for industry awards.

Don't believe me? Well it's too early in the morning for the Chardonnay, but let me show you how it's done. And to make it tougher, let's go with Sheldon Cooper's favorite word, Bazinga!
"The "BA" comes from Bayer, where the company came from; the "Z" is from the last letter of the alphabet, meaning that the company will last; the "IN" stands for intelligent, which is what all our customers, suppliers and employees are; and the "NGA" comes from lasagna, and who doesn't love lasagna?"
Don't laugh. This is no worse than the explanation for Covestro and Trinseo, and anyone who thinks otherwise can comment below, but only if they assure me that they can actually write their arguments without laughing. Besides, it only took 2 minutes start to finish. Can I collect my multimillion dollar paycheck now?

The worst part about all of these poorly constructed names is that they are (supposedly) derived from words that management types like, but not the practicing chemists. Do we really care about a company being "well invested in state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities"? Let's try devising a name starting with what we all really want from the company in the first place: great, cheap chemicals. "Greachchem" is an easy start, but now let's marketize it some. We have a "chch" in there which we can reduce to just one making it "Greachem". Good, but not sexy enough. Change the "ch" to an "x" to make it "Greaxem". But why stop with one "x"? After all, ExxonMobil and Lanxxess didn't, so let's double it up to "Greaxxem". Or do we go all the way with making it sexy and call our new company "Greaxxxem"? Best of all, google searches for any version of this (1, 2 or 3 X's) show that we have a new name without any prior users. Success! and this was even faster than explaining Bazinga. Now all we need is a cheesy stock photo for a logo maybe with a Texas carbon or two and we're ready to take over the chemical industry:

Devising a company name for "overpaid, underworked chemists" and "on-time delivery without excess packaging" are left as an exercise for the interested student.

Previous Years

June 10, 2014 - Hillary woos the plastics industry

June 10, 2013 - The Future of Sustainable Polymers: Bio-based Monomers or Polymers?

June 10, 2011 - Have You Considered a Career in Plastics?

June 10, 2011 - The Supreme Court Decides On Freebase Cocaine

June 10, 2010 - Pull Up a Chair

June 10, 2009 - Another Journal Scandal

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Post-Move Thoughts (with somewhat of a Mathematical Orientation)

That was not exactly the move we were hoping for, as it took far longer to get back to a reasonable routine than we ever expected [1]. We are still not all there yet but we at least found the pans so we can cook something without using the grill. I only was able to unbox the computer yesterday and am way behind on emails, so this will be fairly short today.

Injective and non-surjective
This move was the first of a new class for us. Prior moves were always into bigger houses and so finding spots for everything was not a problem. This can be mathematically described as an injective and non-surjective function, which is illustrated on the right. (Injective means that each element of X goes to a unique element of Y. Surjective means that every element in Y is mapped to from X. Since we were moving into a larger house that (initially) had extra space, our move was non-surjective.)

Non-injective and surjective
But since we are now empty-nesters, this move was our first that was non-injective and surjective, as illustrated on the right. As much as we spent the last year reducing our amount of personal property, we still ended up with a non-injective move. And that means that we have to get creative about storing stuff.

All the boxes are slowly being flattened and all the bubble wrap is being neatly stacked so as to minimize space in the garage until it's gone. That plastic performed it's job wonderfully, preventing the breakage of any valuable and/or fragile items. While the bubble wrap may seem wasteful (it was only used once [2]), had it failed, the bubble wrap AND the wrapped item would have BOTH ended up in the trash, further increasing the waste. Good packaging is never wasteful.

[1] My wife and I had decided to replace our old mattress with a new one as part of the move. The day before the move, June 3, a local charity came to take it and some other furniture. We had arranged with Sears for delivery of the new mattress on the 5th (a Friday), being willing to sleep on the coach for two days. Unfortunately, Sears missed their initial delivery window, only to call with a later one which they also missed. At this point, they cancelled delivery for the day and promised delivery on the next business day, that being Monday. This meant an additional 3 days of sofa sleeping and a corresponding increase of marital grouchiness.

[2] We will keep some for use when shipping packages in the future - assuming we can find a spot to keep it!

Previous Years

June 9, 2010 - More Mexican Chemical Thievery

June 9, 2010 - A couple of good links on the oil spill

Tuesday, June 02, 2015


The Rheothing household is packing up and moving this week to a more appropriate location. "Appropriate", in this case mean more proportionate in size for a married couple with a small dog and no children, said scion having left for the West Coast, never to return to the blizzards of Minnesota. Geographically, the move is little more than a mile, but a move is a move is a move and so you may have noticed a decrease in posting frequency this past month; this can be inversely correlated to the number of boxes packed. As it will only get worse the remainder of this week, this post will be it until this old desktop computer is unpacked in the new location and reconnected to the InterWebs. Look for an onslaught of pent up ideas.

Previous Years

June 2, 2010 - Artificial Weathering

June 2, 2010 - The Futures Market

June 2, 2010 - Operator Error

June 2, 2009 - The Car Industry after GM's Bankruptcy

June 2, 2009 - More drugs from Botulism Toxin

June 2, 2009 - Cap-and-Trade and the Chemical Industry