Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Microbeads as a Solution to Pollution?

(Thanks goes to Eric F. Brown for bringing this article to my attention.)

This might not be turning lemons into lemonade, but it could be close. Microbeads have recently become the cause de du jour for environmentalists fighting plastics in the oceans and other bodies of water, but a UC Santa Barbara researcher looks upon the beads as a solution and not a problem. By putting a carefully selected peptoid [*] coating on the beads, the beads can bind hexavalent chromium and remove it from water. Hexavalent chromium is the particularly nasty version of the metal made famous by the movie Erin Brockovich and is in the drinking water of cities as large as Chicago.

While hexavalent chromium ions are a worthwhile and newsworthy target, I imagine the technique could be applied to recovering other ions/elements as well. Arsenic is a problem in many parts of the world as are other metal/metal ions. And I can't see any reason why any particular bead wouldn't be able to recover multiple metals (although a mixture of beads targeting each individual metal could work too).

The article raises but doesn't answer the question of recovering the beads. Making the beads around a magnetic core would be a quick-and-easy option to allow for recovery, but buoyancy would be a concern. Smaller cores would help that, but then a stronger recovery magnet would be needed. Increasing the thickness of the polymeric shell would increase the buoyancy, particularly if it was foamed to any degree. But even if the whole concept of using microbeads fails, the peptoid coatings could still be used to coat other materials to reach the same end. Peptoids are apparently quite resistant to hydrolysis, which is crucial for application like this, so it's just a matter of finding an acceptable substrate with a large surface area and possibly sufficient porosity so that this doesn't end up as a giant filter removing the good (sea life from microbes on up to whales) as well as the bad.

[*] Peptoids are like peptides, oligomers of amino acids, but amino acids have their substituents on the α-carbon, while for peptoids, the substituents are on the nitrogen.

Previous Years

September 30, 2014 - A Mixing Demonstration using non-Newtonian Blue Maize Flour Suspension

September 30, 2011 - Now that we have the "Perfect Plastic", you don't need me

September 30, 2011 - The Research behind "The Perfect Polymer"

September 30, 2010 - Pyridine

Monday, September 28, 2015

Peer Review Week - How to Find Industrial Researchers [*]

Today is the start of international "Peer Review Week", a time to celebrate all the good that comes from peer review and to make sure that it receives its proper recognition as playing a key role in publishing research and awarding research grants. Blame it on my grey hairs for being jaded and cynical, but I expect all the commentary to focus on academic researchers performing peer review and either giving industrial researchers short shrift or no shrift at all.

Being until recently a non-academic researcher, (being an adjunct professor I am no longer so pure and pristine, but as I only lecture 3.5 hours a week, I spend far more time being non-academic than academic and so still relate more closely to non-academics), it goads me to no end to be ignored and otherwise taken for granted. Just this year alone I've already reviewed 14 manuscripts, and have not submitted any for review during that time (0 submissions is very common output for industrial researchers). You can't even take a proper ratio on that, but clearly as an industrial, non-academic researcher, I am contributing to the system greatly in excess of what I get out. Even if I had only completed 1 review, since I didn't submit a paper for submission, the system still would record me as a positive contributor. And that is how most industrial researchers are. We very seldom contribute manuscripts for publication, so we don't tax the system highly. Even for those researchers that do submit a manuscript or two a year, it wouldn't take much for them to pay the system back.

All of which is background to this: I got into a snit this morning on Twitter when someone tweeted about how valuable industrial researchers are to peer review, but they are "...more difficult to find (email/position only seldom listed in www)". So here are my suggestions to editors everywhere on finding industrial researchers that can help with peer review.
  1. Start with LinkedIn. It's like Facebook, but for professionals. There are countless professionals (about 200 million give or take) from all fields on it, they can be easily searched and emails/websites are readily available. Even if they aren't explicitly listed, as long as their employer is named, you can find them. There are two ways:
    • You know how every new phone comes loaded with pre-installed apps that you will never use and you can't get rid of them? Well, you're going to use one of them. There is this app on cellphones called the phone feature (I believe that this is where the name "iPhone" comes from!). Use it to call the main number for their employer (which you can easily find on the internet). Ask to be connected to the employee. It may take a little bit of time, but companies don't really try to make their employees miss out on calls from the outside world.
    • If the phone is too scary, email them. I know your response already ("BUT I DON'T HAVE THEIR EMAIL ADDRESS!"), but it isn't difficult to figure out a work email address. While personal email accounts can be difficult to guess, corporations like to give the appearance of transparency so no sneakiness is allowed. My work emails have always been some variation/combination of my last name and then first name/initials/... Over the years, I've had,, etc. Once you know the pattern that a company uses, you're practically there. Suppose you want to contact Elmer Fudd at 3M. There are only 26 possibilities: start with, For more common names such as John Q. Public, you might need to try,'m sure someone could write an app to auto-generate all the possibilities. All you need is to know the format that the company uses. And that's easy to figure out since sites like this have done all the work for you.
  2. Now that you have captured your first industrial researcher, treat them like a spark and build a massive fire off of them. Ask them who else they know and could connect you to. Build a network off of these people and keep expanding it.
Was that so difficult? I realize this is pointed and snarky, but that Tweet this morning really got to me. I've been writing for years about how industrial researchers are seriously overlooked as a potential source of manpower and for someone to complain about difficulty in contacting us was just unnerving. And while the RSC was ahead of the curve in contacting me years ago to be a reviewer (they got my email address off of this blog!), they have never bothered with step 2. Their loss. For Peer Review Week 2015, let's make this the year that industrial researchers are finally recognized as a vast, wasted resource that they are, and then start to use them. [*] Clever people will take these techniques and put them to other constructive uses.

Previous Years September 28, 2012 - The Largest Molecule September 28, 2011 - Hidden Problems in Heat Transfer September 28, 2010 - Blur, perception and Distance >September 28, 2009 - Marketing that anyone can love

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Rubber bullets are (usually) not lethal, but these new plastic bullets are

The website-with-an-obvious-viewpoint, is reporting that polymer bullets are under development. The bullets are actually a polymer/copper composite (no idea of what the relative amounts of each are), but since they have less mass than a traditional round, there is less recoil when fired. But more interesting than the materials is the shape of the bullet. Take a look:
Plastic Bullets
They are rounded in the front (like many other ammunitions), but also scalloped in three locations. This design was not accidental (few designs ever are) and testing on ballistic gel has shown that this feature increase the lethalness of the bullet. Go to the article if you want the details; they are not appropriate for this column.

This opens the door to future designs that are even more "creative", since working with plastics is generally much easier than working with metals. And since we already have 3-D printed guns, it won't be too long before we have 3-D printed bullets too.

Previous Years

September 24, 2013 - Here's Research to Lift Your Spirits

September 24, 2012 - Bird-Brained Rheologists

September 24, 2010 - Biorenewables

September 24, 2010 - A Substitute for Aqua Regia

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Faking Plastic Currency

Canada introduced polymer currency back in 2011 in part due to their increase longevity compared to traditional paper currencies, and also in part due to the increased difficulty to counterfeiting. But that time is over. CBC News is reporting that fake C$ 100 are popping up in Regina, Saskatchewan. Take a look at the fakes (on top) and the real bills (on bottom):
Real and Fake Canadian Plastic Currency
The images are pretty well done; the only glitch is the silver tape (probably a vapor-coated aluminum PET) that was used instead of the clear holographic tape.

Somewhat ironically, this is the most science/technology oriented bill that Canada issues. The distinguished gentleman is Sir Robert Borden, a former Prime Minister (I had to look it up as my knowledge of Canadian PM's is limited to Trudeau and I couldn't pick him out of a police lineup), but there are also "stock" images of a women with an optical microscope (looks like it might even be a polarizing model), an EKG scan, the obligatory DNA double-helix and a vial of insulin.

But why the C$ 100 bill? Why not a smaller denomination like a 50 or a 20? A 100-dollar bill is likely to gather attention and closer inspection that a 20 and a 50 won't. 20's are standard issue from an ATM (although 50's are becoming more and more common) so people are unlikely to pay as close of attention. Unless the counterfeits are really that difficult to make so that the extra large denomination is the only way to make counterfeiter's scheme payoff, someone making smaller denominations could go on for a much longer time span before getting attention (and ultimately detention!).

Not having a criminal mindset, I don't know and never will.

Previous Years

September 22, 2014 - Back from Vacation

September 22, 2011 - Another Source of Ocean Plastics - Your Clothing

September 22, 2010 - Watch out all you Grandparents!

September 22, 2009 - Self-Healing Plastics

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Academic Patents vs. Industrial Patents

I've read a lot of patents (too many patents) over the years and have seen plenty of good ones and plenty of bad ones. A good patent will be based on an unexpected result, a true discovery instead of an incremental improvement in an existing field. It's usually pretty easy to show that it is a true discovery when you can find literature suggesting that your discovery will not work. Even better yet is when the literature explicitly states that your discovery will not work.

Bad patents on the other hand, exist for any of a number of reasons. They can have extremely narrow claims, they can be flat-out wrong (bad/unreliable data, goofy conclusions from the experiments, etc.) and they can be overly descriptive and provide too much information. It's this last category that I want to talk about today and the authors of such patents. My experience has been that they are almost always written by academic researchers and not industrial researchers.

Consider this recently published application that looks more like a research paper than a patent application. While it is a joint invention of researchers at Northwestern University and Dow Chemical, you can tell that the application was based on a paper that the Northwestern researchers had written for publication, only to later shoehorn it into a patent application. It describes a new catalyst for non-isocyanate containing polyurethane systems, an interesting area since isocyanates exposure can lead to some serious health issues. But the application contains way too much information, lots of which is irrelevant to obtaining approval for the application. For instance, Figure 3 shows the reaction kinetics:
Reaction kinetics for isocyanate-free polyurethanes
The text further explains that the lines are from second-order kinetic model and has values for the reaction constant and the activation energy. Figures 4 and 5 (not shown) have DSC and DMA sweeps (respectively) showing differences between the catalyzed and non-catalyzed polymers. Even the body of the application is filled with reaction mechanisms that really are not relevant to this issue at hand here: getting a patent with good claims.

If you are submitting this research to a journal such as Polymer Chemistry, you need that information. But all this additional information just detracts from getting a good patent: the information is never used in the claims at all or to differentiate this invention from previous, similar inventions. And worse yet, this information could be used by competitors in the future to show that the claimed invention should be narrower than originally issued since all this information goes to limit the claims. Suppose you find a catalyst that exhibits first- or-third order kinetics? That's not what was taught here, so the results are arguably patentable. Or a catalyst that left the DSC and DMA results unchanged? That sure seems patentable.

A patent written by industrial researchers might include kinetic information (this is a application for a catalyst after all) but it would be very crude. Mixture A cured in X hours while Mixture B cured in Y hours. No modeling, no theory, no kinetic parameters. It would only include DSC and DMA information to differentiate a new invention from previous inventions. While this lack of information gives the impression that industrial researchers are being secretive (and to some extent they are), they are also being defensive and trying to get and keep the broadest claims possible for their invention. Academic researchers would do well to learn from this approach.

The less you can say in a patent application, the better.

Hat tip to Geert Bleys of the Innovations in Polyurethanes blog for noticing this patent application.

Previous Years

September 15, 2014 - Plastics Scorecard v1.0 - I can't wait for v2.0

September 15, 2011 - Follow Up on Yesterday's Post

September 15, 2010 - Purging

September 15, 2010 - A Strange Connection (if it even exists)

September 15, 2009 - Tires for the moon (and beyond)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Plastic Chairs

Plastics chairs are a part of modern society, but they are not always greatly appreciated. However many design artists latch onto the the great choices in materials and shapes - and to some extent, the low costs - to try and create something significant. Yesterday the Style Page at reviewed 13 classic designs for plastic chairs in a slide show. Amazingly, the slides mention not only the materials that were used in making the chair, but also the manufacturing technique. The pictures of each chair are primitive as you can see with this one of the Panton Chair, my personal favorite:

The author clearly states their love of plastic, but of course has to throw in the standard, poorly-thought-out obligatory environmental complaint about the material as well:
"At the same time, plastics have created a contaminated, toxic world that needs to be reconsidered and resolved. There is great hope in biodegradable plastics, 100% recycled plastics, deriving plastics from sugar cane, plant-based and other renewable sources..."
A biodegradable chair? Wooden chairs are already biodegradable, but I am completely unaware of any facility will take them and compost them. You can burn wooden chairs, but you can burn plastic chairs as well. And as I discussed in the past, plant-based plastics will largely be identical to the petroleum-based plastics that we have today. Huge investments are being made to make bio-based ethylene, propylene, etc that will protect the huge investments already made to polymerize and process these plastics. Novel monomers (and thereby novel polymers) are possible, but it can take a decade and more to get a new polymer to be profitable, meaning that you need plenty of money and the guts to keep spending it when you don't see a payoff anytime soon.

While people love novel designs, no company is going through the expense of developing a new material just so that designers can be creative with it. I hate to be the one to disappoint the designers, but the future feedstocks for plastics chairs will look pretty much like what we already have today.

Previous Years

September 14, 2012 - The PR for Medical Research is Overhyped??? You Don't Say

September 14, 2011 - Here's What Single-Use Plastic Really Does

September 14, 2010 - Human Skin

September 14, 2010 - Plastics are loved by "The New Yorker"

September 14, 2009 - It's an attack on Organikers, I tell you

September 14, 2007 - Science Tattoos

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

3-D Printed Plastics to Detect Milk Spoilage

The website is reporting on a new 3D-printed plastic cap with embedded electronics that can detect the freshness of milk. Well, since it's 3-D printed, it's gotta be good, right? (Just like 30 years ago, anything that was done on a supercomputer had to be right. Gee, when was the last time you even heard the word "supercomputer"?)

You can read the article and see that it is some clever chemistry and engineering, but with no/none/zilch/nada-chance that this will ever make it to a grocery store near you. Of ALL the items in a grocery store, milk takes the cake for being the most price sensitive. Ground beef is a close second, but most stores end up selling milk for no profit, or even for a loss, just to get people to come into the store. So now these researchers are asking the store to take a bigger hit by paying for this fancy lid?

Furthermore, unlike other foods such as ground beef contaminated with e. coli or cold cuts rife with listeria monocytogenes, spoiled milk will not kill you. It probably won't even make you sick. The smell of spoiled milk should be enough to knock you out, but even if your nose is plugged and you missed the horrific odors, the taste and consistency will certainly have you spitting it out well before you could ever consume a large enough quantity to endanger you. Seriously, have you ever heard of someone dying from spoiled milk?

But there is one place where this technology could be useful: at the dairy farms themselves. Mastitis and other dairy diseases can greatly impact the quality of raw milk and when mixed with larger volumes of milk from healthy cattle, can lead to serious loses. The dairy industry is always in the need of faster and more robust tests and this might fit the bill. But consumers? Forget about it.

Previous Years

September 8, 2011 - Deuterated Gels

September 8, 2010 - Raising the Tg of PLA

September 8, 2010 - Interviewed by Chemjobber

Thursday, September 03, 2015

One Half Dozen

I don't guarantee that my count is accurate, but of all my contemporaries when I was in grad school, a total of 6 of us have gone on to be professors. Besides myself, there is
  • W. Burghardt (Northwestern)
  • M. E. Mackey (Delaware)
  • A. Tree (Oklahoma State)
  • B. Khomami (Tennessee)
  • B. Edwards (Tennessee)
That's a pretty impressive number considering that the research group was only about 10 people. It's even more surprising given the general atmosphere of the department. This was chemical engineering, not chemistry, and the overall attitudes towards teaching vs. working in industry are entirely different than what I perceive it to be in chemistry. It is perfectly acceptable in a chemical engineering department to have no desire to teach or do a post doc (assuming that you could even find one, as they are rather rare). To express a desire to work in industry puts you in the majority of students and that career option is never considered a failure.

But despite all of this, there are now 6 (or more (?)) of us working as professors.