Tuesday, May 31, 2016

"Plastic is a design failure, it never dies" (?)

While out yachting yesterday with some chums on the good ship Rheothing and glancing through the newest offerings from Billionaire.com (gauche, I know, but there simply isn't a Multibillionaire.com site) I was between bites of Coquilles Saint-Jacques and sips of vintage Mo√ęt, (You were expecting me to say "Dom"? Oh good heavens! Most certainly not with Coquilles Saint-Jacques), when I came upon the most repulsive idea I have ever read:
I insisted to the captain that we must immediately dock, even if it was just in Newport, and that the Rheothing jet was to be waiting at the nearest airport so that I could get back home quickly and scribe a reply.

Oh where to begin. How about with the assumption that plastic never dies? Of course it does. Plastics are organic chemicals, vulnerable to degradation from oxygen, UV light, heat, ozone, mechanical stresses and more. That's why we add additives to plastics - to combat these problems. The additives help for a time, but they don't last forever as in many cases, they are organic chemicals themselves. This degradation drives museum curators batty trying to preserve art made from plastic.

Or maybe we can begin with the assumption that this is a design failure? No, the usefulness of plastics is in large part due to their inertness. The author of that inane article on billionaire.com is alive and well and able to post their mindless drivel because of the inertness of plastics. The keyboard that they type on, the mouse that they click, the coatings on the wires inside the computer and on the power cord and on the electrical circuitry in the walls of the home/office that they worked in and much more are all made of plastics, plastics that last for quite a long time. By design. Is the author really suggesting that the coating on electrical wires should have a shorter product life? Are they will to apologize for all the lives and property that will be damaged and lost because of their proposal to short out electrical systems (by design)?

Ironic picture of nasty plastic trash on a beach with a plastic surfboard
The site is so clueless as to have this photograph on the right accompanying the article. Yes, there is a lot of trash on the beach, but the surfer's board is made of plastic and their suit is also a polymeric material, both of which - by design - are intended to last for a very long time.

Anything made of metal is also - by design - intended to last a long time. So how come metals don't get the same bad rap as plastics?

Previous Years

May 31, 2011 - Plastics: A Toxic Love Story

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Shocking News! Biodegradable Plastics don't Biodegrade in the Ocean!

Just as Captain Renault was "...shocked! - shocked! - to find that gambling is going on in here!", the announcements surrounding the newest United Nations Environment Programme report that biodegradable plastics don't biodegrade in the ocean is as equally unshocking. But you would not know that from the much of the hullabaloo around the web.

"The enemy of the environment" screams one such headline. For me to call that an overstatement is equally as much of an understatement. Biodegradable plastics make up such a small proportion of all plastics (keep in mind that the Big 6 are high density polyethylene, low density polyethylene, polypropylene, polystyrene, polyester and polyvinyl chloride, they comprise 76% of all plastics produced and they all are non-biodegradable), that their lack of biodegradability in the oceans is an equally small concern.

Besides, I really have never seen much potential for biodegradable plastics, at least as an approach to pollution elimination. No matter what the material, biodegradability is a slow process and yet the creation of pollution is instantaneous. Newsprint is one of the most biodegradable materials available, but newspaper pages blowing around in the park is still considered an eyesore and an example of pollution for the weeks that the paper is still undegraded.

Biodegradation is a long-term solution to immediate pollution, and this new report simply confirms what has been known for decades. Plastics has no business being in the ocean - do your part to keep it out.

Previous Years

May 25, 2012 - My Favorite Toxic Chemical

May 25, 2011 - A New Variable in Polymer Degradation Chemistry

May 25, 2010 - Exhibits that I liked at ANTEC

May 25, 2007 - Why I hate polyurethanes

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Haber-Bosch and General Chemistry

C & E News is reporting a new iron-sulfur based gel that catalyzes the formation of ammonia from nitrogen. In contrast to the existing Haber-Bosch process which heats the nitrogen to ~ 400 oC under ~ 200 atm of pressure, this new process is performed at room temperature and in water. Depending on whose estimate you look at, the Haber-Bosch process uses between 1 and 2 % of the world's energy.

The social significance of this reaction is far greater, in that the product, ammonia, is then used to either directly as a fertilizer or it can be converted into ammonium nitrate - also a fertilizer, but one that is less hazardous to handle. The process was invented just over 100 years ago and has revolutionized agriculture. Prior to the invention, nitrogen fertilizers were limited to guano. With this new process for fertilizer preparation, agricultural production began to increase exponentially (as did population), so much so that it has been estimated that 80% of the nitrogen in your body has been inside a Haber-Bosch reactor. [*]

While I can see the potential for this new discovery, my more immediate thoughts (and ones that I would not have had just a year ago before I started teaching) are regarding chemical education. General chemistry is rife with multiple discussions on the Haber-Bosch process. The text that I use discusses it repeatedly in the sections on equilibrium, Le Chatelier's principle, the ideal gas law, partial pressures...No more Haber-Bosch process and the book needs a major rewrite.

Actually, I seriously doubt that a major rewrite would occur. Once a textbook is established, it becomes a Katamari Damcy ball that increases in size with each new edition as more and more material is added and nothing is taken away. The text I use still has a overview of qualitative analysis of metallic elements:
Going old school - qualitative analysis of metals!
Seriously? Haven't the authors heard of an ICP? Look at the buckets of hazardous waste that this scheme generates. Also note shown in the scheme is that a flame test is proposed as the final step for identifying sodium in the alkali metals. Why don't we just send a telegraph of the analysis back to headquarters, using a gravity cell to power the process while we're at it since we seem to be stuck in the early 20th century?

No, the more likely outcome is that new textbooks would just not include the Haber-Bosch process and that would be a loss due to its usefulness in tying together so many concepts. It also gives us a chance to talk of the full work of Fritz Haber and to get students to start thinking early on about the ethical concerns that they and other scientists may have to face. Time will tell. Most new discoveries never make it far from the bench, and that is the likely outcome for this one as well.

[*] I've seen that 80% figure before, but never looked at the original source. Check it out for yourself (the article linked above is open access) and you'll see that there is no reference provided for it. So is this another one of those mythical numbers without any basis, such as the "8-glasses of water a day" legend?

Previous Years

May 24, 2012 - Slimy Alien Invaders in Minnesota?

May 24, 2011 - Smallest 3D Printer

May 24, 2007 - Why I love polyurethanes

Monday, May 23, 2016

Are plastics to blame for a diplomatic spat?

Plastics are often unfairly blamed for many problems in the world, but being blamed for a diplomatic spat is novel. But that is what the Daily Mail is doing. The Queen was heard to say that the Chinese in a recent visit were "rude". She thought that she was speaking privately and in a low enough tone to not be widely heard but that was not the case.
"Her majesty was clutching a clear plastic brolly in the drizzle, but it appears it amplified her comments and sent them towards a microphone belonging to her own personal cameraman. If her majesty was using a typical umbrella or the sun had been shining her comments would not have surfaced."
The Queen and here magical voice amplifying umbrella

The Chinese were bothered by the remarks, but I don't expect much to come of it in the long run.

But are plastics really to blame? I think the shape of the umbrella is this case with its deep bowl and the not the flatter design of say, a golf umbrella would play a huge role. But more importantly, the article notes that the cameraman was using a "sensitive directional microphone". So did the umbrella play a role at all? Since even more sophisticated electronic eavesdropping equipment exists, the Queen really should be careful with any remarks she makes in any public area.

There is the old American expression from World War II "Loose lips sink ships". Perhaps her Majesty would do well to consider it.
Loose lips sink ships

Previous Years

May 23, 2011 - Serendipity

May 23, 2011 - This is underwhelming, really underwhelming

Thursday, May 19, 2016

3M is NOT science

Sports, particularly in the US never seems to reach a limit in its attempts to increasingly commercialize itself. Stadiums used to have names with a history behind them, but now they are all named after corporate sponsors. And then there are all the "official" products, especially with NFL football, which range from the mundane (Courtyard by Marriott is the official hotel) to the strange (Bridgestone is the official tire - this is football, not auto racing) to the truly bizarre (Covergirl is the official beauty product line. Seriously? How many NFL players use Covergirl?)

But yesterday saw a new level of commercialization that first had me laughing but then got me quite made: 3M is now the "Official Science Partner" of the Minnesota Vikings. What does that even mean? Details are few, but it does appear that 3M's line of bandages will be available at the first aid stations around the stadium, and of course they get a banner in the stadium but beyond that, not much else is explained.

But think about this further. 3M ≠ science. Official Science Partner? How can someone or some company suddenly claim "science" for themselves and then use it for commercial gain? With the other "official" products and services that the league and teams have, the "official" product or service is something that the company actually sells. 3M, however, does not sell science. They sell Post-It notes and sticky tapes and cleaning supplies and respirators and tens of thousands of other products, but they do not sell science. Call their toll-free number (1-800-3MHELPS) and tell that you want to buy some science and could they forward you to the proper salesperson.

Science is not for sale [1] and no one is in charge of selling it. So for 3M to suddenly equate itself with science and then leverage it for profit is maddening. How long until this cashing in with the name of science spreads to other sports, not just with a single team, but at a league level? What if Monsanto wanted to the be official science partner to the Premier League? Or if Amgen wanted to be the official science partner to cycling? (Oh wait, they already are [2].) To cloak a company within the good cloth of science is just too much for me.

Unfortunately, science as a term has no legitimate defenders. I can't see any legal recourse available. Even showing standing would be a nightmare, let alone damages. Short of an organized social media campaign putting pressure on the Vikings and/or 3M, I think this is the future and we are stuck with it.

[1] Publishers of non-open-access journals make me think otherwise at times

[2] I'm looking at you, Lance Armstrong.

Previous Years

May 19, 2014 - A Portfolio of Biobased PE and PP

May 19, 2010 - Back in the Office

May 19, 2009 - Accelerated aging gets even faster

Monday, May 16, 2016

Even the Megacorporations can be defrauded

While it is very common to read reports of individuals falling victim to fraudulent internet and email schemes, it is much less common to hear of businesses being scammed, especially very large businesses. But apparently that has happened with LG Chem and Saudi Aramco (the latter arguably be the largest company in the world). Plastemart reported last week that LG Chem was supposed to wire $21 million to Aramco as payment for some petroleum distillates that they had ordered. But things fell apart when LG Chem received an email detailing a "new" account number to wire the money too. The "new" account, as you might now guess, was not an account that belonged to Aramco.

This reeks of an inside job - someone not only had access to Aramco's email system but also knew that LG Chem was supposed to be making the payment, so the list of suspects is probably pretty short.

We've not actually seen the email that LG Chem claimed they received, so we just have to trust that the letter did indeed supply a new account number. OR maybe, just maybe, it might have started like this:
"Dear LG Chem,

You may not believe your luck, but I am His Royal Highness, Sheikh Abdul al Abdul and I have $773 millions dollars in a Nigerian bank account and I urgently need your help..."

Previous Years

May 16, 2014 - The New Wonder Polymer

May 16, 2013 - Buy & Selling Division in the Polymer Industry

May 16, 2012 - Time to Test My Beliefs

May 16, 2011 - Updating the Blogroll

May 16, 2011 - Definitely Updating the Blog Roll

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Music influencing chemical reactions

The polymer chemistry world was "rocked" a few months back when an Australian research group announced that they had developed a new method for preparing potential cancer fighting medications that were overcoated with a Teflon-like coating generated from a plasma. What was so rocking about this? Well, in order to achieve a uniform coating over the entire particle, they needed a way to keep the particles in a constant tumbling motion. And being Australian, the music of AC/DC came to mind, and "Thunderstruck" in particular. They turned the volume up to 11 and voila, success and a paper that caught the attention of many more scientists (and the popular media) than it otherwise would.

Music, and more broadly speaking, sound is mechanical waves that vary longitudinally (rather than transversely as with most other waves), so the use of it is not without merit. But this is not the first time that music in particular has been used to influence a chemical reaction. A little over 2 years ago, researchers in Kobe Japan used classical music to influence a chemical reaction. I don't know of any other reports of music influencing chemical reactions, but the leap from classical to rock was first suggested in a tweet from Vittorio Saggiomo.

I personally prefer Guns n Roses ("Take me down to Polymer city - where PLA is green and pigments are pretty - oh won't you please take me home...) so next time I'm in the lab and have an appetite for destruction, I may just see if a little GnR can be used for accelerated aging of polymers. I have this hunch that it just might work.

Previous Years

May 11, 2016 - How Cheap are Recycled Plastics Nowadays?

May 11, 2012 - What a Crappy Project

May 11, 2011 - Bouncing Jello at 6,200 Frames/Second

May 11, 2010 - Flow-Induced Phase Separation

May 11, 2010 - "9 Shocking Things Made from Oil" - Not!

May 11, 2010 - 10 Things I Like about Polymer Chemistry

May 11, 2010 - Follow Up on "9 Shocking Things Made From Oil"

May 11, 2007 - A much better QC test

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

BPA gets rehashed again

As might be expected when taking a 2-month "sabbatical" from blogging, there is plenty to comment on regarding BPA.

Campbell Soup is still feeling more heat than a simmering can of Chicken-and-Stars soup (sorry, couldn't resist) to get BPA out of the can liners. Still. As Plastics Today noted, this is not the first go-around for them. They had already said they were removing the BPA-containing liners back in 2012. The article pussy-foots around the obvious: they were only committing to do so in the future once an alternative could be identified even as it sounded like they were all ready to make the change. That certainly helped buy them some time as the concerned groups and individuals put the issue on the "back-burner" (sorry again).

4 years later and the alternative is still not in place and so they are feeling the heat again. This time, 2017 is the promised deadline to be BPA free. But of course, the unanswered question is what is the alternative and is it safer than the current liners.

Not content to just pressure companies, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, the European equivalent for the US's FDA [*]), has been asked to re-examine the safety of BPA despite having as recently as last January decided that the material does not pose a risk to ordinary consumers. And the FDA has consistently agreed with EFSA. As have other government bodies around the world.

All of this fuss over a can of soup when a clear alternative easily exists: make your own soup. It's pretty darn difficult to screw up making a soup and it will certainly taste better than anything from a can. The kitchen will smell wonderful and if you are concerned, you can control how much salt you add. Better yet, you can use fresh organic vegetables and free-range chicken (all locally sourced of course!) and knock yourself out with how the righteousness of your soup will protect the planet, improve your health and save the children.

[*] Update 5/19/2016: As is noted in one of the comments below, the EFSA is the equivalent of the FDA, but only the F (Food) part and not the D (Drug) part.

Previous Years

May 10, 2012 - The Technical Data Sheet for a Polymer? You Can Pretty Much Ignore Them

May 10, 2011 - The Reason for Resin

May 10, 2011 - Another Unique Bike

May 10, 2010 - Time-temperature Superposition and going nuts

May 10, 2007 - Chemical Comics

Monday, May 09, 2016

School's Out for Summer

The finals have been scored, the grades have been entered, the begging and pleading for higher grades has ended, the course evaluations ("student's revenge") have been compiled and with that, it's officially summer for me.

Teaching was a lot more difficult than I imagined. Being prepared for speak 3 days a week for 70 minutes at a time takes a good amount of time. Whenever I've given a technical presentation, I could spend days getting ready and perfecting a 30 minutes talk. I had no such luxury here. And then throw in the added time for writing and grading quizzes and exams and much of the week is shot because of just one class. And then the office hours too.

Having gone through this once, next year will be much better. The lecture notes will only need tweaking, and not be created from scratch. And I now know much better what to expect from the students and what to really emphasize, (although I also wonder if it will be the case of a general preparing to fight the previous war).

So this all means (for better or worse) more regular posting here. I'll get back into the polymers again tomorrow.

Previous Years

May 9, 2014 - A Self-Healing Polymer for Really Big Holes

May 9, 2013 - The Oil Economy - It Will Be Around Longer Than Anyone Thinks

May 9, 2012 - Peak Plastic? Not a Chance

May 9, 2011 - Some thoughts on Choosing a Major: Chemistry or Chemical Engineering?