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Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, lovingly compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.

Sriracha science. That’s hot! [ACS Reactions/YouTube]

A North Korea zoo welcomes a pack of Yorkshire terriers to its list of attractions. The zoo says to stay tuned for even more exciting additions, including an ant, a pineapple wearing sunglasses, and mold growing on a block of cheese. [Sky]

Scientists don’t need celebrities like Kimye and Brangelina to hook up in order to  to smash a couple of names together. Behold, the newly created particle “Dropleton,” a quantum droplet. [NBCNews]

Tired of making real molecules? Want to finally write that great novel? Well, use the elements in this Periodic Table of Storytelling to create “simple story molecules.” [Design Through Storytelling]

Finally, a genetic reason certain kids (and adults) poo-poo meals with cilantro, brussel sprouts, and kale. Now where’s the gene for not wanting to do the dishes? [iO9]

Female cat in France is being called a hero after saving 11 people from a burning building. The cat may have thwarted a house fire, but she has only stoked the fire in Pepé Le Pew’s heart for French felines even more. [Mother Nature Network]

Turns out the chickens laying the organic eggs are eating pricey imported food. They should probably just start laying golden eggs with those kinds of hoity-toity demands. [NPR]

More cat-fire news! Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have uncovered 500-year-old German manuscripts illustrating how to use a “rocket-cat” to set an enemy’s castle ablaze. Pentagon officials call it the purrrrr-fect way to launch a drone strike in the 16th century. [Philly.com]

They say, “one of the few pieces of art that can expand your mind and give you type 2 diabetes at the same time.” We say, “Sweet!” [Wired]

Guest Post: “Recent Gender Ruckus Reminds Us To Be Vigilant” by Maureen Rouhi

Today’s post is by Maureen Rouhi, C&EN’s Editor-in-chief.

Suspicions of sexism roiled the theoretical chemistry community last month when organizers of the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry (ICQC) posted a partial list of speakers. The all-male list prompted theoretical chemists Emily A. Carter of Princeton University; Laura Gagliardi of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; and Anna Krylov of the University of Southern California to urge a boycott of the conference for its “gender-biased discriminatory practices.”

Gender inequity continues to persist in science. Until it disappears, we all must remain ready to expose it, because exposure leads to awareness, which improves fairness.

The 15th ICQC will be held in China in June . It is being organized by chemistry professor Zhigang Shuai of Tsinghua University, under the sponsorship of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science. The academy’s president is Josef Michl, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The boycott call, he says, could be pivotal “in the long and difficult struggle that women have faced in science in general.” In a letter to academy members, he thanked Carter, Gagliardi, and Krylov for “raising a well-justified objection.” He also apologized for the “premature public release of a partial speaker list.”

“It is really terrible that this happened,” says Kendall N. Houk about the events that led to the boycott call. Houk is a chemistry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an invited speaker. “But at least it has catalyzed a visible uproar and vivid reminder that chemists need to keep vigilant to avoid lapsing into old, bad habits that continue to disadvantage women scientists.” Houk says female members usually make up at least 25% of his research group. “They are becoming excellent computational chemists, and I look forward to their being speakers at future ICQC meetings.”

“The majority of the theoretical chemistry community is welcoming to female scientists,” says Sharon Hammes-Schiffer, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and an invited speaker. However, she adds, certain pockets “have cultures that are less welcoming to female scientists,” and people must speak up and point out unfairness when it is apparent, as in the case of the 15th ICQC’s all-male partial speaker list.

“Despite increasing awareness, biases are still prevalent in certain situations,” Hammes-Schiffer says. The boycott petition and the ensuing discussions will force people to examine their subconscious biases and to behave and make decisions in a manner that will lead to change, she adds. “As more women move into leadership positions and as the gender ratio continues to become more balanced, the culture will shift. Until then, we need to remain vigilant and to train our students and postdocs in a way that ensures that future generations will create a culture that is equally welcoming to both genders.”

In the meantime, the list of speakers for the 15th ICQC has evolved. To date, of 33 invited speakers, seven are women, a larger share than in previous ICQCs. Whether the boycott call caused this spike, I can’t tell. I give the organizers the benefit of the doubt that they had planned to invite this many women all along.

Whether this representation fairly reflects women’s participation in the field is another question. Michl says one has to look at those who lead research groups because they would be the pool of potential speakers. An educated guess could come from examining the corresponding authors in journals that publish only theoretical chemistry. In the 2013 issues of the Journal of Chemical Theory & Computation, the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry, Theoretical Chemistry Accounts, and the Journal of Computation Chemistry, women represented 11.49% of corresponding authors, for a 1:9 ratio of women to men, according to Michl. “The numbers clearly provide only a partial view, since much theory is published in journals that also publish articles from other subdisciplines; for example, the Journal of Physical Chemistry and the Journal of Chemical Physics,” he says.

Whatever is the true representation of women in the field, “it is low, and we need to continue to bring more women into theoretical chemistry,” Michl says. He notes that about 40% of graduate students in theory today are women. “This generation will run the show in a decade or two,” he says. “And the ratio of 1:9 will then be nothing but a bad memory.”

Tesoro says CSB lacks jurisdiction to investigate acid leak

On Feb. 12, two Tesoro workers were injured in an acid leak at a refinery in Martinez, Calif. News accounts say that the workers were airlifted to the University of California, Davis, medical center, treated for first- and second-degree burns, and released.

The incident occurred mere weeks after the U.S. Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board released a draft report on a 2010 fire at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., that killed seven workers. (For more on what’s going on with that draft report, see my colleague Jeff Johnson’s story, Regulatory Overhaul Stumbles.)

CSB investigators deployed to Martinez as well and made it onto the site initially. Then Tesoro barred the investigators from further access. “We’ve certainly faced our share of jurisdictional challenges, but I can’t think of another refinery or chemical plant that has taken a position that injuries aren’t serious enough for us to investigate and that we lack jurisdiction,” CSB managing director Daniel M. Horowitz told the Contra Costa Times.

Yesterday, CSB board members responded to Tesoro in writing, including some details of what the agency already learned about the incident:

We point out that our investigation team has determined already that approximately five gallons a minute was leaking until isolated. Acid splashing on worker’s unprotected faces or other parts of the body, resulting in first and second-degree burns requiring air evacuations to a hospital burn unit, treatment, and subsequent significant lost time at work, absolutely constitute serious injuries. …

Our draft report on the 2010 accident at Tesoro’s Anacortes refinery which killed seven workers on January 30, 2014, found a multitude of shortcomings in Tesoro’s plant safety culture. The CSB is interested in examining safety culture issues stemming from the February 12 incident, providing another legal ground for our inquiry.

At the Martinez facility, despite your counsel’s efforts to block our access, we have proceeded in our investigation and have determined that a mechanical integrity failure occurred on equipment connected to a 100,000 gallon process vessel containing flammable hydrocarbons and concentrated sulfuric acid, resulting in the sprayed acid, and that operators being sprayed by acid and caustic during routine sampling activities is a common occurrence.

We have also learned that protective equipment required by procedure for sampling was not provided for the workers at the time – operators did not have ready access to face shields and acid suit jackets at the Martinez facility.

Furthermore, some workers have made the assertion to us and to their union representatives that they have been fearful for their jobs at times when they wished to express safety concerns. We therefore seek further access and renewed cooperation with your company in order to determine all the facts.

Whatever happens with CSB, Tesoro certainly can’t bar the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health from the site. The Washington state Department of Labor & Industries cited Tesoro for 40 willful and five serious labor code violations and fined it $2.39 million for the Anacortes explosion.

Dow worker death likely due to reaction of trimethylindium with cleaning fluid

On Oct. 9, 2013, an explosion and fire at a Dow Chemical electronic materials facility in North Andover, Mass., led to the death of production operator Carlos A. Amaral, 51. According to a statement released by Dow and dated the end of January, the company’s investigation into the incident concluded that:

• An employee sustained injuries as a result of the overpressure of a small stainless steel manufacturing vessel during an operation associated with a Trimethylindium (TMI) manufacturing batch.
• An undesired and unexpected reactive chemical event occurred within the vessel as the employee was transporting the vessel from the glove box to the next manufacturing unit for further processing.
• The overpressure resulted in a release of reacted and unreacted materials and a fire.

The most highly probable cause of the unplanned event was the ingress of cleaning liquid from the cavity space of the ball valve into the crude TMI. Due to the nature of the event, it is impossible to completely validate this conclusion.

I asked Jeremy Cole, business communications manager at Dow Electronic Materials, whether Dow is changing anything regarding cleaning or other handling of the reaction vessel. He said yes, but so far he has declined to provide additional details.

The federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration is investigating the incident, because Massachusetts does not have its own occupational safety and health program. OSHA currently lists the case as open.

Feb. 26 update–Some more information from Dow’s Cole:

the following is the facility’s action plan:
• Prior to TMI production restart, the facility will consider alternate cleaning processes that use cleaning materials that do not react with TMI. If an alternate cleaning process is not feasible, the facility will define a means to confirm the absence of cleaning materials in void spaces and the vessel prior to addition of raw materials.
• The facility will consider modifications to the manufacturing process to increase the tolerance of intrusion of small amounts of cleaning materials as well as variability of raw materials.
• The facility will conduct a review of its Process Hazard Analyses and determine whether any improvements are recommended. Improvements will be captured in appropriate process documentation.

Stop Saying Indonesia is the Third-largest GHG Emitter

Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech in Indonesia early this week warning about failure to act against climate change attracted a lot of media attention.

Several news outlets, while covering Kerry’s remarks, stated that Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after the U.S. and China. Both the New York Times and NPR’s News Hour reported this startling claim. It was not part of the Secretary’s statement.

And that’s a good thing, because it appears to be quite wrong. According to data released in October 2013 from the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, Indonesia’s contribution of greenhouse gas is more comparable to that of Italy than to the U.S. or China.

Even when including land-use changes, a stringent measure that significantly increases Indonesia’s output, the archipelago emits fewer tons of GHG than the U.S., China, Russia, Brazil, India, Japan, Germany, Canada, UK, Mexico, and Australia.

So where does the “third-largest” factoid come from, then? From what I can tell, this was an estimate made by the UN back in 2005, shortly after the country ratified the Kyoto protocol. It is not clear how accurate that figure ever was. It’s true that Indonesia is still ranked fairly high considering that it is not a developed country, but in its defense, it is the fourth most populous nation on earth.

Another contributing factor to this claim is likely the many reports about deforestation and other actions in the country to convert land to agricultural uses, such as for palm oil plantations. These land use changes do make a huge contribution to emissions. Concerns about land conversion have driven demand for certified sustainable palm oil.

Still, if we’re going to call out specific countries for their overly-large contributions to climate change, let’s at least get our facts straight.

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, lovingly compiled by Sophia Cai, Bethany Halford, and Jeff Huber.

Modern Farmer magazine makes playlist for cows. Cows say the gesture really mooooooooves them. Credit: Keith Weller/USDA/Wikimedia Commons

Cows make more milk when listening to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” We thought they’d be more into the band’s hit “Stand.” [Grist]

The cold of this year’s winter has killed off more stink bugs than usual, which is unfortunate because we now all have one less animal to blame our farts on this spring. [Washington Post]

Foiling Generation Y’s plan to replace actual human emotion with emoticons, study shows that our brains don’t process emoticons the same way we process human faces. [NBC]

That said, dogs and humans share similar neural processing of voices and emotions, leading parents to wonder if they have more in common with their pets than with their texting tweens.  [Wired]

The next time you’re tempted to go to bed early at a scientific meeting rather than stay out drinking with your fellow conferees, remember that’s how Peter Higgs lost out on his first opportunity to win the Nobel Prize. [BBC]

This remote-control Nerf-firing robot could be fun at the next office party. [Gizmodo]

Most e-cigarettes let people smoke indoors, but the Supersmoker Bluetooth now lets people answer their phones between puffs. [Gizmodo]

Pet octopuses demand constant attention, expensive food, and tremendous amounts of upkeep. But those aren’t the only reasons to get one! [Mother Nature Network]

Study suggests that cats are more likely to bite depressed people. So the next time a cat bites you, don’t blame it, blame your ineffective antidepressants instead. [Popular Science]

Big Growth Seen for Biobased Materials and Chemicals

Technologies for – and commercialization of – materials and chemicals made from a variety of biobased feedstocks “have reached an inflection point” and are poised to grow significantly over the next four years, according to the minds over at Lux Research.

Just Ducky. Biobased capacity, like for non-phthalate plasticizers, has a bright future

Research analyst Julia Allen says overall capacity will nearly double, reaching 13.2 metric tons in 2017.  Growth rates by segment vary but all are robust, spanning intermediate and specialty chemicals and polymers. The biggest percentage growth, and largest category of production, will be for intermediates like adipic acid and that old fashioned biobased product, lactic acid.

The only fly in the punch mentioned in the press release (full report available to Lux clients) is that cellulosic feedstocks are likely to continue to grow  slowly. Corn starch and sugar cane will still dominate, and oily bio feestocks and waste gas will also play a role.

Here’s a nice example of the biobased industry’s maturation. One of the larger biobased chemical intermediate companies is Myriant, a producer of succinic acid made from sugar. Today the company said it has supplied commercial quantities to downstream customer Oxea for use in production of pthalate-free plasticizers. Oxea is a large-ish intermediates company owned by Oman Oil Company. Applications for the plasticizer include food cling wraps, flooring, soft toys and adhesives & sealants.

Of course, just because the industry as a whole is on surer footing and poised for growth, does not mean the same is true for individual companies. In fact, once the market is in a position to determine demand and pricing, we may see what business reporters politely call “consolidation.”

For instance, Florida-based biobased specialty chemical company LS9 was recently bought by mainstream biodiesel fuel maker Renewable Energy Group for a not-huge price tag. And biobased plastics supplier Cereplast has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy just this week.

The West Virginia Chemical Spill: Chemists React

Today’s post is by Amanda Yarnell, assistant managing editor of C&EN’s science/technology/education group.

As part of our coverage of the West Virginia chemical spill, C&EN contacted a number of ACS members living in the affected area. We couldn’t fit all their stories into our report, so we’re sharing pieces of them here. Their tales reflect those of many Charleston area residents, who found out on January 9 that their tap water had been contaminated with a chemical used in coal processing. And they give a chemist’s perspective on the spill’s effects on daily life.

Like other residents, the chemists C&EN spoke to headed out to buy water when they heard the news.

Retired chemist Barbara Warren, who lives more than 2 miles from the Kahawha and Elk rivers, drove to her local Rite Aid. “The parking lot was full of cars. There was no water remaining there, nor was there any milk, juice, soft drinks, or any nonalcoholic drinks of any kinds. There were many empty shelves. Many were buying beer and wine and large bags of ice.”

When she got home, she and her husband found that they still had water in their 1991 pop-top Volkswagen van, leftover from a fall camping trip. A few days later, it rained, and her husband collected about 60 gallons of rainwater in coolers. “We used this for washing ourselves and dishes. I used two huge crab pots to keep hot water on the stove which could be mixed with cold rain water for warm water.”

Madan Bhasin also found a way to get clean, despite the water ban. The chief scientific adviser at Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center drained his hot water heater as soon as he heard the news. “I used it to take a nice warm bath.”

Xiaoping Sun, a chemistry professor at the University of Charleston, lives and works in the affected area. “Per the order, the water could only be used for flushing toilets and extinguishing fires,” he says. “Routine tasks such as brushing our teeth required thought to remind ourselves to not turn on the tap water. Washing dishes, laundry, and hands – these basic routine tasks could have put our family in harm.”

Although officials have cleared tap water to drink for all but pregnant women and children, Sun and other chemists C&EN spoke with continue to stick to bottled water for drinking and cooking.

“We ask whether they are using bottled water before eating in restaurants,” adds Sun’s U of Charleston chemistry colleague Juliana Serafin.

Serafin had to resort to making her coffee with soda water in the spill’s early days.
Credit: Courtesy of Juliana Serafin

Warren installed a 10-inch countertop filter on her kitchen faucet with the best activated carbon 0.5 micron filter she could find. “I use that water for cooking and drinking, or we use purchased spring or purified water.”

“Times have changed,” Warren says. “At Stanford as an undergraduate, I remember doing an azeotropic distillation of carbon tetrachloride and benzene without hoods. We all got headaches. At the University of Chicago, we used to do reactions without gloves and wash our hands with hexane and acetone and methylene chloride directly, and sometimes chloroform.” She says they kept the same solvents in squeeze bottles by the sink just for washing. “After several years of that, I figure that MCHM and various unknowns will not kill me. Nevertheless, I may as well drink purified water or water from a source that is tested.”

Just as getting water was challenging in the days after the spill, getting accurate information also posed a problem for residents.

Sun notes that the recent chemical spill “has caused a high level of panic in this area. One reason for this heightened level of concern and precaution is due to the mixed guidance coming from local, state, and federal officials.”

Manufacturing process chemist Mark Darcy cites another reason. “I think there are huge differences in residents’ perception of risk. To someone who doesn’t know much chemistry, it’s alarming.”

Sun used details of the spill to bring practical chemistry to life for his chemistry students. Credit: U of Charleston


Hoping to change that, Sun and his colleagues have treated the incident as a teaching moment for their students. “I believe that after this unfortunate event, I have been able to strengthen my organic chemistry class,” Sun says. He’s described the structure, nomenclature, and fundamental chemical properties of crude 4-methylcyclo­hexanemethanol, the licorice-smelling chemical released into the local water supply. “And I’ve been able to strengthen my general chemistry class by bringing to the classroom practical chemistry in everyday life.”