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Archive → February, 2009

Save The Earth, Choose Chicken

Two news items yesterday got me thinking that I should seriously consider eating less meat to help slow climate change.

The first is about research in New Zealand to get sheep to burp less, according to the Wall Street Journal

(Feb 26, 2009, page A1). That’s because when sheep—as well as cows, deer, and goats—burp, they emit methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide emitted by nonruminants such as pigs, chicken, and humans. Ruminants have complex stomachs that enable them to digest leaves, grass, hay, and other cellulose-rich food; a digestion by-product is methane, produced by methanogenic bacteria in the ruminants’ gut. The researchers are trying various ways to reduce methane in the burp, from modifying the diet to breeding animals that would eat less grass.

These efforts apparently are necessary because New Zealand “is home to about 35 million sheep—nearly 10 times the human population—and millions of cows, deer and goats.” Perhaps if people reduced their appetite for ruminant meat, the methane-rich burps of these animals would not be so problematic. We would still have swine and chicken, wouldn’t we?

Well, maybe scratch pork too, on the basis of the second news item, from Purdue University, about using soybean oil to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in swine barns. The researchers sprayed the barns with soybean oil at a rate of 5 mL per square meter for one minute per day. Aren’t there more valuable uses of soybean oil? Anyway, the treatment reduced methane and carbon dioxide emissions by up to 20%. Okay, except that soybean oil is now more expensive than it was when the study was conducted. “In addition, some of the oil ended up on the floor, the pigs, the feeders and fans,” one researcher says in the press release, raising the amount of energy needed to clean the barn.

I’ll just eat less pork, too. Chicken with broccoli, anyone?

"Miracle Liquid" Chemistry

shutterstock_6969091.jpgA story in the Los Angeles Times

on Monday described a couple of environmentally-friendly ”miracle liquids“: one is a cleaner and degreaser, the other a disinfectant. They’re so mild that you can drink them, straight up. What, exactly, are these potions? According to the LAT:

Actually, it’s chemistry. For more than two centuries, scientists have tinkered with electrolysis, the use of an electric current to bring about a chemical reaction (not the hair-removal technique of the same name that’s popular in Beverly Hills). That’s how we got metal electroplating and large-scale production of chlorine, used to bleach and sanitize.

It turns out that zapping salt water with low-voltage electricity creates a couple of powerful yet nontoxic cleaning agents. Sodium ions are converted into sodium hydroxide, an alkaline liquid that cleans and degreases like detergent, but without the scrubbing bubbles. Chloride ions become hypochlorous acid, a potent disinfectant known as acid water.

So they’re making a solution of sodium hydroxide for cleaning, along with a solution of hypochlorous acid for disinfecting. If I’ve got my electrochemistry right, the system actually generates Cl2 at the cathode. The Cl2 then reacts with water to make HOCl and HCl.

Sodium hydroxide is, of course, lye. It’s not a big stretch to label that a cleaner. Nontoxic, though? Hopefully it’s a very dilute solution. A review paper by one of the sources in the story, Yen-Con Hung, a professor of food science and technology at the University of Georgia, Griffin, says the pH is around 10.0-11.5.

And yes, HOCl is akin to beach, which is generally made from NaOCl. Pools are also disinfected with NaOCl. The fact that HOCl is a relatively human-friendly disinfectant doesn’t strike me as surprising. According to Hung, final “electrolyzed water” solutions typically have about 30-40 ppm HOCl and a pH of about 2.5. The low pH accounts for why “acid water” is a better disinfectant than bleach, because HOCl is a stronger oxidant than OCl-.

Clearly there are no real surprises here. The electrochemical systems make dilute solutions of well-known chemicals. But I guess if you’re pitching a $10,000 electrochemical set-up to a hotel, or a $3,000 unit to a home, you’ve got to justify it somehow. Calling it environmentally friendly seems to work. I have to question, however, whether the electrochemical approach is actually greener than, say, simply buying lye and bleach and diluting them.

Alert C&EN readers will know that my colleague Marc Reisch covered this topic earlier this month in a story on industrial production of bleach using electrolysis. There, the principal benefit is avoiding transportation of chlorine gas. Reisch notes, however, that electrolysis consumes a lot of energy. Consequently, the industrial systems are more popular in states with inexpensive power. Going back to the home or hotel level, I think we need a lot more information on the full product cycles–manufacturing and maintenance of the electrolysis system, plus costs of water, salt, and electricity, compared to manufacturing and distribution of lye and bleach–to evaluate whether “electrolyzed water” is actually more environmentally friendly than traditional cleaners.

As for why the LAT reporter didn’t include a chemist in a story explicitly involving chemistry, I’m afraid I don’t know. I sent her a draft of this post yesterday inviting her to comment but I haven’t heard back. I’ll update if I do.

Image: Shutterstock

Hexacyclinol–The Data Debate

We’ve noticed some buzz in the blogosphere lately (here, here, here, and here) over a recent Org. Lett. paper (DOI: 10.1021/ol900164a) revisiting hexacyclinol—a natural product that got a lot of attention back in 2006. The new paper was a reminder that James J. La Clair, the controversial figure in the hexacyclinol brouhaha, had said back in 2006 that he was going to duplicate his disputed total synthesis and republish his results with more spectral data.

La Clair joined the discussion about the Org. Lett. paper over at In the Pipeline, where commenters called for him to put the debate to rest by providing additional data. That got us thinking about the role that data plays in putting these kinds of debates to rest. The amount of data that ends up in a publication has a lot to do with what a journal requires, so we decided to learn what different journals look for in characterization and supporting information, and how has that changed with time.

Angewandte Chemie—the journal that published La Clair’s hexacyclinol synthesis—states in its Guidelines for the Preparation of Manuscripts: “The identity and purity of all new compounds must be fully characterized by appropriate analytical methods (e.g. NMR spectroscopy, X-ray crystal structure analysis, elemental analysis, etc.). These data should be given in the Supporting Information in the event that they exceed the scope of the Experimental Section.” Peter Gölitz, the journal’s editor, is away this week, and ACIE’s other editors preferred not to comment on the evolution of this policy in his absence. When we hear from him, we’ll post an update.

UPDATE 3/4/09: We corresponded with Peter Gölitz via email. Three updates from our conversation with Gölitz may be found further down in the text.

We’re also in the process of tracking down paper copies of ACIE issue 1 from 2005, the year in which La Clair’s paper was submitted, and/or issue 1 from 2006, the year it was published. That’s where the journal prints its Guidelines for the Preparation of Manuscripts. We’ll post an update once we have that information.

UPDATE 3/2/09: We’ve obtained ACIE’s Notice to Authors from 2005. The instructions for ACIE communications in 2005 are identical to the most recent guidelines, except that they are missing the “The identity and purity of all new compounds” statement mentioned above. You can read the 2005 Notice to Authors at the link below.


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A Nano Ditty

So the “What Is Nano?” video contest that launched last month is now in full swing, and this little (ahem) gem is currently leading in the ratings:

The Nano Song from nanomonster on Vimeo.

Just goes to show what you can pull off with a couple of puppets and a catchy tune. If you’ve also got nano-knowledgeable, musical puppets and Tony-worthy aspirations, the contest ends March 15.

More On Limits

How much stuff do you need? That is the fundamental question at the heart of the current global economic meltdown that is crushing economies around the world. The chemistry enterprise is by no means immune to this economic chaos, as the pages of C&EN attest week in and week out.

I am not a shopper. I honestly cannot tell you the last time I was in a mall. Except for the few suits I own, almost all of my clothes are mail order. The only stores I actually enjoy going to regularly are grocery stores, because I like to cook and I like to eat good food.

My wife, Jan, is not much of a shopper either, but she does, on occasion, venture out to the mall for this or that. Invariably, when she returns home, she will comment on the vast quantity of goods arrayed in the aisles of the department stores and chain stores and wonder aloud where it all winds up because, surely, it cannot all get bought.

It definitely is not being bought today. Neither are cars or appliances or tools or furniture or home improvement items or McMansions. Demand for stuff has collapsed worldwide.

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It’s A Mess, But It’s Still Mine

In 2001, the University of Texas, San Antonio, swept through and swept out tenured organic chemistry professor Philip L. Stotter’s lab and office, which by all accounts–even Stotter’s–were overflowing with chemicals and papers. Then the university fired him.

But after six years in and out of court, Stotter, now 66 and a part-time consultant, is enjoying some vindication. Last week, a federal court jury awarded him $175,000, agreeing with Stotter that the university–specifically former UTSA provost Guy Bailey–didn’t give him proper notice before removing the lab and office contents.

Though Stotter himself wasn’t available to talk to C&EN, his attorney, Regina Bacon Criswell, says they’re both pleased. “We’re happy,” she says. “It sends a clear message that [the university] needs to take into account everybody’s rights.”

Bailey, who is now president of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, wasn’t available to comment. Judith A. Walmsley, chemistry professor at UTSA, who was chair of the department during Stotter’s firing, also declined to speak with C&EN.

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An Effective Response To Creationism?

The Society for Integrative & Comparative Biology, formerly the American Society of Zoologists, has said it will not hold its 2011 annual meeting in New Orleans as planned to protest a new law in Louisiana that lets teachers use “supplemental textbooks to help students critique and review scientific theories,” according to the New York Times, Feb 17, 2009, page A14. The law, the society claims, is a backdoor effort to sneak creationism into classrooms.

SICB’s annual meetings attract less than 2,000 attendees. Compare that with Pittcon, which averages 20,000, or ACS annual meetings, which bring between 8,000 to 10,000 people to one city for a full week. With proponents of creationism continuing to press their belief as science, it appears that SICB has decided it’s time for scientists to strike where it really hurts: the pocketbook. Why should scientists continue to convene in and bring money to states that deny the theory of evolution?

I admire SICB’s guts, though I wish their target didn’t have to be New Orleans. New Orleans is a great city for scientific gatherings, and after the devastation it suffered from Katrina, it needs everyone’s support for its revival. New Orleans’ citizens shouldn’t have to suffer more because of the state’s pandering to the religious right.

What Would George Say–Academic Or Advocate?

A new ethics question has popped up in the ongoing lead-in-D.C.’s-water saga as concerned Washington, D.C., residents and ethics experts ask: Did the D.C. Water & Sewer Authority (DC WASA) hire an academic or an advocate when the utility signed a contract with Tee Guidotti, the former chair of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University (GWU), to provide public health expertise about lead in drinking water?

In two research papers and numerous lectures and public statements, Guidotti and his team showed that the D.C. lead-in-drinking-water crisis from 2001 to 2004 had no identifiable public health impact. This work, funded in part by DC WASA, is coming under scrutiny due to recent publication of an Environmental Science & Technology paper, Edwards et al. 2009, which says that from 2001 to 2004, hundreds of babies and toddlers in Washington had elevated levels of blood lead as a result of the tap water contamination.

Language in the contract between GWU and DC WASA appears to contradict GWU’s own policy concerning the freedom of academics (PDF) to publish their work without approval from sponsors.

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