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Archive → August, 2010

PotashCorp/BHP Billiton Turns Into a Brawl

Yesterday, Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan sent out a letter to customers in which it talked a little trash. A little background: BHP has been buying up mining rights in Saskatchewan to develop a greenfield potash mine. There is nothing that PotashCorp executives like more than to talk about how expensive the BHP mine would be.

Here are the good bits of the letter:

We recently learned that Chris Ryder, director of potash marketing for BHP Billiton, has begun to cold call many of you. Since the purpose of BHP Billiton’s call clearly was not to solicit your potash order from BHP Billiton’s Jansen project—a multi-year Greenfield project which BHP is not even proposing to take to its own Board of Directors for approval until 2011—we consider this contact to be inappropriate and highly unethical. We can only assume that BHP Billiton’s purpose is to sow seeds of doubt and confusion about the future of PotashCorp by raising questions about our ability to do business across the nutrient spectrum as well as the future location and makeup of our sales organization.

I am a little bewildered by BHP’s motives here. Chris Ryder is sitting at his desk wondering how BHP can buy PotashCorp without raising its bid too much. He decides the best course of action is to start calling PotashCorp.’s clients?  I don’t see how that kind of thing can help. Due diligence, perhaps? It’s really hard to tell because we are getting this second hand from PotashCorp.

Maybe it implies BHP would sell off PotashCorp’s non-potassium containing fertilizers.

Ryder is no low level rogue employee. Most recently, he was marketing director for diamonds at BHP. Perhaps he does have good reasons.

An Invitation: Tell Us About Yourself

This post is the 100th we’ve written for The Haystack. So in celebration, we thought we’d try something a little different.

We’re here because we dig the chemistry and the business behind the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. But we know very little about why you’re here. And we’d like to be sure we’re giving you what you are looking for. So we’re asking for your help. It’s a plea that bloggers we admire (Ed Yong and many more) have put out many times before.

Tell us about you. Even (and especially) if you’ve never commented here before. Do you or have you ever worked for a pharma company or biotech? Do you have a scientific background? Maybe you’re more of a writer, investor, or businessperson. Feel free to say as much or as little as you like.

Tell us what you think of The Haystack. We’ve been blogging here for nearly 6 months, and that’s a good point to reflect on what we’re doing well and what we can do better. How did you find us, and if you’re a regular reader, what made you decide to stick around? What kinds of posts do you enjoy? What would you like to see less of?

Use the space in the comments to tell us what’s on your mind- the questions I’ve written are only a guide. Or for those not prone to public comment, feel free to email us (or ) directly.

Solutions Sought For Obtaining Rare Earths

Cleantech Chemistry readers should check out my colleague Mitch Jacoby’s fascinating look at the market for rare earth metals and oxides. The rare earths, he points out, are not necessarily rare, but they are difficult to economically mine and process.

And yet they are extraordinarily important in the making of technologies in the computer, electronics, transportation, energy, and defense industries. Many cleantech advances like windmills, hybrid cars, and compact fluorescent lights depend on the rare earths.

Though not technically “rare,” the rare earths are getting harder to source in countries outside of China, as China has the lion’s share of deposits and has a lock the on economic production of pure materials. In addition, China has been lowering export quotas to keep more of the rare earths at home.

Recently, W.R. Grace said it would add a rare earth surcharge to fluid catalytic cracking catalysts and additives for the petroleum refining industry, which shows that rare earths are also used in some older industries.

Sanofi Goes Public in Genzyme Bid

Sanofi-Aventis finally went public with its bid for Genzyme, and the biotech fired back with a press release noting its rejection of what it called an “opportunistic” bid that undervalues the company.

A little dateline to bring everyone who spent August laying on beaches up to speed on Sanofi’s courtship of Genzyme: Media reports of talks between Sanofi and Genzyme first surfaced on July 24. Sanofi’s CEO Chris Viehbacher sent over its “bear hug” offer (for those not in the financial world, a bear hug is a friendly bid that is well above the company’s recent share price) to Genzyme on July 29th. On August 11, Genzyme’s CEO Henri Termeer fired back a letter to Viehbacher rejecting the bid as “opportunistic.” Nevertheless, the companies’ financial advisors subsequently met on August 24, although Viehbacher said the meeting only reinforced Genzyme’s uncooperativeness. Yesterday, Sanofi put the pressure on by issuing a press release saying it had made its offer for Genzyme and this morning held a conference call with analysts to discuss the proposed transaction. Genzyme issued its own press release this morning calling the price tag “unrealistic” and undervaluing the company.

To review, Genzyme has been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride Continue reading →

Profile: …cartoonist?

The guy that I’m profiling for the blog today isn’t a chemist. At all. But he’s Jorge Cham, so does it matter?

In case you’ve been living under something inorganic and heavy (or not a grad student), Cham is the creator of Piled Higher & Deeper, a comic strip about the…uniqueness… of  graduate student life. He gave his “Power of Procrastination” talk at ACS last week, and I managed to drag him into a quiet corner for an interview about his cartoony career and how he got there. What follows has been edited slightly for length and flow.

Jorge Cham, photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner. I like to think this picture is slightly out of focus because Cham is such a warm and fuzzy guy.

LKB: So. How does it feel to be the patron saint of grad students?

JC: (laughs)

A little weird, sometimes. Well, if you’ve seen my talk, the point of the talk is that there’s nothing that you should do. So I feel a little uncomfortable when people ask for advice and what to do.

LKB: Okay, but to someone looking at you and thinking, ‘hey, I want to be a cartoonist,’ erm, what would your advice be?

JC: My advice would be do not do it.

LKB: Why not?

JC: I don’t need the competition.

LKB: (laughs

) Well, okay, not about graduate students, but maybe about chemistry or some other type of subject.

JC: I guess I would tell them my story, which is the best I can do. I did it as a hobby free for about 5-7 years. 7 years just for fun, a hobby on the website. Then I came out with the first book, and there was income from that. And then things kind of built up from there….I think that something that you should expect if you go on your own is to not really do it for an income for several years at least. And that’s sort of the experience I get from a lot of artists and independent people.

LKB: So your background is in engineering and post-doced as well, right?

JC: The post-doc I got was officially an instructor at Cal-Tech. So I was teaching classes, my ID said faculty, but really I was just a post-doc.

LKB: So you started that comic as a grad student at Stanford. But then about 5 years ago, you realized it could be a career?

JC: About 5 years ago, I saw the academic half-life of my degree start to decrease. At the same time, I saw the traffic on the website start to increase. So I just switched careers.

LKB: So you tour now, is that what you do most of the time?

JC: During the academic year, yeah I do a lot of touring. My primary thing is to come up with three comics a week. And then there’s the lectures and this running a publishing business, and then the website.

LKB: Are you worried that you’re going to run out of ideas eventually?

JC: (laughs) You mean how deep are the scars? You know, I don’t really worry about that, I just take it as it comes. I say that if I write a comic strip for every day I was in grad school, I’m only about halfway through. (laughs)

LKB: Really. Woah, you have a lot of material.

JC: And the other thing is that a long time ago, I realized that this comic strip was not really about me, about my experiences, it’s kind of about THE experience, all those people out there go through it.

The cartoonist cartooning. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner.

LKB: How did you first first start? How did you get the idea of, ‘hey, I’m going to write a comic strip about grad school?’

JC: When I was very little, I got into comics. So I would naturally draw, try to copy the drawings that I saw in the comics, so I’ve always been doodling all my life. I made a t-shirt here and there for college. In grad school I was talking to my brother, who had already gone through grad school, and he had the idea of doing a comic about grad students, because all the ones in the Stanford newspaper were about undergrads. And don’t they know grad school is where the real pain begins? So he brought that up, and there was an ad in the newspaper calling for comics by students. And he thought, hey there should be one about graduate students. At the time I had been reading this book on Doonesbury, a perspective on Doonesbury, and the impact it had had over the years. Not so much now but back in the 80s and 90s, it was part of the culture. And so I don’t know, just to procrastinate really, I started doing it.

LKB: At least you got something productive out of your procrastination. The rest of us just read your website.

JC: (laughs) It’s worked out for me, well. But only after 12 years. (laughs)

LKB: What did your adviser think of the whole thing?

JC: He actually doesn’t know.

LKB: Oh really?

JC: So if you can keep that out of the…

LKB: Well, I’m not going to ask who your adviser is!

Yes, I totally geeked out and asked Cham to sign a comic for me. You would have done the same. Photo by Leigh Krietsch Boerner, image in the photo copyright Jorge Cham.

JC: (laughs, a lot) No, I’m just kidding. He knew from day one. He was a fan of the comic.

LKB: (I laughed too, I can’t believe I fell for that) So he never said, “don’t put this in the comic”?

JC: No, he never asked me not to put anything in there. Recently somebody interviewed him about me. The quote from him was, ‘yeah, Jorge’s comic is often funny.’ (laughs) That was a pretty good description.

LKB: So, advice for newly starting out cartoonists–expect to not get paid for awhile and have to wait a long time before getting anything back from it?

JC: I guess the message is to have low expectations. My motto is always aim high, but have low expectations.

LKB: So prepare for the best and expect the worst?

JC: Yeah. There you go. You probably stole that from somebody, didn’t you?

Yup. Super thanks to Jorge for the interview! His latest book, Academic Stimulus Package, is now available both through the PHD website and Amazon.com.

Forum On Climate Change

Nearly 200 people attended the ACS Forum on Science & Consequences of Climate Change on Monday, Aug. 23, during the Boston national meeting. The forum was sponsored by the ACS Committee on Environmental Improvement (CEI) and was an ACS Presidential Event. It was moderated by Charles Kolb, president and CEO of Aerodyne Research and chair of CEI.

The forum was one component of CEI’s review of the ACS position statement on global climate change. Position statements must be reviewed every three years, and the statement on climate change is one of four being reviewed this year.

To this reporter, the disconnects that are manifest in discussions of climate change were in full blossom on that Monday. Earlier in the day, I had read an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Disaster at the Top of the World,” by Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, in Waterloo, Ontario. Homer-Dixon opens his essay with observations from a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker plying the Arctic Sea, where temperatures are rising twice as rapidly as on Earth generally. He writes:

“Globally, 2010 is on track to be the warmest year on record. In regions around the world, indications abound that earth’s climate is quickly changing, like the devastating mudslides in China and weeks of searing heat in Russia. But in the world’s capitals, movement on climate policy has nearly stopped.”

Continue reading →

Teaching safety to chemical engineers

Three years ago, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) revamped a long-standing chemical safety program to make it more accessible to students–and now seems to be seeing greater use of the material in classrooms.

For nearly two decades, AIChE’s Center for Chemical Process Safety has been producing 4 to 6 safety modules a year that professors can use as teaching supplements. Part of the Safety and Chemical Engineering Education (SaChE) program, the modules cover broad topics such as runaway reactions and risk assessment, as well as more specific issues such as dust explosion control. Universities paid dues to SaChE for access to the modules.

Starting in 2008, AIChE revamped the program to make it more useful and accessible to students. As part of an effort to provide more benefits to student members, the organization started creating two modules a year that students can access independently and directly online, says Lowell M. Aplebaum, AIChE’s manager for member initiatives. Six modules are available to students now:

  • Dust explosion control: Introduces background for understanding and preventing dust explosions.
  • Inherently Safer Design: Provides information for understanding inherently safer design of chemical processes and plants.
  • Safety in the Process Industries: Introduces the application of chemical process safety technology in an actual chemical facility.
  • Risk Assessment: Provides an overview of the methods used for risk assessment, management, and reduction with examples and exercises.
  • Runaway Reactions: Demonstrate the potential hazards and methods for controlling runaway reactions.
  • Chemical Reactivity Hazards: Provides an overview of the basic understanding of chemical reactivity hazards.

Two more will be added this fall. The modules are freely available to student AIChE members (American and Canadian student members also benefit from a corporate sponsorship program that covers their dues). The modules are also freely available to universities with AIChE student chapters.

The modules take up to 6-7 hours to complete and students can start and stop at their convenience. They incorporate video demonstrations, often in an industrial setting, as well as some reading material. If students make it through an entire module and pass a quiz at the end, they get a certificate. In the last academic year AIChE issued nearly 2000 certificates, Aplebaum says. And “the more certificates students earn, the more they’re asking when more modules will be out,” he adds, noting that students are adding certificate information to their resumes.

It’s not just students that have taken notice of the new modules. Professors are starting to add them to courses as out-of-class assignments, with the quiz scores serving as extra credit or even part of a grade.

Laura Ford, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Tulsa, has made two of the modules a required part of the senior labs she teachers in her department. In the fall, the students do experiments mostly with water and air, measuring the performance of pumps or determining friction factors of different pipes. That semester, the students have to complete the module on safety in chemical process industries.

The spring semester lab involves experiments with 10-ft tall distillation columns. For that class, Ford requires students to complete the module on reactivity hazards.

As for the benefit of the modules, “Sometimes the students hear stuff from us but don’t think it’s important because we’re academics,” Ford says. “They think that industry has a different set of priorities.” Seeing engineers discuss safety issues in their industrial environment helps to cement that safety is important, she says.

David Rockstraw, a chemical engineering professor at New Mexico State University, has been using the modules in his classes for the last two years. The quality of the modules is high enough, he says, that he no longer covers some concepts in class and has the students do the modules instead. “There’s so much material to cover that you can’t possibly do it all,” he says, and adding the modules as assignments has freed up a little lecture time to get to topics he couldn’t previously. Rockstraw includes module material on his exams and gives students additional points for the quiz scores.

Rockstraw’s experience using the modules has been so positive, in fact, that his department has decided to require students to complete all of them before graduation. Some students do complain about the out-of-class burden, Rockstraw says, but the sense of accomplishment at getting the certificates outweighs at least a bit of that. Also, students have reported back that the modules helped them feel more prepared for job interviews.

Rockstraw echoes Ford’s feelings that the modules get some points across more effectively than he can in a classroom. “I can draw a sketch or show them a photograph, but when you’ve got a video of someone standing next to a reactor they work on at their company, it’s a lot more powerful,” Rockstraw says.

Does it matter to your P.I. what you did this weekend?

Slacking? Or improving laboratory productivity and morale? And is it any of my business?

A few weeks ago, I used this photo in a talk at the College of Pharmacy at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. These are very exciting times at UAMS, capped by the recent dedication of their Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute tower. I had a lovely visit with pharmaceutical chemists, neurobiologists, clinical pharmacologists, and young exciting researchers and educators across the College. I also found that, despite the August heat, Little Rock is an enjoyable, medium-sized city with great cultural amenities and an excellent quality of life.

However, my only previous experience with the Arkansas River that runs through the state capital had been way upstream at the headwaters just outside of Leadville, Colorado. This picture shows yours truly as a young assistant professor and some of our lab group taking a midweek day off to enjoy that season’s snowcap runoff.

My thoughts returned to this photo last week at the MEDI Lunch-and-Learn session on Chemical & Pharma Blogging led last week by C&EN’s Carmen Drahl at the national ACS meeting in Boston, nicely liveblogged here by Lisa Jarvis. In my inaugural post last week, I noted with joy the chance to sit present and field questions together with Derek Lowe (In the Pipeline), Ed Silverman (Pharmalot), and Michael Tarselli of Scripps Florida. Continue reading →