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Archive → January, 2011

Humorist On the Psychology of the Chevy Volt

The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten - a humor columnist – has written a probing review of the new Chevy Volt for the newspaper’s weekly magazine. Weingarten writes that a quality American-made car would challenge his world view that the U.S. can’t make decent cars. I found his description of the psychology behind the engineering of the Volt to be quite compelling. I urge you to read the full article, because I don’t want to give away the review.

Here’s a snippet:

What makes the Volt the Darling of Detroit is that it has been reverse-engineered to match the perverse American psyche. Americans hate buying gas but love to drive. We definitely

want to stick it to the sheikhs, and in the process maybe save the planet, so we want cars that run on sunshine, twigs and happy thoughts. But these cars also have to kick some ass. And be able to make an impulsive 90-mile run to Philly when we suddenly have a hankering for cheese steak. And we don’t want to worry about hunting for twig refueling stations along the way.

All of that is what the Volt is theoretically designed to deliver.

International Year of Chemistry Opening Fiesta

After Thursday’s sequence of enthusiastic speeches that repeatedly declared that chemistry can solve all the worlds ailments (health, food security, energy etc), the second day of the opening ceremonies of the International Year of Chemistry at UNESCO headquarters in Paris got a bit more concrete on how this actually might happen, with talks from academics and industry leaders on how chemistry can improve nutrition, agriculture, medicine and materials for alternative energy.

But amidst the celebratory feeling in the main auditorium, a different kind of discussion happened at the press conference yesterday that is probably epitomized by reporter questions that went alot like: “So how do you address the criticism that this is all just a self-congratulatory jamboree for the chemical industry?” or “Exactly how is chemistry going to save the world?” The answer IYC organizers gave was not precisely specific or clear, and it landed hard in the press room. I suspect this isn’t the last time similar questions will be voiced.

The IYC is an opportunity for chemists to celebrate their discipline, but it’s also clear that organizers also want to redeem the reputation of chemistry in the minds of a public that often sees the science as a source of pollution. IYC organizers said they want to remind the public that chemistry is the source of materials many people can’t live without—headache remedies and other drugs, toothpaste, iPhones or your favourite pair of sneakers.

To do so, there have been lots of launches in the past two days. There was the video aimed to make 16-20 year-olds think chemistry is sexy. Or the announcement of the world’s first and largest concurrent measurement of pH and chemical content of local water supply by elementary and high school students from Buenos Aires to Bombay. NASA is here promoting it’s earth observatory images. And of course many people were enthused about January 18th’s “Women Sharing a Chemical Moment in Time” (cue Whitney Houston) where female chemists met at 8 am in time zones around the world.

So chemists, celebrate and be joyous. But judging from the questions posed by the only non-chemists here at the opening ceremonies—the media—it might behoove you to be prepared to get specific about how chemistry benefits humanity if you want the excitement to spread outside the chemistry community. And don’t forget to temper those festive chemical soliloquies with some of the risks of molecular science, at the same time as you celebrate many of the benefits.

International Year of Chemistry Opening Fiesta

After Thursday’s sequence of enthusiastic speeches that repeatedly declared that chemistry can solve all the worlds ailments (health, food security, energy etc), the second day of the opening ceremonies of the International Year of Chemistry at UNESCO headquarters in Paris got a bit more concrete on how this actually might happen, with talks from academics and industry leaders on how chemistry can improve nutrition, agriculture, medicine and materials for alternative energy.

But amidst the celebratory feeling in the main auditorium, a different kind of discussion happened at the press conference yesterday that is probably epitomized by reporter questions that went alot like: “So how do you address the criticism that this is all just a self-congratulatory jamboree for the chemical industry?” or “Exactly how is chemistry going to save the world?”  The answer IYC organizers gave was not precisely specific or clear, and it landed hard in the press room. I suspect this isn’t the last time similar questions will be voiced.

The IYC is an opportunity for chemists to celebrate their discipline, but it’s also clear that organizers also want to redeem the reputation of chemistry in the minds of a public that often sees the science as a source of pollution. IYC organizers said they want to remind the public that chemistry is the source of materials many people can’t live without—headache remedies and other drugs, toothpaste, iPhones or your favourite pair of sneakers.

To do so, there have been lots of launches in the past two days.  There was the video aimed to make 16-20 year-olds think chemistry is sexy. Or the announcement of  the world’s first and largest concurrent measurement of pH and chemical content of local water supply by elementary and high school students from Buenos Aires to Bombay. NASA is here promoting it’s earth observatory images. And of course many people were enthused about January 18th’s “Women Sharing a Chemical Moment in Time” (cue Whitney Houston) where female chemists met at 8 am in time zones around the world.

So chemists, celebrate and be joyous. But judging from the questions posed by the only non-chemists here at the opening ceremonies—the media—it might behoove you to be prepared to get specific about how chemistry benefits humanity if you want the excitement to spread outside the chemistry community. And don’t forget to temper those festive chemical soliloquies with some of the risks of molecular science, at the same time as you celebrate many of the benefits.

Friday round-up

Chemical health and safety news from the past week:

  • Liberal Arts Chemist notes proper lab attire in a cartoon and discusses the “hairnet of shame”
  • From Angewandte Chemie, a review on Nanotoxicology: An Interdisciplinary Challenge
  • The Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds went into lockdown for nine hours while a missing vial of VX nerve agent was tracked down
  • Meanwhile, the Army’s Deseret Chemical Depot will receive an award from the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine for “its health, safety and environmental record, integrated hazard control programs, emergency preparedness training and the clinic’s dedication to medical record confidentiality”
  • FBI hazmat team called to Ohio from Quantico, Va., to remove “a suspicious and potentially deadly substance” from a house
  • California’s Plumas-Eureka State Park to be closed for hazardous waste clean-up–soil contaminated with arsenic, lead, and mercury from gold-mining days

Fires and explosions:

  • A fire at Alembic Chemicals in India, reportedly from a reaction of acetone with water (?); four people were burned
  • Chlorine from a 200-lb cylinder, when workers at South Carolina’s Southern Metals Recycling started dismantling it; four were taken to a hospital
  • A fire in a 55-gal drum of something at Oxygen Development, a Florida cosmetics manufacturer, possibly started by “an aluminum-like material that was being grinded to create ‘glitter’ for cosmetics”; eight workers and a firefighter were taken to a hospital for smoke inhalation
  • Firefighters advised by hazmat crew to let a fire at Mar-Flex Waterproofing in Ohio burn itself out, “which could take several days”
  • Truck catches fire, spreads to Superior Solvents building in Missouri; “sprinklers kept the fire at bay and damage was limited to the building entrance”
  • A fire in a thermal oxidizer pollution-control device at a BASF acrylamide processing plant in Virginia; no injuries

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • Bromine at BioLab in Michigan; two people taken to a hospital
  • Calcium polysulfide, 100 gal, at Safety and Ecology Corp. in Tennessee
  • Nitric acid mysterious started to smoke at Advanced Composite Technologies in Nevada
  • Chlorine dioxide, a cleaning agent, in UCLA’s Biomedical Sciences Research Building
  • On roads and railways: hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, ethanol, nitric acid

Another Week in Pharma Job Cuts

This week brought a stream of bad news on the pharma job front, with at least four companies announcing substantial cutbacks. Worse, scientists were the main target for layoffs at three of those companies—Sanofi-Aventis, Arena, and Elan. As everyone’s favorite employment watchdog Chemjobber commented on an In the Pipeline post about cuts at Abbott: When, when, when will it stop? Here’s a look back at the news from this week:

–Sanofi is shedding 90 research jobs at its Bridgewater, N.J., site as part of “the evolution of the R&D portfolio towards more biologic-based therapies,” the company told C&EN. The French pharma firm is ceasing chemical library and chemical development activities, including pharmaceutical development and analytical science. Meanwhile, discovery-stage laboratory activities within several groups, including Lead Identification Technologies, Structure, Design & Informatics, and Analytical Sciences, will be reduced.

Some people will be shifted over to the company’s Molecular Innovative Therapeutics group, which will be transformed into “a cluster of small multidisciplinary biotechs with specialized expertise in key diverse therapeutic approaches.” This new approach sounds an awful lot like what GlaxoSmithKline has been doing over the last two years—creating smaller, more independent units in the hopes of mimicking the culture and innovative spirit of small biotechs.

–Arena Pharmaceuticals is cutting 25% of its staff, or 66 employees, by the end of March. The move isn’t unexpected. Last fall, FDA gave the San Diego-based biotech a thumbs down for its obesity drug lorcaserin based on concerns that it had caused tumors in rats. Now, FDA is asking for a slew of new data, meaning Arena will be unlikely to refile its application for approval until 2012, analysts say. See here and here for more on its lorcaserin trials and tribulations.

–Abbott is slashing 1,900 jobs in the U.S., mirroring layoffs it made last year in Europe following its acquisition of Solvay Pharmaceuticals. The cuts will come from its commercial and manufacturing operations, with over half the job losses concentrated in Northern Illinois. In a conference call, Abbott CEO Miles D. White blamed the restructuring on several factors: the slow recovery of the global economy, costs associated with healthcare reform, European pricing pressures, and a harsher regulatory environment that has made it tough for drugs to get approved.

–And last but not least, Elan has laid off 10% of its staff, or about 130 workers, with its R&D site in South San Francisco most heavily impacted. Researchers accounted for about half of the job losses.

If we’ve missed any layoffs that chemists should be aware of, drop us a note or leave a comment.

Remembering Challenger…

This post appeared originally at the ScienceBlogs home of Terra Sigillata on 28 January 2007.

It was a very cold morning in North Florida (in the teens/low 20s Fahrenheit) as I walked in to class during my second semester of graduate school. I vaguely recall some concerns about the launch of Challenger that morning because of the cold and I believe it was scrapped once before, this highly-touted launch of America’s first schoolteacher in space.
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In The High Desert, Molecular Sculpture

Wilder-Nightingale is steps from Taos's historic Plaza, which dates to the late 1700s (Drahl/C&EN)


The hum of pickup trucks pervades Kit Carson Road in downtown Taos, New Mexico. But it’s easy to escape. The street is chockablock with small art galleries, eager for out-of-towners to duck inside. And one in particular feels like home to the X-ray crystallographers who’ve descended on Taos for a Keystone Conference on G-protein coupled receptors and ion channels. It’s the Wilder-Nightingale Gallery, and it’s displaying work by one of their own.

Like those crystallographers, Edgar Meyer used to spend his days figuring out the structures of proteins. Among his more colorful conquests are a component of the venom from Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, and proteins from fire ants and termites. He even had a hand in founding the Protein Data Bank, the online hub where researchers deposit all the structural information for the proteins they analyze.

These days, he’s stopped analyzing Nature’s structures and started sculpting ones of his own- not in protein but in wood and bronze. His work is scattered about Wilder-Nightingale’s other collections- paintings of native peoples and mountain vistas.

D-tartaric acid (Drahl/C&EN)


Anthocyanin (Drahl/C&EN)

The Evolving Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Marketplace

I worked this up for an upcoming article on the PET resin industry. After being battered for the better part of the last decade, the highly fragmented industry is consolidating. DAK Americas, which is owned by Mexico’s Alfa Group, is buying the remnants of Eastman’s business. Indorama, of Thailand, is buying Invista. (Historically that last business was KoSa. Before that it was Hoechst’s polyester business.)

2010 2011
Eastman 15 Indorama 33
Indorama 14 Wellman 8
Wellman 9 DAK 29
DAK 15 M&G 18
M&G 19 Nan Ya 9
Nan Ya 9 Selenis 3
Invista 19
Total 10.0 billion lb. Total 10.4 billion lb

These figures are capacity numbers for the NAFTA region. And it is PET packaging resin only, not fiber. I compiled it based on company documents and interviews, except in the case of Selenis, which comes from published reports. Selenis is a newcomer to the industry. The company is converting a shuttered polytrimethylene terephthalate plant near Montreal that Shell Chemical built with SGF earlier last decade. The project might be a little bit of a question mark given how big the largest players are getting. From what I understand–Selenis officials aren’t returning my calls–the plant has been delayed.

Interestingly, when I asked Indorama if they are planning on closing any capacity. They told me “absolutely not.” They are also keen on expanding in Mexico.

UPDATE: Related to PET, sort of.  Eastman Kodak’s Q4 profit dropped 95%. The market capitalization of Eastman Chemical is now more than 6X that of its former parent.