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Archive → April, 2011

Friday chemical safety round-up

Chemical health and safety news from the past week:

  • In the wake of Michele Dufault’s death at Yale, many universities are taking a close look at machine shop policies: Yale, Dartmouth, Harvard, NYU and University of Chicago (Princeton mentioned also but story doesn’t say it’s reassessing), Stanford, Tufts, University of Pennsylvania, and Wesleyan. A memorial service for Dufault was held yesterday at Yale.
  • Thursday, April 28, was Workers Memorial Day, to honor workers who are killed, injured, or diseased because of their jobs. Among those recognizing the day were the AFL-CIO, which released its annual ‘Dead On The Job’ Report, and a panel at UCLA.

Fires and explosions:

  • Four people are missing and nine others were injured in a nitroglycerin explosion at a plant in the Czech Republic
  • Fireworks unit blast kills two in India, four others were seriously injured–”The accident occurred when the factory foreman went into the storage room where the chemicals were stored and opened the sacks to distribute it to the workers to make the pieces of fireworks, police said.”
  • An explosion in a pesticide plant in Guangxi, China, injured three (this from a somewhat morbid feature at shanghaiist titled “Today in Explosions”)
  • Agilent worker burned severely in flash explosion at Santa Rosa facility in California:

    [Patrick Colbus, 45,] was alone in the ground-floor lab in the two-story Building 1 at about 10:30 a.m. when the explosion rocked the structure. He had been cleaning a molecular beam epitaxy device, a large piece of equipment used for producing coatings on integrated circuits, officials said.

    A combination of substancess, including red and white phosphorous, gallium, aluminum powder and arsenic were involved in the flash explosion that severely burned Colbus’ face, head and torso, said Mark Basque, a battalion chief for the Santa Rosa Fire Department. The chemicals are integral to the production of the advanced circuits.

    “Something caused them to ignite and explode, but it’s unknown if it was a result of a chemical interaction or a mechanical failure,” Basque said.

    The explosion blasted holes in at least one wall, cracked glass, overturned equipment and left a burn mark where the flash occurred, Basque said.

    Colbus was reportedly an experienced worker and as of Thursday was in critical condition in the hospital; Cal/OSHA is investigating.

  • A chemical fire at Aldrich Chemical in Wisconsin drew 80 firefighters from six departments, four of whom suffered minor chemical exposure; Aldrich provided “a dry chemical agent” to help fight the fire
  • Rainwater leaking into a chemical storate room at Coats North America in North Carolina reacted with sodium hydrosulfite, leading to the evacuation of 150 workers
  • Grape seed oil blamed for fire at Swindon College beauty training salons in the U.K.–the theory is that it absorbed into towels, heated in the dryer, oxidized and ignited the towels

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • 1,300 gal of sulfuric acid at a Virginia power plant
  • Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid may be leaking from an Ontario, Canada, airport into a nearby water system
  • Water-treatment chemicals at the University of California, Merced, science and engineering building
  • A small amount of “mixed acids” at USC
  • Swallowed rodent poison triggers hazmat situation in Michigan, when people feared the person would emit “harmful gases” (anyone know if this can actually happen?)
  • Residents cough up to a chilli night: an Australian “cooking a box of chillis in an electric wok caused a chemical emergency when neighbours were overcome by fumes”
  • 50-year-old acid in a New Jersey garage leaked but did not pose a danger to homeowners or the neighborhood–”Phil Kirsch, the owner of the home on Cedar Street, said the bottles have been in his garage for at least 50 years – ever since his father, a scientist who is now 93, worked in pharmaceuticals and brought them home.”
  • On roads, railways, and shipyards: An insecticide, chlorobenzotrifluoride

Left out: meth labs, ammonia leaks, pool chemical incidents

IYC Weekly Round-up, 4/23-4/29

Here are some of the weekly happenings from this last week:

  • A profile of Mouhoussine Nacro, a chemistry professor in Burkin Faso (C&EN)
  • ACS Global Challenges-Chemistry Solutions podcast, “Developing New Materials: A greener process for a key ingredient used to make paint, diapers, and other products“
  • IYC Virtual Journal, Issue 4, on energy
  • Journal of Chemical Education’s virtual journal, “The Chemical Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (originally published in March, but revisited the social media circles this week)

Mitsubishi Chemical Partners for Bio-based Feedstocks

This week brings two announcements by two U.S. bio-based chemical intermediate firms that they will explore supply partnerships with Mitsubishi Chemical. First, BioAmber, a bio-based succinic acid firm said it signed an agreement to supply the chemical for Mitsubishi’s proprietary polybutylene succinate, a renewable, biodegradable polymer.

Bioamber's Biosuccinic Acid Production Plant in Pomacle, France. Credit: Bioamber

Secondly, start-up Genomatica, which makes biobased 1,4-butanediol  via fermentation by genetically modified microbes, has signed a broad memorandum of understanding that includes a possible joint venture to build  the first commercial plant in Asia for bio-BDO. The memo also includes a development collaboration for other chemicals that the two firms are both interested in, and notes that Mitsubishi has invested its own funds in the start-up.

The earlier press release focused on the possibility of lower-cost production using bio-based materials, but the Genomatica release quotes a Mitsubishi spokesperson giving a more nuanced version of why the company is pursuing the partnership:

“We respect and share Genomatica’s vision of the importance of sustainability for the chemical industry—and we recognize their achievements with C4 chemicals, which are strategic to us”, said Hiroaki Ishizuka, Representative Director of Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation. “Asia is the fastest-growing chemicals market in the world and we see great potential to deliver bio-based chemicals to this market as a growing complement to our current conventionally-sourced chemicals. We believe that a strategic partnership with Genomatica will provide market-leading economics and quality which will benefit both parties.”

Finding Out Anesthetics’ Mode Of Action

When I think about how drug discovery has changed in the last 100 years, one of the first things that comes to mind is how much more target-focused the process is. Take aspirin as an example of the earlier model. Researchers didn’t confirm how aspirin worked until John Vane’s landmark 1971 paper, over 70 years since aspirin first hit the market.

Compare that to today’s world of drugmaking, where oftentimes researchers have to validate a target- show that it is connected to a disease and that modifying its activity might help treat that disease- before drug discovery can really get going. We’ve written about this process many times- see this account of the development of Lexicon drug candidate LX1031 for irritable bowel syndrome as an example.

But there’s at least one class of drugs where this target-based philosophy is in its infancy- anesthetic drugs. That’s because researchers are only beginning to understand the molecular basis of anesthesia. So it’s not clear which proteins to target or even whether you’d want a molecule that’s selective for one target.

The New York Times spoke with Harvard anesthesiologist Emery Brown last month about the neurobiology of anesthesia, and how being under actually is more like a coma than going to sleep. Other researchers are trying to understand anesthesia at the molecular level, like chemists Ivan Dmochowski and Bill Dailey, and anesthesiologist Rod Eckenhoff of the University of Pennsylvania. I visited their labs yesterday on a jaunt to Philadelphia. They’re among a small number of research teams building fluorescent or light-reactive versions of the anesthetics used in hospitals every day*, in order to figure out what proteins they interact with and which of those are relevant to inducing anesthesia. They’ve got their work cut out for them- for one thing, the anesthetics that are administered by inhalation, such as isoflurane and sevoflurane, bind to a slew of proteins. But if their efforts pay off, they say they will eventually be able to help chemists build better, safer anesthetics.

After exposure to light, azi-isoflurane reacts with proteins.ACS Chemical Neuroscience

More reading: Molecular targets underlying general anesthesia, NP Franks, Br. J. Pharmacol

. 2006, 147 , S72.

*by anesthesiologists like the guy I married, in the interest of full disclosure.

Fun With Quantum Mechanics: Scanning Tunneling Microscopes

Note:  Check out my new avatar!  Also, Chiral and I are in the process of updating the “about this blog” and blogrolls.

Credit to the Sykes Lab of Tufts University

A research-grade low pressure/temperature STM (top) and a portable laptop-capable STM (bottom)

I know what you’re thinking:  aren’t Scanning Tunneling Microscopes (STMs) hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars?  Who has that lying around, much less in grant money?     Well… almost nobody.

STMs do indeed cost a lot of money, but can tell you a whole lot of stuff about a surface.  They’re so expensive that a simple google search doesn’t yield any results for websites which sell STMs.  Going further, I found that DME-SPM sells a whole range of STMs.  However, the prices aren’t listed (kind of like an expensive restaurant, where you only get the price once the bill comes).  Not really too affordable.

However, if you have the cash, an STM can be a fun thing to have.  After all, who doesn’t want to see things on the atomic level?  One can move hydrogen atoms around under a Pd crystal or Xenon atoms on a metal surface.  This is done using an atomically sharp tip (and the electrons attached).  Using this method, Paul Weiss managed to spell out the PSU Logo on a Pd Crystal.  (He was also part of the team that wrote out the IBM Logo in Xenon atoms).

One of the coolest things about STMs is that you can get a gigantic apparatus which has space for liquid Helium and a super vacuum and can resolve images on a atomic level OR you can get a STM that can fit on your desk, plug into a laptop, and work at STP! Well, I had the chance recently to work with one of these STMs for a Quantum Mechanics lab.

Can you see individual monolayers? Etch points? Sections of C10 SAMs?

My very own STM image of SAMs on a Au surface!

My group made the road trip through time and space (well, really just space) to the Sykes lab of Tufts University, where we had the chance to explore the world of atoms.  This was especially fun considering my lab group consisted of myself, an undergrad interested in synthetic chemstry, and another undergrad currently researching inorganic chemistry but going to business school.  If you’ve keeping score, that equals exactly zero people who would be interested in Quantum Mechanics.  Even so, we all had a blast playing with an STM.  Predictably, we didn’t get to use the giant STM that the lab has (which uses liquid He to cool and contains a very, very strong vacuum).  Instead, we had the chance to use a portable STM that hooks right up to a laptop.  Using this setup, we analyzed surface-assembled monolayers (alkanethiols of C8 and C10 length) on a gold surface.  Pictures on the side.

If you were curious, you can get one of these desktop STMs for around $9000 (so told by a friend in the Sykes lab).  It’s on my graduation wish list for sure.  Check back soon for more posts – now that school is winding down, Chiral and I will be on GlobCasino more.  Also tune in next monday for a look at peptidomimetics!

Ramping Up Solar Manufacturing… with help from Intel

For one smallish solar manufacturer, having Walmart as a customer changes things a bit. Miasolé makes thin film copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) modules. Back in September, the company was named as one that would supply thin film technologies to Walmart for rooftop installations in stores in California and Arizona.

Miasolé plans to expand its CIGS manufacturing. Credit: Miasolé

CIGS have been around a while, but still have a very small market share compared to traditional crystalline silicon panels. And, as experts in the industry have pointed out to me, one need only read the name of the technology slowly to oneself to understand that the manufacturing requirements may be rather… complex.

With the Walmart order (which will go through leading  retail solar firm Solar City), Miasolé now plans to ramp up capacity to 150 MW by the end of 2011, triple its current abilities. So the company has brought in Intel, the computer chip maker, to help. Apparently Intel can do this cool thing where it makes a whole lot of exactly the same thing. They’ve named this competency the “Copy Exactly! methodology.”

Interestingly, in its own manufacturing efforts, Intel works closely with manufacturing equipment supplier Applied Materials, which once made a big move into supplying  thin-film solar makers but has significantly lessened its exposure to that market in recent years. That was back when thin film meant solar made with amorphous silicon.

For many years now, however, the leader in thin film manufacturing has been First Solar, which makes cadmium telluride cells (also being bought by Walmart). First Solar is now ramped up to 1 GW in annual production.

Miasolé says it is the only thin film solar firm to use what it characterizes as a low cost sputtering process for its materials deposition. Maybe Applied Materials will be dragged back into solar manufacturing  — and in a new way — if it gets involved in the project along with Intel.

“Pick A Powder” RIP?

BC Powder Historic Site, Durham, NC. Photo: David Kroll

I wrote this post on April 15th for my monthly gig at the Science-Based Medicine blog but just thought of it again this weekend as I drove past the BC Powder historic building in downtown Durham, NC. One thing I’ve observed since bringing Terra Sig to GlobCasino last summer is that we get a readership that is distinctly different than what I have seen when blogging in more biomedical environs (at least as far as institutional IP address hits tell me on SiteMeter.)

So, I wanted to update this post for you – Dear C&EN/GlobCasino reader – and add a few pictures. Truth be told, I really like this post in part because I love the pharmacy history of the American South. I also think that we could do a better job down here of using NASCAR enthusiasm to promote careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The following is adapted from a post that appeared originally on 15 April 2011 at Science-Based Medicine.

After spending the first 21 years of life in New Jersey and Philadelphia, I ventured to the University of Florida for graduate school. For those who don’t know, UF is in the north-central Florida city of Gainesville – culturally much more like idyllic south Georgia than flashy south Florida.

It was in Gainesville – “Hogtown” to some – that I first encountered the analgesic powder. I believe it was BC Powder, first manufactured just over 100 years ago within a stone’s throw of the Durham, NC, baseball park made famous by the movie, Bull Durham. I remember sitting with my grad school buddy from Kansas City watching this TV commercial with hardy men possessing strong Southern accents enthusiastically espousing the benefits of BC. I looked at Roger – a registered pharmacist – and asked, “what in the hell is an analgesic powder?”

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Scientific Literacy

A variety of books, pamphlets, white papers, and magazines from different sources flow into and out of my in-box. Some are more interesting than others. Sometimes it is not entirely clear why a given document arrived there.

A case in point is a white paper, “Increasing Scientific Literacy: A Shared Responsibility,” by G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. As I was going through my in-box upon returning from the ACS national meeting in Anaheim, Calif., I found this interesting and important paper. I don’t know who put it in my in-box. Apparently, whoever put it there did so because the paper cites an editorial I wrote in 2008.

“Increasing Scientific Literacy” is a well-written, carefully reasoned, 68-page tract that explores the development of science, engineering, and technology since the Age of Enlightenment and the public’s relationship to advances in these disciplines over time. Not surprising given the author’s current position, the essay has something of a Smithsonian Institution focus. Overall, however, “Increasing Scientific Literacy” is much broader in scope than one might initially imagine. (You can download a copy of “Increasing Scientific Literacy” at si.edu/about/increasing-scientific-literacy.)

Curious about the provenance of the paper, I learned from the Smithsonian’s website that it had been released on Feb. 16. I also learned that Clough had given a talk on scientific literacy on Feb. 18 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but I don’t recall the talk getting any media coverage. I called John Gibbons in the Smithsonian Institution’s media relations office and asked him what had inspired Clough to write the paper.

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