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Archive → October, 2011

Say What, WSJ?

Here’s an article from today’s Wall Street Journal on companies pulling back in Europe because of the financial crisis there.

It contains this passage:

Other U.S. companies retrenching because of weakness in Europe include Dow Chemical Co., which in the fourth quarter plans to idle about four million tons of production of naphtha, a material used in plastics manufacturing.

It apparently comes from this exchange in the conference call:

Brian Maguire – Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Research Division

This is actually Brian Maguire on for Bob this morning. I want to follow up on the previous couple of questions on idling in Europe and Asia. You mentioned a couple million pounds could be idled. Do you expect Dow or any of the JV partners to participate in that idling or do you think that it will come more from the competition?

Andrew N. Liveris

More from the competition. I did actually say a couple of million tons and actually, we’ve identified — you know us well when we do this, we’ve identified about 4 million tons of vulnerable production right now based on pure naphtha cracker plays mostly in Europe but also some in Asia.

There are a couple things wrong with the WSJ article:

1) Dow doesn’t make naphtha. Liveris was referring to naphtha-based ethylene production.

2) Liveris was speculating on what the broader industry might do, (at least in Europe and Asia) not on what Dow Chemical will do in the fourth quarter. (Dow doesn’t even have 4 million metric tons of ethylene capacity in Europe.)


Now the WSJ story comes with a correction:

Corrections & Amplifications
Dow Chemical Co. estimates other industry competitors will idle about four million tons of production of naphtha, a material used in plastics manufacturing, in the fourth quarter. A previous version of this article incorrectly said Dow Chemical plans to idle about four million tons of production of naphtha.

That’s half right. It corrects the bit that is most important for Dow: that it isn’t Dow capacity that would be idled. But it still implies that it is the raw material, naphtha, that is being idled, not the products, ethylene, propylene, etc. Close enough, I guess.


What are you for Halloween? …um, a chemist

When you think of a chemist, what comes to mind?

This is what the general public thinks chemists do all day. Photo credit: flickr user gnotalex.

It’s Halloween, and you may see a mad scientist or two roaming the streets.

It reminds me of how when I tell people I’m a chemist, I can often see the wheels turning in their head as they wonder if I play with oozing chemicals all day long, mixing them and seeing what explodes.

Then I tell them what I actually do. Here’s how it goes:

So, what have you been doing in the lab for the past four years?

That’s a good question! I use chemistry to make photoactive glass surfaces and then shine a laser on the surface to attach proteins that are involved in inflammation. Then I flow white blood cells (ya-know, the cells of your immune system) over the protein-coated surface and study how they interact with the proteins.

Huh, interesting…. So, are you curing a disease?

Well, no. But my research will lead to a better understanding of how inflammation works, which could one day lead to the development of better anti-inflammatory drugs.

Hmmm… that’s cool.

Speaking of Halloween and dressing up…

…sometimes I feel like I’m dressing up every day. Here’s what I mean:

As a grad student by day and blogger/freelancer by night, I often feel like I’m a researcher masquerading as a science writer, or vice versa.

I’m doing experiments, analyzing my data, writing it up for my dissertation… then I’m blogging, interviewing scientists and writing stories about their research. I’m happy to be involved in such a diversity of activities, but I’m looking forward to graduating, moving on from the bench chemistry phase of my life– and not having an identity crisis anymore!

Now back to the topic of the public perception of chemists…

While some chemists play with oozing chemicals, I’d say the majority of chemists do things that are less flashy day to day, and consequently, they’re not portrayed in the media.

What chemists actually do Continue reading →

A New C&EN

This week’s issue marks a milestone in the evolution of Chemical & Engineering News. With the Oct. 31 issue, we completed the first phase of the C&EN Production Automation Program (CPAP). Production of C&EN has been completely transformed and the technology behind that production is now state of the art.

CPAP is a suite of projects that has been ongoing behind the scenes for more than two years. Some elements of CPAP have already come into existence. The C&EN Archives—the digital collection of all issues of C&EN from its introduction in 1923 through 2009—for example, debuted in November 2010; all 2010 issues were added to the C&EN Archives in the first quarter of 2011.

We introduced C&EN Mobile, another CPAP project, in August of this year. All issues of C&EN are now available for free to ACS members on their smart phones and tablets, an important new member benefit.

The most visible manifestation of the completion of CPAP 1.0 is the redesign of C&EN Online. Regular users of C&EN Online will notice the changes immediately. If you aren’t a regular user of C&EN’s online edition, please check it out at cen-online.org.

The C&EN Online homepage has been overhauled in response to numerous user comments to make it less dense and more user friendly. Site navigation has been streamlined to make it more intuitive. Access to various features like the C&EN Archives, specialized collections of stories, and the SCENE news channels is straightforward. There is a greater emphasis on Latest News, which now accounts for nearly 40% of C&EN Online page downloads, and the GlobCasino blogs.

One of the most important new features of C&EN Online is the ability for readers to comment on any C&EN story. I hope readers will continue to send us letters to the editor about our coverage. Now, however, readers can immediately respond to a story with additional commentary, links to related material, or criticism. The first time a reader comments on a story, the comment will be reviewed before it appears. After that, comments will post directly. We trust that ACS members and other readers of C&EN Online will use the new commenting feature in a constructive and respectful manner. C&EN editors will be monitoring the comments and will respond to them when appropriate.

Much of CPAP 1.0 isn’t visible to our readers. The commenting feature and other new elements on the redesigned C&EN Online are possible because the online edition is now being delivered by a dedicated online delivery system (ODS) that has been put in place. All of 2010 and 2011 C&EN Online content is now housed in the new ODS; migrating earlier content is a central element of CPAP 2.0, which begins as soon as the C&EN Online team and their ACS Washington IT colleagues recover from the effort that went into launching CPAP 1.0. And behind the new ODS is a completely new digital workflow tool that renders all of C&EN content in XML (extendable markup language). Launching C&EN Mobile, for example, was completely dependent on the successful implementation of this XML workflow.

It is impossible to thank everyone who made major contributions to this effort. C&EN Online Editor Rachel Pepling and her team—Tchad Blair, Luis Carrillo, Ty Finocchiaro, and Pam Rigden Snead—have put in many long days and weeks working on CPAP 1.0. C&EN Managing Editor Robin Giroux, Assistant Managing Editor for Editing & Production Kim Twambly, Design Director Rob Bryson, Composition Manager Renee Zerby, Display Advertising Manager Meltem Akbasli, and Journal News & Community Senior Editor Lila Guterman and their teams have been instrumental in implementing CPAP 1.0. From Washington IT, CPAP Program Manager Stephen Armah, ODS Project Manager Chandrashekar Ramanan, and K4 Workflow Project Manager Madi Nassiri and their numerous colleagues have been wonderful partners in this transformation of C&EN’s production technologies and processes.

Implementing CPAP 1.0 required a major expenditure of human and capital resources by ACS. It demonstrates our commitment to continue to deliver a state-of-the-art news magazine to ACS members and other C&EN readers.

Thanks for reading.

Friday chemical safety round-up

Chemical health and safety news from the past two weeks:

  • I wrote about the new machine shop policies at Yale following Michele Dufault’s death; the Yale Alumni magazine also had a detailed story
  • Chemjobber and Stem_Wonk had a conversation about academic lab safety in the wake of the Chemical Safety Board’s report on Texas Tech:
    • CJ opened with “don’t do that”
    • SW responded by focusing on the role of the principal investigator
    • CJ followed with training and oversight
    • SW wrapped up by discussing incentives
  • Other coverage of the CSB-TTU report:
    • US lab safety under fire (Nature News Blog)
    • New Chemical Safety Board report could be the lab-safety turning point (Science Careers Blog)
    • US universities’ lab safety under new scrutiny (Chemical World)
    • Federal board cites deficiences at Texas Tech during 2010 blast (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal)
    • Report finds fault with college labs over poor safety record (USA Today)
  • Safe shipping of chemicals requires good packaging, but Nick asked when is it too much?
  • On the release of hazardous energy: Gaussling tackled what you should do if a raw material for a process is explosive
  • A deal was brokered “to implement a long-pending ban of hazardous waste shipments from industrialized countries to developing nations”
  • Oregon OSHA fined Precision Castparts $600 for violations relating to a chemical exposure incident: “Officials found that positive-pressure, self-contained breathing apparatus were not worn by employees engaged in emergency response. They also found that the employer did not provide proper training, resulting in two electricians going into the hot zone of the mill to switch the power feed.”
  • Britain’s Health & Safety Executive fined Thor Specialties $40,000 for a 2007 incident in which:

    An employee at the plant had been mixing solid and liquid chemicals which eventually caused the release of both toxic and flammable substances into the workplace laboratory. … The HSE report into the incident was damning in its criticism of Thor Specialities and accused them of both neglecting to conduct an effective risk assessment and failing to ensure satisfactory control procedures were in place at the plant. It also emerged that the employee who had mixed the chemicals hadn’t received the necessary training to be dealing with such potentially hazardous substances and that furthermore, there wasn’t adequate supervision of both the employee and the working environment when the chemical reaction occurred.

    The company also has to pay “costs” of $24,000.

  • Safety Regulators Don’t Add Costs. They Decide Who Pays Them. “Anyone who insists that regulations necessarily impose new costs on society shouldn’t be taken seriously. The costs are already there, in the form of deaths and injuries — and are often as much of a drag on our economy as any safety rule. So the real issue is who should bear the costs.”

Fires and explosions:

  • A hydrogen gas leak led to a fire at a Midwest Generation power plant in Illinois; one employee was burned
  • An “inert gas” cylinder failed at an Airgas Plant in Louisiana; three workers were injured
  • Texas Tech had another nitric acid waste bottle blow up, this time the bottle was in a storage cabinet under a hood. No one was hurt. In both this and the incident from two weeks ago, “the precise mechanism prompting the generation of pressure in the bottles is not known, but the evidence strongly suggests that mixtures of waste acids and organic solvents or mixtures of acids were involved”
  • Three North Carolina high school students were burned when an experiment went awry: they were heating either potassium nitrate or potassium chloride (chlorate?) and sucrose, and when the mixture reached a certain temperature they were to take it outside. The chemicals ignited in transit.
  • Stan Warren, 65, a former pyrotechnic manufacturing worker, built an explosive device to commit suicide. Local Pennsylvania bomb squad and hazmat technicians then had to deal wtih about 3,000 pounds of explosive materials found on his property.

Leaks, spills, and other exposures:

  • EPA is helping the municipality of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico with emergency clean-up of an abandoned chemical warehouse in a residential area. ” The site contains over 1,500 drums, chemical totes, bags and other containers of chemicals, many of which are not labeled. One warehouse is partially collapsed and the chemicals are exposed to wind and rain. Found in varying states of disrepair and neglect, many of the drums are leaking their contents onto the ground. The containers are haphazardly stored, and in some instances have collapsed onto other containers.”
  • Hydrogen sulfide from a tanker truck that overheated at Idemitsu Lubricants America in Indiana
  • Chlorine gas, at least, from mixed chemicals at Western Polymer in North Dakota
  • Hydrogen cyanide from a PDF Energy refinery in Delaware after a boiler cracked
  • Hydrogen sulfide at Idemitsu Lubricants in Indiana
  • “A bright orange substance”, observed on the floor of a storage container, at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky
  • A latex solution containing formaldehyde, 1,500 gal, from a faulty valve on a tank at Fiberbond in Indiana
  • Natural gas drilling (fracking) fluid, 8,000 gal, at a Cabot Oil and Gas site in Pennsylvania; “The MSDS form – for Halliburton’s proprietary product called LGC-35 CBM – does not list the entire makeup of the gel or the quantity of its constituents, but it warns that the substances have led to skin cancer in animals and ‘may cause headache, dizziness and other central nervous system effects’ to anyone who breathes or swallows the fluids.”
  • Zinc dithiophosphate and an organic phosphate(s) from containers aboard a ship docted at the Port of Brisbane, Australia
  • 2-Chloroethyl isocyanate, 5 g, at the University of Florida (its third incident of the semester)
  • A Marshall University chemistry student was splashed in the face with chemicals in a research lab; the student may not have been wearing goggles and was treated for “minor” chemical burns
  • Nitric acid, 500-1000 mL, in a lab at the University of Arizona–students tried to neutralize it with sodium bicarbonate before calling for help after the acid started eating through a copper pipe. A health safety officer at the university posted this to the DCHAS list:

    The acid spill ate through a 3/4 inch painted copper pipe that penetrated the floor to a lower floor. The pipe contained compressed gas and started to rattle and leak. The lab occupants got scared and pulled the fire alarm (they probably were also exposed to a good irritating acid vapor since they stayed to add sodium bicarbonate to the spill without any respiratory protection). No one involved knew what gas was in the pipe. The Fire Department determined that the gas was compressed air. However, later the same day, a similar nearby pipe containing natural gas (yes – copper pipe) started to leak. One could hear liquid gurgling in the floor and a strong odor of the natural gas odorant, which was detectable by some occupants 2 floors away. The odor 2 floors away prompted a call to my office. This time, I pulled the fire alarm and the Fire Department again responded (one truck this time). The bldg. gas was shut off and the local gas utility eventually determined it was safe for re-occupancy.

Not covered: meth labs; ammonia leaks; incidents involving floor sealants, cleaning solutions, or pool chemicals; and fires from oil, natural gas, or other fuels

What Are They Up To?

It’s Friday afternoon, and there are 20 or so people in a room in the subbasement of the ACS Hach building in Washington, D.C. Many of them will be there most of the weekend. What are they up to? Find out Monday, October 31!

Call For Social Media Success Stories in Academia

"Do you know the way to San Jose?" (with apologies to Dionne Warwick, Burt Bacharach, and Hal Davis, 1968)

We’re packing up the world headquarters of Terra Sigillata this afternoon and high-tailing it out to San Jose, California, for the annual meeting of SACNAS – the Society Dedicated to Advancing Hispanics, Chicanos, and Native Americans in Science. It’s a tremendous organization comprised of several of my former students and faculty colleagues from over the years and I’m ecstatic about reconnecting with them.

With the initiative of my colleagues – Alberto Roca of MinorityPostdoc.org and Danielle Lee of The Urban Scientist at Scientific American blogs (plus a whole host of online activities) – we pitched and were accepted to present a session on Blogging, Tweeting, & Writing: How an Online Presence Can Impact Science and Your Career.

I’ll be discussing how a responsible, online presence on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook can enhance networking opportunities for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. Specifically, I’ll introduce how I’ve increased the exposure of my students who are RISE Scholars at North Carolina Central University. In this NIGMS-funded grant, I’ve been helping my students capture their research experiences in their own words (with previous review by their P.I.’s of course, to prevent accidental disclosure of unpublished data). The students have been surprised by the level of engagement and support they’ve received in the comments from scientists all around the world.

But I know of many other students who use blogs and Twitter to engage with the scientific community in ways that brings them positive recognition outside of their academic and laboratory work.

To better prepare for this session, I’d like to gather some advice from you, Dear Reader:

Who are some of students, trainees, and junior faculty, who best exemplify the use of social media for career advancement?

Are you a student who has had Good Things happen to you because of your social media activities? How did that transpire?

If you have any responses, please drop a link in the comments with a brief explanation – or longer if you’d like! And also feel free to recommend the sites and stories of others. I’ll be sure to promote your responses in tomorrow’s talk and direct attendees to this post for future reference.

The three of us thank you so much in advance for your suggestions!

The Warp And Weft Of Blue Jeans

My significant other’s place of business in Washington, D.C.—Land of The Stuffed Shirts—recently announced that its list of acceptable Casual Friday clothing had expanded to include blue jeans. I’ve never seen so much joy and excitement among government workers over clothing. And it’s all because of the beloved status that the iconic pants have achieved. The average American probably owns at least five pairs of them.

In this week’s issue of C&EN, I wrote a short story about the chemistry that goes into making blue jeans, noting that the cotton yarn used to make denim doesn’t go directly from white to blue during the dyeing process. Interestingly, it passes through a short phase of being yellow. This is because indigo, the dye responsible for blue jeans’ hue, is not soluble in water in its native form. To dye yarn, indigo must be reduced to leucoindigo, white in powder form and yellow when dissolved in a basic solution.

So, when cotton yarn dips into a vat of leucoindigo dye, it comes out yellow, turning blue as oxygen in the air converts the reduced compound into indigo. To see the chemistry in action, click on the video above.

One thing I didn’t have the space to mention in my feature story is that leucoindigo sticks to cotton yarn better when the fibers are pretreated with a strong base such as caustic soda. This is something that indigo dyers often do to yarn before passing it into dye vats. The base swells the cellulose fibers in the cotton and causes them to go from having an alpha structure to a more crystalline, beta structure that has a higher affinity for the dye. This process is called mercerization among textile makers.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Once the cotton yarn used to make denim has been dyed, washed, and neutralized, it is coated with starch to strengthen it for weaving. At this point, the dyed threads are called “warp.” When woven into denim, these blue threads run parallel in the fabric and are put together with white cotton “weft” thread, which runs perpendicular. Look down at your jeans, and you’ll see what I mean.

Georg Schnitzer, an indigo expert at the Singapore-based supplier Bluconnection, explained to me that when denim is woven, it is done in such a way that 75% of the material’s blue warp is on the outside of the pants and 75% of the white weft is on the inside. You can check this out as well, the next time you wash your favorite blues.

Deal Activity Down In The Third Quarter

I thought the news flow had been a little slow lately.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has released its quarterly Chemical Compounds newsletter that tracks merger and acquisition activity. It looks like we are in the middle of a full-fledged deal slump.

There were 22 chemical deals worth $50 million or more in the third quarter of 2010, the accounting and consulting firm reported. During the second quarter, there were 31 deals of that size. The last time there were 22 or fewer deals was in the second quarter of 2009, right at the tail end of the credit crunch/recession.

Average deal size actually increased during the quarter, from $476.4 million in Q2 versus $725.6 million in Q3. But the Q3 number is a little on the low side historically. Moreover, four deals weighing in at over $1 billion drove up the figures. These are Ecolab’s purchase of Nalco ($8.1 billion); Tronox’s merger with Exxaro’s mineral sands unit ($1.3 billion); Lonza’s offer for Arch Chemicals ($1.2 billion); and OM Group’s acquisition of Vacuumschmelze ($1.0 billion).

[I know what you’re thinking: What the heck is a Vacuumschmelze? No, it isn’t that gunk you find when you clean out your Hoover; it is a German magnetic materials maker.]

The pace of chemical making was especially slow in Q3 for private equity firms. Financial buyers accounted for only 1.25% of the total of $16 billion in transactions. This is the lowest level ever since PwC started tracking M&A in 2006. “This shift may be due to the relative advantage that strategic investors have given their ample cash stockpiles, in addition to generally higher valuations in the sector,” PwC said in the report.