This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Monday, October 26, 2009

One of the Keys to a Good Presentations is...

One thing (amon many) that bothers me during a presentation is a lack of consistency between graphs. Perhaps I’m just being a bit anal here, but it seems to me that talks should be designed so as to allow the listener to grasp what you are trying to say as quickly as possible. If the audience has to work too hard to understand a series of graphs, then the audience will stop paying attention.

Now I’m not talking about colors and fonts, although maintaining a consistent color scheme for data sets throughout a talk is a very good thing. (If you use red for sample #1 and blue for sample #2 on the first slide, keep it that way throughout the rest of the talk. I know that seems fairly obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t pay attention to this. Far too many people who should know better just use whatever colors Powerpoint gives them.) No, I’m talking about inconsistencies in the way the data is plotted. For example, plotting some of your data using weight% and others using mole% (unless there is some special reason for doing so.)

This almost always happens because the presenter is too lazy to convert one (or more) of the plots. I’ve seen this at group meetings at work as well as at talks given at our local catalysis society meetings. In these cases, it’s obvious the presenter just tossed in a bunch of plots drawn by their students (or group members) and figured that was good enough.

I bring this up now since my current project involves lots of meetings with lots of presentations with lots of data and we’re running into the same problem. In this case, the problem stems from a lack of an agreed upon format. We work on fuel cells and it’s common to evaluate a cell by measuring its current output as a function of voltage. It’s called a polarization curve and is commonly plotted as amps versus voltage. That’s fine, but we have people from many different backgrounds - materials people, electrochemists, product engineers, graduates students from a local university, PhDs from one of the national labs – and everyone has their own preferences. Some like to plot watts (amps x volts) versus volts. Others plot current density (amps/cm2) versus volts while still others plot power density (watts/cm2) versus volts. If that wasn’t bad enough, sometimes the axes are flipped, so that voltage is now on the y-axis. And when they start mixing up these plots in their project updates – and they always do -- I spend half my time doing conversions in my head, just to figure out what the data really means.

So please keep your plots consistent. I may be in your audience one day and I’ll greatly appreciate it!

I would also like to apologize for the long delays between posts. I promise to start posting more often, like I used to do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bacteria - The New Chemists

A new wave of chemists is on the horizon – and they are called microbiologists. Every day, it seems, I read an article about the use of bacteria to perform chemical synthesis, a job that rightly belongs to chemistry graduate students. Hydrogen, biodiesel fuels, drugs, and a few other organic compounds whose names I don’t remember are being produced by trained bacteria. I don’t know how many of these processes are commercially viable.... yet.... but I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time before graduate students will have nothing left to do other than caring for the bacteria in their labs.

In a similar and yet totally unrelated vein, here is another report detailing the use of bacteria to remove uranium from waste water.

According to the report:
Bacteria, in this case, E. coli, break down a source of inositol phosphate (also called phytic acid), a phosphate storage material in seeds, to free the phosphate molecules. The phosphate then binds to the uranium forming a uranium phosphate precipitate on the bacterial cells that can be harvested to recover the uranium.”

While I’m sure we can probably always use another new technique for the removal of toxic heavy metals, I cannot help but wonder if having radioactive bacteria running around out in the open is such a good idea. I realize the radiation levels are pretty low, but this still seems like the basis for a movie on the Science Fiction channel.

On another note, the 2009 Ig Noble awards have been announced and they are as funny as ever. The Chemistry prize goes to Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño for creating diamonds from tequila. I sure hope they have an MSDS for the starting material. The link is here. Thanks to Anne Marie Helmenstine's blog for the original link.