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, January 28, 2008


A Ferrofluid is a liquid that is filled with nano-scale magnetic particles. Here's a link to a video of one. A very short description of how to make it can be found here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Restaurant Musings

This weekend, my wife and I decided to try a new restaurant near our house. Upon arrival we were surprised (not) to find that it was already closed – for good. This particular location appears to be cursed. Other restaurants in the area are having no problem, but this place has gone through 4 or 5 different owners since we first moved here. By my recollection, it’s been an Italian restaurant, a Chili’s type place, a fish place (identifiable from the street by large dolphin shaped door handles), a Mexican grill (the owner wisely deciding to forgo the expense of replacing the dolphins during its 3 months of operation), and then Italian again. The pattern is always the same. My wife or I will see the grand opening sign and we’ll say “let’s check it out before it closes,” but we never make it in time. I don’t know why people keep giving that spot another chance, but perhaps they just don’t know its history.

And this is where I see a market opportunity. Someone should start a business designed to keep track of property histories and, for a small fee, steer prospective owners away from disaster areas like this. Perhaps someone has, and I just don’t know about it (along with at least 5 other people). Of course this concept only works if the viability of a prospective restaurant is considered an important factor, which does not appear to be the case at all in my parents’ home of Springfield, Missouri. A quick drive down any street will reveal that Springfield has lots of banks, lots & lots of churches, and a googolplex of restaurants. Seriously, it’s reached the point where the number of restaurants exceeds the population of the city. As you might imagine, this can lead to certain logistical problems. Three Mexican restaurants at the same intersection, a block away from my parents, no problem. Unless everyone in Springfield is eating at least 5 or 6 meals a day, this economy doesn’t seem particularly viable. Every time I visit, countless number of restaurants have closed down and been replaced by new restaurants. Urban legends tell of customers who have witnessed restaurant changeovers during the course of their meals. I can only assume the large number of banks in Springfield are necessary to handle all startup financing and renovation work. If I might borrow from Douglas Adams’ "Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy," Springfield is rapidly approaching what is known as the Restaurant Event Horizon (REH). At that point, it will become economically unfeasible to do anything but own a restaurant in Springfield. A scary proposition to be sure, but as long as the Steak n’ Shakes are still around, I’ll be happy.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Biodiesel, the new weight loss program

I’m not quite sure why, but the vast majority of chemistry blogs I’ve discovered so far are being written by organic chemists. Perhaps they have too much time on their hands or maybe Inorganic chemists have nothing to say. In any case, since I am an Inorganic chemist, you will find most of my posts will deal with Inorganic chemistry. This post, however, is an exception.

Biodiesel has been in the news lately, billed both as a greener fuel and as a way of lessening our dependence on foreign oil. Unlike biofuel, which is a general catch-all term (ethanol, methanol, etc.), biodiesel is a very specific set of compounds. Biodiesel fuel is produced by the transesterification of various (usually vegetable) oils, typically with methanol.

After removing the glycerol, unreacted fatty acid, and left-over alcohol, the methyl ester is ready for use in a diesel engine, although some engine modification may be necessary for optimal operation. For practical reasons, pure biodiesel is rarely used in vehicles. Usually it is mixed with diesel fuel, with the most common blend being a 20% biodiesel – 80% diesel mixture, referred to as B20. Despite all the hype, not all is perfect in biodiesel land. Fail to remove some of the reaction byproducts and you’ll eventually clog your fuel lines. And depending upon the choice of crop grown and manufacturing methods used to generate the methyl esters, the carbon footprint of biodiesel may not be all that much better than fossil fuels. Anyway, our governor here in Michigan has declared that biodiesel fuel is our future and who am I to argue?

Why am I talking about biodiesel now? The Daily Mail has an article describing a biodiesel fueled boat to be used in an attempt to set a new world speed record. Apparently, the boat’s skipper underwent liposuction to remove some of his fat for conversion into biodiesel in order to help fuel his boat. Is this guy green or what?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Goodbye Helium, You Were Great While You Lasted

According to Lee Sobotka of Washington University, helium is being so quickly depleted that we are in the process of running out. Perhaps I should start stocking up on helium cylinders now.

The Beauty of Chemistry Sets

Yesterday, my daughter Danielle and I were trying out the chemistry set Santa had given her for Christmas. I use the term “chemistry set” rather loosely, since the only chemical to be found in the kit was baking soda. It’s more like a science kit with the word “chemistry” on the box. Now this lack of chemicals is probably a good thing since Danielle, who is 8 years old, will be unable to poison herself and, as it turns out, is more than satisfied with generating the kinds of messes that can only be produced with liberal amounts of baking soda and vinegar. Fortunately for her, I’m not the kind of person who feels the need to follow recommended reagent guidelines.

I'm not sure how old I was when I received my chemistry set, but I’m sure I was less than 10 at the time and, quite frankly, I’m not sure how I managed to survive the experience.

Actually it was more of a surprise that my parents survived.

There I was, armed with an alcohol lamp, a collection of somewhat poisonous chemicals, a booklet of instructions, an assistant 3 years younger than myself (my brother), and with absolutely no clue as to what I was getting into. I don’t know if my parents just had a lot of trust in me or if they simply had no inkling of the mayhem that could have occurred, despite the periodic release of various odors into our basement. I recall one experiment described as “making a volcano”, which should have set off alarm bells in my dad’s head, but which only resulted in the formation of a goopy, bubbling mess which had very little in common with a volcano other than the production of significant levels of sulfur dioxide. If I detected these types of smells coming out of my basement today, I’d be grabbing a fire extinguisher and dialing 911 before I hit the bottom of the stairs.

Nevertheless, my daughter has shown interest in both science and math and is delighted to know that I’m setting up a little lab in the basement. Because of this, I’ll eventually get her a real chemistry set and see if I can show her as much trust as my parents showed me.

The Beginning

This blog is dedicated to my pursuit of all things chemical and alchemical. I have a PhD in Inorganic chemistry and have enjoyed chemistry ever since I was given my first chemistry set some time back in grade school. I make a living doing research for a large company, but as times have changed, that company has begun to turn away from doing the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. This blog is an attempt to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. I plan on discussing interesting topics in chemistry and alchemy (how can one get any more basic than alchemy?) as well as chronicling my attempts at performing experiments at home. Yes, I said "at home". To help fulfill my need to do basic experiments again -- actually touching real chemicals and glassware -- I have begun setting up a primitive lab in my basement and hope to find out just how much success one can have with chemistry using only simple techniques. The experiments I plan to do will cover both interesting chemical phenomena and explorations into the ancient works of the alchemists. This blog will also include other non-chemistry related bits that I think would be of interest to others.