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).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why Free Time and Blogs Do Not Mix

The biggest reason why I haven't been updating my blog lately (other than laziness) is apparently due to having too much free time. Strange as it may seem, I am finding I require a certain minimum level of structure in my life in order to post anything on this blog. Back when I lived in the land of employment, there was structure. Searching the net for interesting science articles at work (during lunch, of course) was a regular routine and this process generated most of the ideas about which I posted. When I'm home all day, I never get around to performing this ritual until late at night, and then I feel obliged to work on my resume, or rearranging my office, or any of the other tasks I managed to avoid during the day.

Well it looks like that practice is about to stop.

Unless something unforeseen occurs, I should be entering the land of the employed in about a week. Now before you all start cheering too loudly, I should point out this job is not a permanent position. It's a contract position, with a length of one year, and the salary is significantly less than my prior job. And it's not going to involve a lot of interesting research on my part either, at least not for a while. I'll be developing computer automated test reactors for the evaluation of fuel cells. Not what I'd call an ideal position, but it will help keep us financially secure until I do locate a more favorable, permanent position. To say the national job market for inorganic chemists has fallen off a cliff is an understatement. The trick will be to ride it out for a couple of years until the job market opens up.

The funny thing is -- I am going to be working for the same company I was laid off from two months ago. I was only able to pull this off because:
1. it's a contract position, which means they can cut me loose at any time, and considering the precarious state of the company, that time could be measured in months or weeks.
2. it's at a different facility, which unfortunately means a 50-60 minute commute each way.
3. it involves a product area in which they are very excited. And the fact that this project is partially funded by the government actually allowed them to hire someone.

Anyway, I hope to be spending lunch breaks posting in a more regular fashion soon.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

More Bad News

I just learned that there are going to be more layoffs at my former company. Unfortunately, one of the guys I worked closely with was tapped this time. All the competent researchers from that particular division are now basically gone. This does not bode well for the future of that division or the company overall.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hydrate Chemistry

As I've previously indicated on this blog, I am primarily an AQUEOUS inorganic chemist. As such, I've prepared a wide variety of aquated metal complexes over the years, but I've never paid much attention to solid hydrate chemistry. And that's a shame, since there is a lot of good chemistry in that area, some of which I'm dealing with right now.

A few months ago, we decorated our ceilings with crown molding. Unfortunately, the original builders of our house placed the water pipes too close to the ceiling, which meant that two months after the crown molding was added, the FOUR nails which had punctured the pipes rusted and caused the pipes to leak. The resulting repair left a hole in the ceiling which was my job to fix. The material of choice for this type of repair is drywall (sometimes called sheetrock). Drywall is prepared by mixing CaSO4 · 1/2H2O with water to form CaSO4 · 2H2O, a hydrate with enough strength to be used to construct walls. Considering the fact that the added water forms no bonds other than hydrogen bonds, it's a little surprising that the resulting hydrate is so stable.

Of course, the strength of CaSO4 · 2H2O is nothing compared to that of another well-known hydrate. Cement begins as a mixture of CaO and SiO2 in various proportions, which is then reacted with water to form a calcium silicate hydrate.

2 Ca3SiO5 + 7 H2O —> 3 CaO · 2 SiO2 · 4 H2O +3 Ca(OH)2

Actually there is an entire series of hydration reactions which occur during the hardening of cement, with reaction times ranging from hours to weeks. Again, the strength generated by the formation of a hydrate is simply amazing.

Another hydrate with interesting chemistry is methane hydrate. Containing 5-6 molecules of water for every molecule of methane, this material can be found in huge quantities along the ocean floor. Wiki link here. It has been described as both a huge, untapped energy reserve and a major source of greenhouse gas. The latter description has become more significant as the temperature of the oceans continues to rise, since methane hydrate is only stable at low temperatures. It's also been used to explain the disappearance of ships in the Bermuda Triangle. What more could you ask from a simple compound?

Anyway, the ceiling is fixed.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Power of TV

One of the advantages of a “career transition” is that it allows one to watch alarmingly high amounts of TV during the day (while doing Internet job searches, of course). And while I appreciate having been granted this boon, it’s probably not worth the I.Q. points I’ve had to give up for the privilege. Lately, my wife has developed the habit of watching HGTV (Home & Garden TV) whenever she finds nothing else worth watching. Unfortunately, this means we have HGTV on at least 6 hours a day.

(Yes, we are one of those families where the TV is on almost continously all day, even if no one is watching. Frankly, the silence generated by turning it off scares the hell out of me.)

Long time readers know that I’m into gardening (garden link here), so I used to enjoy HGTV, but lately they’ve been ignoring the garden aspect and concentrating solely on houses. Remodeling houses, appraising houses, selling houses, buying houses, swapping houses -- it doesn’t take a genius to realize that all these shows are going to look the same. I realize the housing crisis has led to a renewed interest in how to sell your house -- or how to remodel it if you can’t -- but you can only remodel a kitchen so many ways. You can only gasp at poorly decorated homes so many times. You can only laugh at a homeowner’s first experience with a hammer so many times. And that, basically, is a summation of about 80% of the shows. The other 20% involves laughing at the tacky artistic remodeling touches added by the show’s designers, which would never see the light of day if the owners were actually paying for them.

However, what really drive me crazy are the “What is my house worth?” shows. First of all, either these shows were taped 2 years ago or else the realtors who supposedly “appraise” the houses are incompetent fools, or liars, or incompetently foolish liars. In almost every case, the “supposed” appreciations of these houses are outrageously high. It’s not uncommon for an owner to have purchased a house 3 years ago for $300k, added $100k in upgrades, and then being told it’s now worth $800k. Even in the housing boom, that would have been remarkable. But these days? Who are they kidding? Obviously there are certain locations within in the United States where housing prices are climbing (at least, so far), but unless these shows are only filming in those specific areas, there is no way these prices are real.

What really appalls me though, is the reason for these appraisals. When the owners are asked the reason behind the appraisal, the most common answer is that they are considering a major renovation and want to know if the house has appreciated enough to pay for that upgrade. Morons! Either you have the money or you don’t! Using a “supposed” increase in the price of your house to pay for a renovation is like pulling money out of your savings account and thinking you just made a profit. Don’t these people realize that it was this kind of “logic” that got us into the housing crisis in the first place. Basing financial decisions on artificially inflated values of real estate is stupid.

Seriously, some of these people need to be kept out of the gene pool!

I feel better now.

Tomorrow -- Real Science: Nostradamus on the History Channel!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Home Grown Titanium

Although my current lack of posting might not indicate it, I've actually come across quite a few interesting articles lately. Unfortunately, they all involve nanochemistry, and since I've already talked too much about nanochemistry recently, I'm imposing a moratorium on that subject for awhile. Fortunately, I do have something else to talk about.

The Goldschmidt reaction.

Not familiar with the Goldschmidt reaction? Perhaps you have heard of it referred to as "the thermite reaction."

Surely everyone who has ever taken a freshman chemistry course has read or heard about the thermite reaction. Most of you have probably seen it in action. The pyrotechnics are impressive and most freshman chemistry lecturers simply cannot resist demonstrating it in front of a class. In its most common incarnation, aluminum and Fe2O3 (or Fe3O4) powders are mixed and ignited. The aluminum is converted to Al2O3 while the iron oxide is reduced to the metallic state. Significant quantities of heat are released, and if the experiment is set up correctly, molten iron will drip out of the bottom of the reaction vessel. Although iron oxide is the material most associated with the thermite reaction, copper and manganese oxides can also be used.

In a continuation of "the type of experiments I'd like to try at home when my wife is away" category, I recently came across a method for generating titanium metal in your garage using TiO2 and the thermite reaction. A full description of the technique as well as a video of the pyrotechnics are included. Metallic titanium was actually recovered, which is amazing since titanium tends to oxidize in air at temperatures near its melting point. In order to generate the temperatures necessary to melt the titanium, CaSO4 was added to generate additional heat. CaSO4 reacts with aluminum in its own version of the thermite reaction to form CaS. A more detailed description of the process involved can be found here.

This would have been an awesome experiment for alchemists to have performed back in the day. Simple, yet impressive. Perhaps the substitution of iron oxide with some form of gold oxide (or other suitable gold compound) might have resulted in the appearance of molten gold, always a good way to impress the wealthy patrons upon whom the alchemists depended. Unfortunately, although aluminum salts were known to the alchemists as far back as ancient Greece, aluminum metal was not produced until the 1800's. And it's the chemical energy stored in the metal which drives the whole reaction.