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).

Friday, May 29, 2009

Mediterranean Cyclones

According to this article, scientists have developed a new method of forecasting cyclones in the Mediterranean Sea. This has nothing to do with chemistry, and I don't really care about the subject, but it does give me a chance to post a (rather poor) picture I took in Malta years ago.

This waterspout appeared near the town of Mellieha (where we were staying) during the last day of our trip. As far as I know, it's the closest I've ever been to a tornado. We felt pretty safe from our vantage point, but I'm not sure the crew of the freighter (not shown) felt the same way. We flew out of Malta early the next morning -- fortunately -- since the resulting torrential rains shut down much of the island along with the airport.

Two new elemental podcast are now available at Chemistry World. This week's elements are zinc and radon.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Poisons of the Day - Part Ib

When I started the “Poisons of the Day” series last year, I was hoping to update it a bit more regularly, but one post a year (plus an addendum) is pretty pathetic. I’ve had several partially written entries since last year, but general laziness has prevented me from finishing them up. Perhaps they’ll see the light of day in June. In the meantime, here is an addendum to the addendum to the original post concerning arsenic. Besides its well-established toxicity, it appears arsenic also makes us more susceptible to the flu.

It is already known that arsenic disrupts a large number of hormone pathways in the body, which may link it with a variety of hormonal related diseases. The link with cancer has already been established. Now, Joshua Hamilton and Courtney Kozul have demonstrated that, after five weeks of drinking water containing 100 ppb of arsenic, mice exposed to the H1N1 influenza virus are only able to generate a rather poor immune response (compared with non-arsenated mice). Several days are required to reach appropriate response levels and that delay can be costly. According to Hamilton, “One thing that did strike us, when we heard about the recent H1N1 outbreak, is Mexico has large areas of very high arsenic in their well water, including the areas where the flu first cropped up. We don't know that the Mexicans who got the flu were drinking high levels of arsenic, but it's an intriguing notion that this may have contributed,”

Perhaps. So it may be worth noting that arsenic concentrations of 100 ppb and higher can also be found in well water in many areas of the United States.

Fortunately, unlike heavy metals such as lead and mercury, arsenic does not accumulate in the body. “Arsenic goes right through us like table salt,” Hamilton says. “We believe for arsenic to have health consequences, it requires exposure day after day, year after year, such as through drinking water.”

If it weren't for BPA, I'd be drinking bottled water all the time.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The End of the Hydrogen Economy?

Most of you probably missed it, but about two weeks ago, the Obama administration announced the cutting off of funds for research into the use of hydrogen fuel cells to power the next generation of cars and trucks. The reasoning? The technology was not expected to be viable within the next 10-20 years and the administration wanted to spend its (our) money on projects with a quicker payoff. The difficulties with using PEM (proton exchange membrane) fuel cells in cars and trucks are many. Problems with on-board hydrogen storage, the need to use high purity hydrogen (ppm levels of CO poison PEM fuel cells), low power densities, and the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure (e.g. filling stations) all have to be solved first. Basically, this is an admission that we’re still a long way off from the much touted hydrogen economy.

And it doesn't help that hydrogen may not be as "green" a fuel as first thought.

Note: Fortunately, this has no effect on my work on SOFCs (solid oxide fuel cells). SOFCs can utilize both H2 and CO as fuels, both of which are produced by on-board reforming of gasoline or diesel fuel. SOFCs have their own set of difficulties, but they’re much closer to being solved.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Science News Cycle

PhD Comics has some interesting comics relating to science and the news. Here's one example:

Go check out the site.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Francium -- Probably Only Good For About One and a Third PhDs

Two new elemental podcasts are available for download at chemistryworld. This week's elements of interest include Francium and Aluminum. The Fr podcast is especially interesting. Considering that Fr has a halflife on the order of 20 minutes, it's probably not a good idea to base your thesis on its chemistry. All the quick experiments have already been done. And it cannot be classified as a disappearing element since it's continually being generated by radioactive decay. It's estimated that the steady state amount of Fr on the earth at any one time is about a kilogram, which is another reason not to base your thesis on it.

* Post title was edited based on Mitch's comment.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Fear of Drugs

My wife recently recovered from a lower respiratory infection which she picked up during our trip to Missouri. The source of the infection cannot be confirmed, but the woman who sat in the adjacent row on the plane with the severe cough who couldn’t bother to cover her mouth should probably avoid any dark alleys where my wife might be waiting. Anyway, one antibiotic, two steroids, and two weeks later, the wife is back to normal. As usual, I escaped unscathed, much to my wife’s annoyance.

It’s probably best that I don't get sick very often. My wife will dutifully take any and all pills prescribed by the doctor without the slightest hesitation, while I tend to avoid medicines and drugs like the plague, especially those to which I’ve never been exposed before. Maybe I’ve seen too many doctor/hospital/ER shows where the entire episode revolved around the life and death struggle of a patient who had either experienced a rare, life threatening reaction to some commonly prescribed medicine or else experienced a common, life threatening reaction to a incorrectly prescribed medicine. (Perhaps I just watch too much TV -- but that’s another issue). But the main reason I don’t relish the idea of taking drugs is that, as a chemist (admittedly with a limited biochemical background), I have some idea of just how insanely complex the chemistry is inside our bodies. It seems utterly impossible to me that the introduction of a new chemical into our systems wouldn’t cause havoc somewhere. Just think about how easy it is for small impurities to crap up a reaction in the lab. While the general success of the pharmaceutical industry does allay my fears to a certain extent, I am still cautious since most doctors will admit that taking a drug is always a compromise. The idea/hope is that the benefits outweigh the negative effects. And if we are lucky, the negative consequences go unnoticed by the patient and are eventually repairable by the body. As a result, my doctor, the pharmacist, and myself have come to an uneasy truce over the years.

Unfortunately, that truce has become a bit more shaky thanks to a talk I attended at a local chemistry group, brewingchemistry. The lecturer was Felix Schneider, a retired FDA chemist, and his talk was entitled “What Happened to the FDA?” Without giving a lot of details, the politicalization of the FDA in the last decade, along with attempts to outsource some of its responsibilities, has led to a less effective organization (to put it mildly). It sounds as though the FDA is attempting to fix itself, beginning with a move back toward directors wiwth more of a science background, but it will be an uphill climb.

Scary fact1: Most of the large pharmaceutical companies do not make the active ingredients in the drugs we buy – they license them out to other manufacturing facilities. If I recall correctly, something like 75% of these plants are outside the United States, mostly foreign corporations. At the present rate of inspection, it has been estimated that it will require nearly 50 years before all these plants can be visited by the FDA. Just what I needed to hear, especially after hearing stories about what the FDA has found in sites they have visited.

1Some alcohol was consumed during the talk, so take these numbers with a grain of salt -- the inorganic kind.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


The “corn into ethanol as automotive fuel” supporters received another bit of bad news the other day. They were already smarting from criticisms that corn based ethanol would not only dramatically drive up the price of food but would also generate more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels (once you take into account the entire life-cycle of corn growing/ethanol manufacturing). Now, Elliot Campbell (UCM), David Lobell (Stanford), and Chris Field (Stanford) have calculated you can get more energy per acre by simply burning the biomass (corn, switchgrass, or whatever you’re growing) to make electricity. Converting the biomass into ethanol just wastes a significant portion of its energy content. The authors also point out that an additional benefit of “bioelectricity” might be in the area of carbon sequestration. You can sequester carbon at a stationary power plant, but not for mobile sources like automobiles.

Of course, this only helps lower our dependence on oil if we’re all using electric cars.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bad Science -- Toxic Salt

The great promise of the Internet is that it allows everyone to share their opinions with the public. The curse of the Internet is that it allows everyone to share their opinions with the public. I occasionally run into web-based articles discussing some aspect of science written by people who obviously don’t know the first thing about the subject. Recently, I found myself greatly amused by the following article on table salt. Excessive salt intake is apparently bad for your health – not because it increases your blood pressure, but because refined salt contains dangerous chemicals the industry doesn’t want you to know about. Here’s a typical quote:

“One or two servings of refined salt won`t send you to the grave. But continued almost daily use will avail you to the perils of aluminum toxicity.”

Aluminum toxicity?

The author’s suggestion: Use only “organic” salt. An amusing oxymoron, to say the least. There are many more such pearls of wisdom within this article. For example, he seems to have a fear of NaF, which he describes as “a synthetic, poisonous fluoride.” Unless I’m misreading it’s LD50, the amount of NaF you’d have to ingest for it to be toxic would probably cause your heart to explode due to a super elevated blood pressure brought on by all that sodium.

I’m sure the author means well, but this article could be the poster child for why chemistry should be a required course in high school.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ruthenium Compound Splits Water

If you work in the energy sector and your focus is on hydrogen, then chances are you spend a lot of time thinking about this reaction:

2H2 + O2 --> 2H2O

Researchers in this field tend to fall into one of two groups. The first group wants to use hydrogen to generate energy, usually in the form of electricity via a fuel cell, and devotes its energies into driving the above reaction as far to the right as possible. The second group wants to use energy to generate hydrogen, usually by electrolysis, possibly using solar photons, and strives to drive the reaction as far to the left as possible. (A third group is concerned with hydrogen storage, using high surface area materials such as MOFs, but that’s a topic for another discussion). Although these the two groups would appear to be diametrically opposed, they have at least one thing in common. In both cases, the efficiencies of the processes are often dependent on the oxygen side of the reaction. During electrolysis, forming the O2 is the hard part, which explains why most of the advancements in this area are related to the anode. The cobalt phosphate electrode coating announced by MIT last year would be one example. And in fuel cells, it’s the cathode that causes most of the headaches, since it’s more difficult to reduce O2 then it is to oxidize H2 (at the anode).

In an attempt to negate the need for electrodes, much work has been devoted to identifying transition metal complexes which might catalyze the photochemical splitting of water in solution. The results have been generally disappointing. In many cases, sacrificial reagents are required, usually to facilitate the formation of O2, obviously limiting the usefulness of the process. In addition, since the H2 and O2 are usually co-generated at the same location, an additional step is required to isolate the H2. Not good at all.

In a recent article in Science , David Milstein describes some ruthenium chemistry which may have some implications in the solar energy field. When water was added to a ruthenium compound they’ve been working with, a new hydrido-hydroxo complex was formed.

Upon heating, this new complex continues to react with water to produce a dihydroxo ruthenium complex along with free H2. Irradiating this dihydroxo complex with a halogen lamp causes it to revert back to the original hydrido-hydroxo complex, along with the formation of O2. Catalytic photochemical splitting of water without the use of sacrificial reagents. Not bad. Even better, since the H2 and O2 are produced during different steps, there are no separation issues to be dealt with. This process is a loooong way from being commercially viable, but I enjoy any chemistry where an organometallic compound reacts constructively with water without simply igniting or decomposing into an ugly pile of goo.