I will be retiring from industrial chemistry in early 2023. Retirement has snuck up on me, to be honest. I suppose like most 64 year-olds I have trouble recognizing myself in the mirror. The joys and battle scars from my youthful early career are still fresh in my memory even as I turn the corner into the doddering years. I still recall most of the sights and smells and people in the years leading up to the present. I was lucky to meet many good people and unlucky enough to encounter a few problematic jerks. One of my earliest lessons was that not every scientist is one of your brethren. Science contains a bell curve of people- skewed to the good side for the most part, but there are always toxic characters around seemingly bent on making life difficult.

My entry into chemistry was a bit of an accident. I entered college as a physics major and Air Force ROTC minor at the age of 22. Naively I thought that my freshly issued pilots license and a physics degree would grease the skids into a flying career in USAF. Boy was I wrong. If anything there was palpable contempt for the pilots certificate. The curious attitude was if you didn’t learn to fly in the USAF then you weren’t shit. Turns out that I was also nearsighted so I was automatically disqualified from a pilot slot. My view in turn became that if you can’t fly jets why be in the USAF?

I took freshman chemistry in the summer for the physics major, then in the fall of my freshman year I started organic chemistry just out of curiosity. I was always puzzled about how drugs work and organic chemistry seemed to be the key. It turned out that organic chemistry was uniquely suitable for my type of ape brain. Soon I switched to a chemistry major and out of ROTC and never looked back at the smoldering crater of my flying career. That said, airplanes are still a passion of mine.

From this end of my career I can look back and see some mistakes I made in the past. First, while I chose a good PhD advisor, I may have aimed too low for the postdoc. It limited my opportunities for a better academic career. Always aim high.

I had a succession of four (count ’em) 1-year sabbatical replacement jobs before I got a tenure track slot at a small midwestern college (with an NMR). One year into my tenure track academic position I drove my career straight into a tree by having an escalating argument with the tenured chemistry department chair. After a long and successful career before my arrival, he tragically became a drunk and a failure in the classroom, he came to treat department faculty with disrespect and was an autocrat. All of this was well known in the department. My mistake in handling the personality conflict was to push a little too hard for near term change in department norms rather than playing the long game by waiting for his retirement. Unfortunately there was no support from the Dean despite the chair’s history of bad behavior. Seeing no help from admin, at Christmas break of the second year I took the first industry job offer I got and left the college. There was no hope for a new contract. I consider this episode to be my fault entirely for not being savvy enough to play the politics right. It was a mistake I would not make again.

Lesson No. 1. Learn to engage in politics calmly and ethically. Be patient and smart about it. Abstaining entirely from politics is the politics of victimhood. Like the old saying goes, if you put two people in a room you have politics. If it’s going to happen anyway, you may as well be good at it.

Believing that my teaching resume was fatally disfigured by this absurd episode, I resolved to move into industry. I joined a startup company that was bringing out new technology for commodity-scale polylactic acid (PLA). I was hired to find new comonomers that would lower the glass transition temperature of PLA. PLA homopolymer has a high glass transition temperature that leads to brittleness under ambient conditions. It was a great job and I took a fancy to polymer chemistry. Unfortunately, 11 months after I joined the company folded and I was on the street. Bringing a new polymer into the market at the commodity scale requires a powerful position in the polymer market which we didn’t have. Worse, we had persistent problems with low molecular weight as the money was running out.

Lesson No. 2. Beware the siren song of startup companies. They often fail.

Losing an academic job and an industrial one in a short interval had me eating a big slice of humble pie. These were dark times. In order to feed the family I took a job as an apprentice electrician working commercial construction sites. I had a good boss and the work was interesting. This phase lasted 6 months.

Not wanting to move across the country again I looked for a local job as a PhD chemist. They were scarce. Passing by pharmaceuticals, I took a risk and got a job in chemical sales at a small local chemical plant. Initially I assumed that my career as a scientist was over. As it turned out, that wasn’t true. Most of the chemistry there was multistep organic synthesis so I fit right in. This job would put my chemistry education to use in ways I hadn’t anticipated. We had diverse customers scattered across the world and marketing and customer sales and service required more than just a conversant level of chemistry knowledge in this small market. And the job required some travel to far flung locations which was very stimulating. Very often being able to speak with equal confidence to both scientists and purchasing managers was a necessary skill in making the sale.

Lesson 3. Don’t assume that your career should look like your dissertation project. Be open to possibilities.

Along the lines of Lesson 3, it is worth mentioning that in the course of a chemistry career the chemist might run into the choice of remaining in the lab or transitioning into the business end. The chemical industry requires some business leaders to have a knowledge of chemistry. This should be obvious. The problem is that relatively few chemists enter the job market with solid business credentials. By contrast, chemical engineers spend their time solving chemical manufacturing problems and designing projects within very tight economic constraints. Whereas chemical scientists have a world view that mainly has two axes- space and time- engineers see the world in terms of 3 axes- space, time, and economics. Engineers are trained to bring capital projects in on time and within budget. This facility with projects and economics provides for the facile promotion of engineers to top management positions. My observation is that lab chemists without training in business generally seem to have less career buoyancy than engineers within chemical organizations. Of course there are exceptions. An MBA for a chemist can have real value in upward mobility and lifetime earnings. I’ve seen it happen numerous times.

Lesson 4. The world of chemical business is very interesting and challenging. Give it some consideration.

One way to migrate from the lab to an executive level for a chemist is to become a chief technology officer. This can be a very consequential position in an organization with a heavy load of responsibilities. Executive level chemistry jobs can take you into the thin air of business development and the chance to work with a large assortment of executives and managers from other organizations. It is worth aspiring to.

My view now is that I should have tried harder for a flying job.

Like most sciency individuals who graduated from the university/research complex in the US, I planned on a life of doing science. And I did for a few years as a post-doc and assistant prof. But eventually I left academia for the industrial side of the scientific enterprise. There was a period of getting oriented to the commercial arena of chemical technology. But, after seeing the boost in pay, the abundance of lab equipment and the prospects for travel, I quickly adapted.

In industry, scientists are hired to solve problems. And there are usually problems galore. But unlike academia where the entire spectrum of chemical methodologies are available for use, in industry we are often constrained to use in-house technology and standard operating procedures. This in-house technology can consist of proprietary materials and methods, specific substances that are compatible with environmental, health, & safety requirements (OSHA & EPA), or that reaction chemistry which is suitable for scale-up. Suitability can be based on compatibility with materials of construction or the practical operational constraints of existing equipment. Oh, I forgot to mention process safety. Manufacturing at large scale brings safety problems that academics may have little familiarity with.

In-house technology can be broad or narrow in scope. It can be practiced openly in the public domain, reside under just trade secrecy, or under patent protection and a spritz of trade secrecy. Progress in academia is about sharing knowledge and publishing as a measure of productivity, all the while educating students. In industry, the productivity of a scientist is measured as best profit margins on new or old products and technical service to customers. Whereas, an academic is expected to propagate knowledge, we in industry are obligated to keep everything under wraps. Disclosure can be a career ending mistake. This seems like an oil and water compatibility problem.

The differing imperatives, commercial secrecy vs public domain, make the cooperation between industry and academia fraught with difficulties. What is in it for an academic or grad student if they are not able to get a publication out of their labors? A big grant possibly but few publications to show the rank and tenure committee. Will patents get you tenure or a full professorship? I don’t know. Would students be able to use proprietary information in their dissertation? It’s questionable. The matter of proprietary information, inventorship, and assignment of ownership makes cooperation between industry and academia a complex problem for the lawyers.

I live under a rock but perhaps the readers might know of fruitful alliances in the lab between the two chemistry domains- college chemistry faculty and industry. I suppose in circumstances where a company has been started by a professor, productive alliance could happen more easily. 


I’ve been thinking a lot about flying cars lately. The promoters of these cars have said nothing about what would happen if these things became popular. How would one qualify to operate one? Presumably the FAA would get responsibility for regulatory oversight of this new air traffic. What airspace would these flying cars be allow to fly in? Would they have to be automated? Would you dare fly without a backup pilot on board?

While driving on a busy road, look at how people drive. I’m sure you’ll agree that there might be a large fraction of folks who should not be allowed to control a flying vehicle. Just how much air traffic congestion could/should we tolerate overhead? The issues get stickier the more you think about it.

Currently there is extensive training and 3 tests to pass to get a basic airman’s certificate. Of course these vehicles could hit the market with full automation and without a licensed pilot. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be the need for a backup pilot for some period of time. After all, modern airliners are heavily automated but pilots are still required. And, do we really want them to land just anywhere even though that is a selling point? Perhaps there will be selected places where they can land, you know, like an airport.

I doubt that we’ll see flying cars replacing significant ground commuter traffic even into the distant future. I think they’ll get a recreational vehicle status and will be limited -economically- to wealthy status seekers, show-off executives, or the state.

Eventually, the police and FBI will want them them as well. And criminals.

The July 8, 2019, online issue of the NY Times featured an article by Dr. Daniel Horowitz, an organic chemist and former member of the US Chemical Safety Board, on the matter of hydrogen fluoride (HF) use in petroleum refining. HF is an acid catalyst used in taking small hydrocarbon molecules and making somewhat heavier hydrocarbon molecules for use as octane boosters for gasoline. This is a critical technology for efficient use of petroleum in the manufacture of motor fuels.

My take on the article is that Horowitz believes that refineries are using an alkylation technology that is too hazardous for workers and the public. He writes that there have been several recent near-misses that could have lead to the release of HF that might have left the plant site and spread into the surrounding communities.

Risk = consequence of hazardous activity x probability of event (Wikipedia).

While actuaries understand how to calculate risk, one wonders how executives go about deciding what is an acceptable risk for other stakeholders like the public. Hmmm. Just a thought.

Thanks to RW for the link.

Learning how to use an Agilent 1260 LCMS (with just the diode array detector, not the MS). Oh. My. God. I last used an Agilent 1200 LC 10 years ago. This bloody 1260 is wildly complex, specifically in regard to the MassHunter data collection and workup software. It’s like a Swiss Army knife with 500 tools on it. The thing is designed for a busy analytical lab with high throughput and heavy documentation, like the boys and girls in pharma would use. I’m just using it for research. It’s like giving a taser to a monkey. It’s just a matter of time before something goes dreadfully wrong. Crimony.

I encountered this interesting article while reading about Octave Levenspiel, a prolific chemical engineer, now deceased. It is entitled Dinosaurs, but it is really about the natural history of our atmospheric composition and pressure. Have a look.

While doing some IP due diligence I ran into a patent that claimed some art of interest to me. The art was very useful, but it was claimed by a Prominent Professor of chemistry at Well Known University (WKU). Digging a bit deeper I found that the patent had expired well into it’s lifetime due to non-payment of maintenance fees. So, let’s look at this a bit deeper.

Prominent Professor files a patent application in 1998 on said art and then shoots off a paper to Well Known Publication. Then in 2003, the USPTO grants a patent to Prominent Professor and is assigned to WKU. Fine.

If the patent had been generating royalties, it seems unlikely that WKU would have allowed the patent to expire. There is no record of transfer of ownership to another assignee either. My guess is that by the time of the final maintenance fee, interest in the patent was slim to none. Seeing no royalty income likely, WKU elects to allow the patent to expire. Not uncommon.

The work produced by Prominent Professor was funded by DoE. In short, Prominent Professor received public funding and then by virtue of filing for a patent, the technology produced by said public funding is denied use by the public unless they pay again for it in a royalty agreement, unless it was under exclusive agreement with another entity. Evidently the art sat fallow for a good dozen years until it expired. Prominent Professor and WKU got a feather in their caps, and industry and the public had to sit on their thumbs during the period of unproductive time.

This is but one example of a sham allowed under public law.

I received a package from the across the Atlantic last week. It contained a small pressure transducer which, in it itself, isn’t very interesting. But what was odd was the number of layers of packaging it had. It had 6 separate bags and envelopes as well as a piece of foam.

At what point does precaution give way to fetish? They could learn something from Amazon. When in doubt, use those green air pillows and a box.

I have been an enthusiastic user of RPN calculators since high school, when Gerry Ford was president. Of course I refer to those made by Hewlett-Packard. My first was the HP-25C. The beauty of the RPN system with its 4 register stack was that it could do fairly elaborate chain calculations without the need for parentheses or an equal key. It is quite intuitive to many of us and was a pleasure to use.

But, alas! The HP RPN calculator has largely gone out of fashion it seems. Only a few models remain on the market and several are financial calculators. The HP-12C financial calculator is a wholly inadequate substitute for a scientific calculator. My 12C now sits in the desk drawer with unused pens and paper clips. All seems lost for the RPN tribe.

Or so I thought. It turns out that there is a manufacturer of Hewlett-Packard RPN clones called SwissMicros. These folks have taken the RPN baton and are running with it. Hero’s, I call them. They knew a good product when they saw it and have saved the day by manufacturing a clone that seems nearly indistinguishable from the corresponding HP unit.

I recently purchased the HP-15C clone called the DM15L. It has the look and heft of the 15C. My use thus far has been cursory, but I look forward to exploring the features. So, here is a shout out to SwissMicros!


One of the safety seminars I teach is on the general topic of reactive hazards. There is a bit of a challenge to this because the idea is to cultivate informed caution rather than allow broadband fear to rule. It is challenging because my class is generally populated with non-chemist plant operators or other support staff. Out in the world the word “chemical” is generally taken to be an epithet and indicative of some malign influence. We who work with chemicals are in a position to bear witness to the reality of chemistry in our lives and to speak calmly and reasonably about it, without crass cheerleading.

Here is how I look at this. There are hazards and there are dangers. A hazard is something that can cause harm if it was to be fully expressed by way of physical contact with people or certain objects, unbounded access to an ignition source, exposure to air, etc. A critical feature of the hazard definition is that there are layers of protection preventing undesired contact. Hazards can be contained. A contained hazard is safer to be around than an uncontained hazard.

An uncontained hazard is that which can cause harm without the interference of effective layers of protection. A hungry tiger in a cage is hazardous in that there is the potential for trouble if the cage is breached. Being openly exposed to that tiger is what I’ll call dangerous.

Likewise, a stable chemical in a bottle has a physical layer of protection around it. A policy on the use of that bottled chemical constitutes a concentric administrative layer of protection. The bottle sitting in a proper cabinet within a room with limited access has more layers of protection. The policy of selling that chemical only to qualified buyers is a further layer of protection.

Egg white to which has been added several drops of conc H2SO4 (bottom) and 50 % caustic (top). Two minutes have elapsed. The point of this demo is to show what might happed to a cornea on contact with these reagents. The clouding is irreversible. People remember demonstrations.

It is possible to work around contained hazards safely and most of us do this outside of work without giving it much thought. Hazardous energy is exploited by most of us in the form of moving automobiles, spinning jet turbines, rotating machinery of all kinds, compressed gases and springs, and flammable liquids. Safe operation around these hazards is crucial to the conduct of civilization right down to our daily lives.

It is very easy for experts to frighten the daylights out of people by an unfortunate choice of words or simply dwelling on the hazardous downside too much. Users of technology should always be versed in the good and bad elements as a matter of course.

Risk can be defined as probability times consequence. So, to reduce risk one can reduce probability, diminish undesired consequences, or both.  This is the purpose of LOPA, or Layers of Protection Analysis. LOPA can provide a quantitative basis for safety policy. The video below will explain.


Designing for tolerable risk is something that all of us in industry must come to grips with.



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