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One of my job responsibilities is to educate new hires on reactive hazards and the basics of electrostatic discharge safety in the chemical manufacturing environment. The attendees are usually new plant operators with the occasional analytical chemist also in attendance. The educational background for the operators is nearly always a high school diploma with work experience of widely varying duration in non-chemical industries. Since we are far from the regional chemical manufacturing centers in the USA, we rarely encounter applicants from our industrial sector. Commonly the analysts arrive with a BA/BS in chemistry, biochemistry, or even biology sometime in the past.

In their 1 to 2 weeks of introductory training I’m given 1 hour for each of the 2 topics- barely enough time to wedge in important vocabulary let alone develop a command of, well, anything. My approach is to first talk about the difference between hazard and danger with some folksy examples. Then I introduce the general concept of stability using examples boxes on a rising incline. From there, we talk about stability as related to variously truncated inverted conical objects. The notion of instability, meta-stability, and stability are teased out of examples of the tipsiness of inverted cones leading to a change of state under the influence of external forces. This is very concrete and primes the mind to begin to grapple with the abstract notion of substances undergoing change depending on the precariousness of their initial state or the intensity of external influence.

Synthetic chemistry is very much about the careful manipulation of instability in order to produce the sort of change that is desired. Highly stable materials, i.e. sand, are not desirable in a chemical synthesis minimally because they are resistant to alteration. Many reaction steps may be performed and much cost incurred in order to produce features (functional groups) that are sufficiently unstable to undergo the series of desired connections.

After all of the above, the remainder of the hour is spent talking about chemical hazards and how some of them may be passivated by paying attention to the fire triangle. Also the matter of chemical compatibility is introduced as well as the existence of various categories of substances with examples. Of course, this means nothing to them. It’s just a bunch of new words arranged in unfamiliar ways. I’m quite well aware of this, but the purpose is to prime the pump so that when they hear these solvent names and words like acidic, caustic, basic, pH, quench, etc., then can begin the long process of connecting the dots to produce a better picture of their workspace.

The topic of ESD – electrostatic discharge – has its own peculiar challenges. First of all, static charge is invisible, pervasive, and unless you have direct measurements, provides hazards of an unknown risk. To understand ESD hazards, the learner should be exposed to the units describing static charge. These include the Coulomb (C), the volt (Joules/C), the Joule (J), area charge density (µC/m^2), power (Watts = J/sec), the Ohm (Ω = V/A) and the Siemens (S = 1/Ω), and the Ampere (A = C/sec).

Herein lies the real point of this essay. In teaching ESD safety for 4-5 years, I have met perhaps 2 attendees (engineers) out of many dozens who recall having taken coursework relating to basic electricity. I always begin the seminar by taking a poll on who has heard of Ohm’s Law. In reality, I don’t expect electrical proficiency from folks who have not worked in an electrical field. What surprises me is that so few can recall having heard of Ohm’s Law. How is it that we are letting so many people graduate from high school without some course work introducing the very basics of electricity?? This related to one of the most pervasive and influential technologies in our time. I think this is a stunning oversight.

“A’hem, cough cough,” you sputter, “but surely …” –short pause for effect- “… students who have taken high school physics have had instruction in electricity,” you reply with obvious incredulity.

If you had said this you’d be correct. But the educational profile of many factory workers doesn’t seem to include many people who have, in our experience, taken physics in high school. Those from the electrical trades tend not to show up from the temp agency for screening.

So let me end this by asking the mandarins of our school districts why we let students not college bound  graduate without some background in the basics of electricity or electronics? To repeat, this is a stunning oversight, given the extensive use of electrical functions and objects in our lives.




This video was produced at Pultroon Studios in Smoldering Forest, Colorado.

The subject had received 15.7 mCi of 18F-glucose 6 hours prior to filming. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Getting technical people to offer insight and advice can range from simple to vexing. Following a recent purchase of an unusual type of spectrometer we found ourselves in need of advice regarding consumables and sample preparation. Going into this installation I believed, naively, that our set up to operate the new instrument would be eased by patient advice from the seller.  I was mistaken.

I could whine on about deficiencies in this or that, but instead I’ll get to my point. Consider the following exchange-

Q:  What sort of electrode should we use to run this mineral sample?

A:  Well, that depends.

Q:  It depends upon what?

A:  Well, it depends on the type of matrix you have and the concentration of the desired metals.

Q:  How do we decide on what kind of electrode to use?

A:  We do not have experience with that element or that matrix. And there are many kinds of graphite widgets, many for specific uses. The widget company did not return your email because they are small and would prefer to talk to their customers.

Q:  So, how do we get started?

A:  You’ll have to prepare bracketing calibration standards that match your matrix as closely as possible.

Q:  What can you tell us about buying or the preparation of calibration standards? Are there any special materials we can use as diluents or any preferred methods?

A:  There are no manufacturers of these solid calibration standards anymore. We bought out the inventory of the last one.

Q:  So we can compound our own standards at concentrations close to the spec of the inventory you hoarded bought out?

A:  Well, yes, I suppose. It depends on your capabilities ….

And on it went.  Eventually we extracted the information we needed and are moving forward.

Here is my point. Everything “depends”.  A little louder.  EVERYTHING DEPENDS. For crying out loud!  This is one of the fundamental theorems of life. We technical people have to get past this barrier when a questioner asks for help.

A few sentences of advice-

On the assumption that everything depends, offer a hint to the questioner in the form of a range of possibilities. Open with insightful examples or a recitation of common practices. Do not sit there, Sphinx-like, while the questioner sputters and struggles with finding the best questions. Offer some guidance by way of general performance boundaries.

The technical service folks we spoke with were very much in the quandary of Buridan’s Ass. In this fable, a donkey was in between two identically appealing piles of hay. In the end he starved to death because there was no good reason to pick one over the other.

In the case of the tech service folks, one pile of hay was to offer zero advice and make no errors. The other pile of hay was to offer frank advice and satisfy the customer. Having been in this position, I know that offering advice has it’s appeal, but it may be fraught with liability. Telling people how to run their equipment can have negative consequences- thus the reluctance to speak. But sellers are there to service their customers. They should use words and pictures to help their customers get started.

The blog post by Terran Lane of the University of New Mexico provides a good example of the frustrations in academics today. Much of this is well plowed soil. I link to it because I think he is spot on about more than a few things.

The availability of external funding for the last 30 years has equipped American colleges and universities with a great deal of equipment and facilities. The availability of funding for grad students and post-docs has energized a vast educational complex that has come to depend on external grant money to maintain built up infrastructure. Naturally when an institution expands in good times, it finds itself top heavy in overhead when the good times end.

Ambitious people step forward when presented with the opportunity to grow programs and institutions when times are cash rich.  But when the cash influx begins to taper off, these same people find themselves in the position of having to decomission or dismantle parts of the very organization they helped to build.  It is hard for people in any circumstance to feel like they are moving forward when they have to make do with less.

One response to restricted university resources is to increase competition for teaching positions and tenure. Candidates with the best potential for winning grants are highly prized in any candidate search. The result of this is that professors today are burdened by administrative expectations in the hunt for resources in order to maintain close to what they already have.

Friends at PUI institutions are also feeling the heat, possibly due in part to the rise in undergraduate research programs that took off in the 1980’s.  Undergraduate research in chemistry, at least, has grown into an expectation rather than a plus. This brought the buzz saw of the grant machine into the grassy quads of many quiet institutions.

Certainly no untenured prof is going to throttle down their scholarly activity for the greater good of science funding.  Faculty will continue to struggle with this as long as grants are a major metric in rank and tenure.

Which brings me to my final point. Scientific knowledge as national treasure.  I am sifting through Chemical Abstracts Service data bases searching for something nearly every day. This resource of ours, scholarly and pragmatic knowledge, is one of the crown jewels of human civilization. It is the collective contribution of people and institutions going into the distant past and across the curved surface of our world.  We should cherish it for what it is- an archive of achievement, a repository of knowledge for application to future challenges, and a representation of the best of what we are capable of.

The notion that academia is the apex of the life intellectual has never been entirely true. You do not have to be in industry for very long before it becomes quite clear that there are a great many smart and creative people outside of academia. People who become professors are people who are in love with the very idea of the university and of higher education. We must find a way to allow research active faculty to throttle down the grant cycle just a bit so they may throw their energies into serving their institutions in the traditional manner. By service to  their students, to scholarship, and to the advance of civilization.

That said, it seems embarrassingly obvious to say that our academic institutions are a critical part of our civilization past, present, and future. But today our institutions are in peril of substantial decay if left to antagonistic legislators and fulminating demagogues bent on terminating programs in the name of social reconstruction.

We know how to operate our university/research complex. Absent some of the mania in the horse race for grants, perhaps we can offer a bit more student contact with professors. A BA/BS degree must be understood to mean that a graduate has absorbed knowledge, sharpened reasoning ability, accrued some judgement, and has developed a professional demeanor that can only come from the personal interaction between people. We should expect from our institutions that a professor is a professor, not a shift supervisor.

Today we know that the chemical elements are capable of showing a range of behaviors in the category of reduction and oxidation (redox). Unlike our predecessors who attempted to wrap their arms around redox phenomena without the benefit of data or atomic theory, we are able to refer to tables of information which give details on the magnitude of redox phenomena and allow us to predict outcomes of transformations.

Reduction and oxidation has always been with us and for most of human history we were blissfully unaware of it as a distinct and complementary phenomenon. Beyond the conduct of redox in biology, for most of human history the major use of redox as a tool was combustion.  I would argue that humans began to do chemistry in earnest when we learned to generate fire and use it at will.  The introduction of fire allowed humans to apply significant thermal energy to materials in contrast to mechanical energy. Thermal energy changed the composition of materials in a way that was visible to us. With fire we could boil, dry, pyrolyze, combust, sinter, fracture and melt materials.  Food once cooked was forever changed. The combustion of wood produced much heat, charcoal, and ash.

Fire could provide warmth and destruction. It could be used as a weapon of war. The Chinese would become renowned for their command of deflagrations, explosions, rocketry, as would the Greeks for their Greek fire.  Chinese adepts learned to produce deflagration and explosions with energetic redox compositions centuries before the Europeans. With the spread of gunpowder formulation around the world, the problem of finding it’s components would plague adopters of this technology.

The basic rules of controlling fire were determined very early in human history. Some things burned and other things didn’t. The effects of air might have been inferred by the simple act of lighting kindling and blowing on it. Blowing on an ember can sustain it for a time and gives rise to increased heat. Fire can be accelerated by blowing air on it but may also be extinguished by too much wind. Clues to the basic nature of fire were there all along, but we lacked vocabulary, theory, and analysis.

The color of a wood fire can range from yellow/orange to bright yellow and it can warm you from a distance. Smoke was something that issued from fire and was perhaps troublesome. Fire and smoke always seem to rise upwards. More clues to to the behavior of matter, but as before, we lacked the tools of science until only in the last few centuries.

Today we can use atomic and quantum theory, thermodynamics, and the physics of radiation and buoyancy to explain and quantify fire and its many attributes. Today we can confidently state that a fire requires an initiation (the energy source), a reductant (the fuel), and an oxidizer (air). I think early man would have had a fairly concrete understanding of heat source and fuel. But the need for an oxidizer may have been less obvious. After all, air is all around us and is invisible. Nobody knew about the fire triangle or Smokey the Bear.

The development of oxidizers as a class of substances whose participation in chemical change was held back owing to the obscurity of the concept and the lack of a good theoretical basis like atomic theory.  Humans had been perishing by suffocation forever. Everyone has experienced the effects of oxygen deprivation whether it was by running from a sabretooth tiger or holding ones breath on a dare. But without the knowledge of oxygen and its function in respiration or in combustion, oxidation was the answer waiting for the right question.

Reducing materials as fuels for combustion or for the reduction of metal ores to the metal was common knowledge for a very long time. The introduction of oxidizing materials beyond the ever present air around us was a much harder nut to crack.  If we set the oxygen in air aside and focus on strongly oxidizing substances, we can begin to see the development of oxidizers as a class of materials.

One of the earliest oxidizers to find use was nitrate, commonly called saltpeter or nitre. Nitre was found in some damp locations that were rich in decaying organic materials. Nitre beds were often observed as having a white crust that migrated to the surface of the ground.  Early references of these nitre beds come from China and India. Nitre was capable of having multiple counter-ions. The early users of nitre were unaware of this of course. Later in history, makers of gunpowder would come to prefer potassium nitrate over the sodium salt owing to it’s lower aptitude for hydration. Hydrated saltpeter will passivate gunowder.  The story of gunpowder is well documented and the reader can pursue that trail on their own.

The discovery of oxygen in 1772 by Scheele could be considered a major step in the development of oxidation technology. While chemists were misguided by the theory of phlogiston, the isolation of a substance that supported combustion was a crucial conceptual leap.  Scheele and later Priestly would show that this new “air” would support combustion. In 1774 the discovery of chlorine by Scheele was the next major oxidizer to be identified. Chlorine was produced by the action of HCl on MnO2 (pyrolusite).  The bleaching effect of Cl2 gas was soon discovered by Scheele. The discovery of Cl2 soon lead to the discovery of bleaching powders. The earliest bleaching powder composition comprised of lime and chlorine was patented in 1798 by Charles Tennant in England. By the close of the 18th century, three important oxidizing compositions were produced: oxygen, chlorine, and calcium hypochlorite.  Chlorine and lime bleaching powder went into mass production at the beginning of the 19th century.

In a real sense, the development of oxidizers is very much like the invention of the lever. A level is used to amplify mechanical force. An oxidizing agent is used to amplify the extractive force on valence electrons. A strong oxidizing agent is able to bring energy to bare on select transformations that might not be otherwise available.  With the advent of this kind of transformation, new possibilities unfolded in history. By the middle of the 19th century, molecules with pendant oxidizing groups would be capable of self reaction to produce tremendous outbursts of energy. Nitroglycerine is one such molecule containing both reducing groups and oxidizing groups in one molecule. Oxidizers and oxidizing functional groups would change how we dig tunnels, extract minerals, carve canals, wage war, and eventually, compress uranium or plutonium into a critical mass for a nuclear explosion.

Recently I had the good fortune to get to meet for a consultation with a young and talented chemistry professor (Prof X) from a state university elsewhere in the US. Prof X has an outstanding pedigree and reached tenure rather rapidly at a young age. This young prof has won a very large number of awards already and I think could well rise to the level of a Trost or a Bergman in time.

Not long ago this prof was approached by one of the top chemical companies in the world to collaborate on some applied research. What is interesting about this is that the company has begun to explore outsourcing basic research in the labs of promising academic researchers. I am not aware that this company has done this to such an extent previously.  They do have an impressive corporate research center of their own and the gigabucks to set up shop wherever they want. Why would they want to collaborate like this?

R&D has a component of risk to it. Goals may not be met or may be much more expensive that anticipated.  Over the long term there may be a tangible payoff, but over the short term, it is just overhead.

The boards and officers of public corporations have a fiduciary obligation to maximize the return on investment of their shareholders. They are not chartered to spread their wealth to public institutions. They have a responsibility to minimize their tax liability while maximizing their profitability. Maximizing profit means increasing volume and margins. Increasing margins means getting the best prices at the lowest operating expense possible.

Corporate research is a form of overhead expense. Yes, you can look at it as an investment of resources for the production of profitable goods and services of the future. This is what organic growth is about. But that is not the only way to plan for future growth. Very often it is faster and easier to buy patent portfolios or whole corporations in order to achieve a more prompt growth and increase in market share.

The thing to realize is that this is not a pollenization exercise. The company is not looking to just fertilize research here and there and hope for advances in the field. They are a sort of research squatter that is setting up camp in existing national R&D infrastructure in order to produce return on investment. Academic faculty, students, post-docs, and university infractructure become contract workers who perform R&D for hire.

In this scheme, research groups become isolated in the intellectual environment of the university by the demands of secrecy agreements. Even within groups, there is a silo effect in that a student working on a commercial product or process must be isolated from the group to contain IP from inadvertant disclosure. The matter of inventorship is a serious matter that can get very sticky in a group situation. Confidential notebooks, reports, and theses will be required.  Surrender of IP ownership, long term silence on ones thesis work, and probably secret defense of their thesis will have to occur as well.

While a big cash infusion to Prof X may seem to be a good thing for the professor’s group, let’s consider other practical problems that will develop. The professor will have to allocate labor and time to the needs of the benefactor. The professor will not be able to publish the results of this work, nor will the university website be a place to display such research. In academia, ones progress is measured by the volume and quality of publications. In a real sense, the collaboration will result in work that will be invisible on the professors vitae.

Then there is the matter of IP contamination. If Prof X inadvertantly uses proprietary chemistry for the professor’s own publishable scholarly work, the professor may be subject to civil liability. Indeed, the prof may have to avoid a large swath of chemistry that was previously their own area.

This privatization of the academic research environment is a model contrary to what has been a very successful national R&D complex for generations. Just have a look in Chemical Abstracts. It is full of patent information, to be sure, but it is full of technology and knowledge that is in the public domain. Chemical Abstracts is a catalog and bibliography that organizes our national treasure. Our existing government-university R&D complex has been a very productive system overall and every one of us benefits from it in ways most do not perceive. We should be careful with it.

I had an evil thought just now as I attempt to write 2 reports simultaneously. Why do we keep using that superscripted circle in front of C (i.e., ºC) that designates “degree”?

What the hell? We don’t use it for the Kelvin temperature scale. And, who knows if the engineers use it for Rankine? The thing is useless like an appendix or a titular chairman. Get rid of it!

What do you think?

As we labor away on our extractive metallurgy project, I continue to marvel at how even complex extraction schemes reduce to the application of fundamental chemistry and basic unit operations. It is crucial to have a comprehensive understanding of the composition of your ore and the fate of the components as they are exposed to unit operations. The extraction of desired metals from your ore requires extensive use of analytical resources in order to keep the process economics in line.

Extractive metallurgy also requires an extensive knowledge of descriptive inorganic chemistry- something that was glossed over when I was in college. When I took undergraduate inorganic chemistry the emphasis was on ligand field theory, group theory application to symmetry and vibrational modes, coordination complex chemistry, etc. Lots of content that took many lecture hours to cover. Basic reaction chemistry was neglected in favor of admittedly elegant theory.

The fun for me (an organikker) has been in learning lots of descriptive inorganic chemistry and inorganic synthesis.

Extractive metallurgy in practice comes down to a relatively short list of operations. Roasting or calcining, comminution & classification, extraction, dissolution, flocculation, frothing, dewatering and filtration, redox transformations, precipitation, and drying.  Since most of the solution work is water based, the main handles you have to pull are temperature, selective solubility, and pH.

My undergrad coursework in inorganic qualitative analysis, specifically the separation schemes, has been very valuable both in terms of benchwork as well as descriptive chemistry.

I gave a talk in a morning I&EC session last thursday at the Denver ACS National meeting. During an interlude provided by a no-show speaker, a member of the audience began to quiz down a hapless speaker who earlier presented on the filtration of plasmids. The gentleman’s concern was this- We are continuing to develop conventional processing technology while fellows like Craig Venter are devising step-change techniques for genomic analysis and synthesis. People like Venter have their names mentioned in the same sentence with “synthetic biology”.  Why do we bother with the more primitive methods of research when the real action is with folks like Venter?

The inquisitive fellow was asking a rhetorical question to all of us. But the point he skipped over was the matter of intellectual property. He kept asking why don’t “we” just switch the paradigm right now and use such technology? Why continue with highly manual R&D?  The problem with his question was in the assumption that Venter’s technology was something that “WE” have access to. Venter’s technology does not automatically translate into a community tool. It is more like an item of commerce. In reality, this will likely represent a major uptick in productivity to the financial benefit of the intellectual property owners and licensees and their stockholders.

How the scientific workforce will fare is a different matter. Increased productivity usually means reduced labor per unit of output. I suspect that Venter’s technology represents a higher entry barrier to those who want to be in the market.  It may be that the outcome will be a broader range of diagnostic and treatment services available to a shrinking pool of insured people able to afford it.

I’ve had this notion (a conceit, really) that as someone from industry, I should reach out to my colleagues in academia in order to bring some awareness of how chemistry is conducted out in the world.  After many, many conversations, an accumulating pile of work in ACS activities, and a few visits to schools, what I’ve found is not what I expected. I expected a bit more curiosity about how commerce works and perhaps what life is like in a chemical plant. I really thought that my academic associates might be intrigued by the wonders of the global chemical manufacturing complex and product process development.

What I’m finding is more along the lines of polite disinterest. I’ve sensed this all along, but I’d been trying to sustain the hope that if only I could use the right words, I might elicit some interest in how manufacturing works; that I could strike some kind of spark.  But what I’ve found is just how insular the magisterium of academia really is. The walls of the fortress are very thick. We have our curricula firmly in place on the three pillars of chemstry- theory, synthesis, and analysis. In truth, textbooks often set the structure of courses.  A four year ACS certified curriculum cannot spare any room for alternative models like applied science. I certainly cannot begrudge folks for structuring around that reality.

It could easily be argued that the other magisteria of industry and government are the same way.  Well, except for one niggling detail. Academia supplies educated people to the other great domains comprising society.  We seem to be left with the standard academic image of what a chemical scientist should look like going deeply into the next 50 years. Professors are scholars and they produce what they best understand- more scholars in their own image.  This is only natural. I’ve done a bit of it myself.

Here is my sweeping claim (imagine the air overhead roiled with waving hands)-  on a numbers basis, most chemists aren’t that interested in synthesis as they come out of a BA/BS program. That is my conclusion based on interviewing fresh graduates. I’ve interviewed BA/BS chemists who have had undergraduate research experience in nanomaterials and AFM, but could not draw a reaction showing the formation of ethyl acetate.  As a former organic prof, I find that particularly alarming. This is one of the main keepsakes from a year of sophomore organic chemistry.  The good news is that the errant graduate can usually be coached into remembering the chemistry.

To a large extent, industry is concerned with making stuff.  So perhaps it is only natural that most academic chemists (in my sample set) aren’t that keen on anything greater than a superficial view of the manufacturing world. I understand this and acknowledge reality. But it is a shame that institutional inertia is so large in magnitude in this and all endeavors.  Chemical industry really needs young innovators who are willing to start up manufacturing in North America. We could screen such folks and steer them to MIT, but that is lame. Why let MIT have all the fun and the royalties?  We need startups with cutting edge technology, but we also need companies who are able to make fine chemical items of commerce. Have you tried to find a brominator in the USA lately?

The gap between academia and industry is mainly cultural. But it is a big gap, it may not be surmountable, and I’m not sure that the parties want to mix. I’ll keep trying.


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