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One of my work duties is to give safety training on the principles of electrostatic safety; ESD training we call it. The group of people who go through my training are new employees. These folks come from all walks of life with education ranging from high school/GED to BS chemists & engineers to PhD chemists. In order to be compliant with OSHA and with what we understand to be best practices, we give personnel who will be working with chemicals extensive training in all of the customary environmental, health and safety areas.

I have instructed perhaps 80 to 100 people in the last 6 years. At the beginning of each session I query the group for their backgrounds and ask if it includes any electricity or electronics study or hobbies. With the exception of two electricians in the group, this survey has turned up a resounding zero positive responses.

Admittedly, there could be some selection bias here. It could be that people with electrical knowledge do not end up in the chemical industry. This agrees with my informal observations. But I’m not referring to experts in the electrical field. I refer to people who recall having ever heard of Ohm’s law. One might have guessed that the science requirements for high school graduation may have included rudimentary electrical concepts. One might have further suspected that hobby electronics could have occupied the earlier years of a few attendees. Evidently not. And it does not appear that parents have been very influential in this matter either.

I’m struggling to be circumspect rather than righteous. It is not necessary for any given individual to have learned any particular field of study. It is not even necessary for most people to have studied electricity. But it is important for a core of individuals to have done so. So, where are they? And why aren’t more people curious enough to strike out on their own in the acquisition of electrical knowledge?

Back to electrostatics. In order to have a working grasp of electrostatic principles, the concept of the Coulomb has to be conveyed. Why the Coulomb? Because it is the missing piece that renders electrostatic concepts as mechanistic. It is my contention that a mechanistic grasp of anything will help a person reason their way through a question. The alternative is rote memorization. This betrays my mechanistic approach inculcated from many years of study in chemistry.

To be safe but still effective as an employee, a person needs to be able to discriminate what will and what will not generate and hold static charge to at least some degree in a novel circumstance. By that I mean how accumulated or stranded charge can form and what kind of materials can be effectively grounded. If you are working with bulk flammables, your reflexes need to be primed continuously to recognize a faulty path to ground in the equipment around you. At the point of operation, somebody’s head has to be on a swivel.

It is possible to cause people to freeze in fear and over-react to unseen hazards like static electricity. But mindless spooking is a disservice to everyone. To work around flammable materials safely requires that a person understand and respect the operating boundaries of flammable material handling. Those boundaries are grounding and bonding (see NFPA 77), avoiding all ignition sources, good housekeeping, and maintaining an inert atmosphere over the flammable material.

Much of electrostatic safety in practice rests on awareness of the fire triangle and how to avoid constructing it.

Back to electrical education. There are numerous elements of a basic understanding of electricity that will aid in a person’s life, including safely working around flammable materials. One element is the concept of conduction and what kinds of materials conduct electric current. Another is the concept of a circuit and continuity. Voltage and its relationship to current follows from the previous concepts.

I would offer that the ability to operate software or computers is secondary to basic knowledge of how things work.

Connecting these ideas to electrostatics are the Coulomb and the Joule. One volt of potential will add one Joule of energy to one Coulomb of charges. One Ampere of current is one Coulomb of charges passing a point over one second. Finally, one Ohm is that resistance which will allow one Ampere of charge to move by the application of one volt.

For a given substance- dust or vapor- a minimum amount of energy (Joules) must be rapidly released in order to cause an ignition. This is referred to as MIE, Minimum Ignition Energy, and is commonly measured in milliJoules, mJ.

A discussion on sparking leads naturally into the concept of power as the rate of energy transfer in Watts (Joules per second), connecting to both the Joule and Ohm’s Law. Rapid energy transfer is better able to be incendive owing to the finite time needed for energy to disperse. Slow energy transfer may not be incendive simply because the energy needed to maintain combustion is dispersed into the surroundings.

A discussion of energy and power is useful for a side discussion on how the electric company charges for energy in units of kilowatt hours (kWh). This is a connection of physics to money.

The overall point is that a rudimentary knowledge of electrical phenomena is of general use, even in the world of chemical manufacturing. I often hear people talk about the importance of “tech” in regard to K-12 education. By that they seem to say that using software is the critical skill.  I would offer that the ability to operate software or computers is secondary to basic knowledge of how things work. Anyone with a well rounded education should be able to learn to use software as they need it.


Dear Samsung,

I have owned a Samsung S6 smartphone for several years. Permit me to offer an appraisal of this device.

Satisfactory Attributes

  1. Satisfactory reliability
  2. Appearance, size, and weight.
  3. Fits in most shirt pockets for maximum personal utility.
  4. Several useful functions and features.
  5. A QWERTY keyboard for faster texting.
  6. Takes video and stills.
  7. Sends video and jpeg files.

Unsatisfactory Attributes

  1. Bad, bad ergonomics overall.
  2. Silicone protective cases prevent easy insertion into shirt pockets.
  3. No inactive margin on screen side by which to hold the phone without activating some feature.
  4. In general the worst ergonomics possible for a camera. It would be difficult to worsen the design.
  5. Subject to mandatory creeping featurism. This is a type of cancer.
  6. Screen difficult or impossible to see in outdoor daylight.
  7. Too many features. In this regard it resembles a universal kitchen tool. Eventually you realize that all you really wanted was to dice the potatoes.
  8. I frequently lose photographic opportunities because the f*cking camera was inadvertently toggled into some other mode, preventing activation of the “shutter”. See #3, this section. !%#@*&@#*&!

What do I really want?

  1. A flip phone that has a QWERTY keyboard, or
  2. A good purpose-built camera that offers basic telephony.

Why do I continue to use it?

  1. Expectation of accessibility by family, friends, and employer.
  2. Connection with friends and distant family via facebook.


Samsung, I pity you because you are stuck on the endless treadmill of ever increasing novelty. Because of this users are forced to adapt to updates of the Système du jour. I only wish that S6 purchase transactions would change in like manner. Listening to Samsung bitch about having to alter their enterprise system annually to accommodate the hidden needs of unknown organizations would bring a bit of cheer in a sadistic kind of way.


A lot of science is about trying to find the best questions. Because the best questions can lead us to better answers. So, in the spirit of better questions here goes.

By loosening environmental regulations aimed at pollution prevention or remediation, the mandarins reporting to POTUS 45 have apparently made the calculation decided that some resulting uptick in pollution is justified by the jobs created thereby.

Question 1: For any given relaxation in regulations that result in an adverse biological, chemical or physical insult to the environment, what is the limit of tolerable adverse effect?

Question 2: How will the upper limit of acceptable environmental insult be determined?

Question 3: Will the upper limit of acceptable environmental insult be determined before or after the beginning of the adverse effect?

For a given situation there should be some ratio of jobs to acceptable environmental damage.

Example: By relaxing the rules on the release of coal mining waste into a river, X jobs are created and, as a result, Y households are denied potable drinking water. What is an acceptable ratio of X to Y?

Those are enough questions for now. Discuss amongst yourselves.


I’m a fan of Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel and have been since the beginning. Aside from the producers constant over-dramatization and spreading the content a little too thin over the time block, I’d have to say that my main criticism would be with the miners themselves.

What I would throw on the table is the observation that there is a troublesome lack of analytical data supporting the miner’s choices of where to dig a cut. The few episodes where core samples have been taken, useful data was obtained and decisions made therefrom. But the holes were paid for grudgingly and the range covered too miserly. A sufficiently capitalized operation would be sure to survey the ore body and make the decision to bring in the heavy equipment on the basis of data.

Obviously they have been chronically short of capital for their operations. Fortunately for them, over the last 2 seasons they have been able to upgrade their wash plants, trommels, and earth moving equipment. Must be the TV connection.

But I suppose it is the very lack of capitalization that forms the dramatic basis of the show. Without scarcity there would be no drama. Without the conflicting personalities and dubious decision making there would be only a documentary on gold mining.

I have to imagine that the recent collapse in gold prices will get folded into the dramatic context in the next season.

I truly wish Parker Schnabel, the Hoffman crew, and the Dakota boys the best of luck in their efforts. What the viewers can’t see are the 10,000 details and problems that remain on the editing room floor.


Any questions?


It is a crying shame that we (the rest of the world) did not think to encourage Iran and other states to develop thorium-based nuclear power many years ago. The thorium fuel cycle provides nuclear-powered steam generation, but is largely absent the use of fissile isotopes in the cycle which may be used for nuclear proliferation.  Thorium-232 is more abundant that uranium-(235 + 238) isotopes and does not require isotopic separation as uranium does.

The great exploration boom in progress with rare earth elements would facilitate thorium supply. Thorium and uranium are commonly found in rare earth ores and, to the dismay of extractive metallurgists since the Manhattan Project, these elements tend follow along in rare earth extraction process. The isolation of thorium was developed long ago.  Point is, since so many rare earth element extraction process streams are either in operation or are pending, now is the time to accumulate thorium.

At present however, thorium is a troublesome and undesired radioactive metal whose isolation and disposal can be quite problematic. The best process schemes partition thorium away from the value stream as early in the process as possible and channel it into the raffinate stream for treatment and disposal in the evaporation pond.

The specific activity of natural thorium is 2.2 x 10^-7 curies per gram (an alpha emitter). The specific activity of natural uranium is 7.1 x 10^-7 curies per gram.  Alpha emitters pose special hazards in their handling. Dusts are a serious problem and workers must be protected especially from inhalation or ingestion. While alpha’s are not difficult to shield from, their low penetration through ordinary materials or even air makes them a bit more challenging to detect and quantitate relative to beta’s and gamma’s. In spite of the mild radioactivity of thorium, managing the occupational health of workers is known technology in practice in the nuclear industry.

Regrettably, most of the world’s nuclear power infrastructure is geared to uranium and plutonium streams. Thorium, the red-headed stepchild of the actinides, is thoughtlessly discharged to the evaporation ponds or to the rad waste repository- wherever that is- to accumulate fruitlessly. If we’re digging the stuff up anyway, why not put it to use? It is a shame and a waste to squander it.


I just can’t get over the absolute wierdness of being in a crowd, say at the airport, where a large fraction of people are jabbering into a phone plastered to their ear or they are standing, walking, sitting, or pacing with heads bowed down, pecking and stroking their mobile communication device. It is a kind of enchantment. A portal to other coordinates in the continuum. It allows us to receive or deliver stress all the damned time. Nobody is safe from the possibility of belligerent assholes reaching out for you while waiting at a stoplight or well-meaning associates braindumping all over your eardrum as you search aisle 5 at the supermarket for a can of chickpeas.

Driving yesterday, I took defensive measures as a dipshit in a red Ford Expedition overshot a turn while closing in on me. The distracted driver chose to complete a task on the handheld device before putting the oversized killing machine back between her yellow and white lines. I know this because the driver plastered the phone to her ear as she looked up when I passed by.

It has been 2 months now since I powered down my Facebook account. Facebook is a colossal time suck. It is a kind of gravitational well that can pull wandering bodies into orbit and lock them into some perverse synchrony for purposes unknown. Facebook is a kind of electronic teat that nurses us and keeps us from having to face our dark thoughts in quiet moments.  It is also a perfect venue for those who just have to broadcast their thoughts in every waking moment.

As a Facebooker, I was pretty boring. I don’t have photos of grandchildren or garden flowers to post. I’m a serial science nerd and nobody wants to hear about that. Okay, that’s fine. I soon realized that Facebook was only providing delayed and fragmented social awkwardness that I could be having face to face in real time and without having to pay for electricity. So I pulled the plug.


There is considerable handwringing over hydraulic fracturing fluids and their potential effects on “the environment”. I use quotes in ironic fashion because I see very little parsing of the issue into relevant components. The chemical insult to the environment is highly dependent on both the substances and the extent of dispersion. But I state the obvious.

There are surface effects at the drill site and there are subsurface effects. A spill on the surface is going to be relatively small due to the limited size of the available tankage on site. I drive by these sites almost daily and can see with my own eyes the scale of the project. A surface spill of materials will be limited in scope.

The subsurface effects are complex, however, and the magnitude of consequences will depend on both the extent of the fluid penetration into aquifers and the nature of the materials in the fluid. Much criticism has been dealt, rightfully I think, over the secrecy claims on the composition of these fluids. The default reply from drillers has rested on trade secrecy. To be sure, the matter of government forcing a company to reveal its art is a serious matter. But the distribution of chemical substances into the environment requires some oversight. Especially when substances are injected into locations where they cannt be readily remediated. The remediation of an aquifer is a serious undertaking which may or may not be effective.

If you want to see what is potentially in frac fluids, go to Google Patents and search “hydraulic fracturing fluid”. A great many patents will be found. This will give the length and breadth of the compositions patented. Of this large list only a few are used in current practice. The potential carrier fluids vary from water to LPG (!). Water is a common component, but brine is said to be preferred. Additives include hydrochloric acid and surfactants. The MSDS documents may be a good source of info. Consider that a substantial threat to ground water may be that it is rendered non-potable rather than outright  toxic.


Agilent is excited about their new 4100 MP-AES system. The initials stand for Microwave Plasma Atomic Emission Spectrometer. The instrument uses the magnetic component of the microwave energy to produce a nitrogen plasma at ca 5000 K, through which the sample is drawn. The monochrometer looks down the axis of the plasma torch. The detector is constructed to suppress blooming.

Pretty cool instrument. The setup includes a nitrogen supply which separates the nitrogen directly from air, so there is no large argon dewar to lug to remote locations like mine sites.

The MP-AES is designed to compete in the AA market. The detection limits are comparable for many elements. The kicker is that there no need for combustion gases or element specific lamps since it is a plasma emission method.

The question I have is this- is there any market left in the replacement of AA? The instrument sells for $53 k, so the pricing is very competitive with or better than ICP. I think that argon based ICP is going to feel the heat of this nitrogen plasma torch.

The bad news for chemists is that you don’t need a chemistry degree to run it. To set up methods, maybe, but the software is designed for operation by non-degreed techs.


Devon Energy has raised $900 million in cash from Sinopec Group for a stake in Devon shale gas plays. These gas projects include the Utica, Niobrara, and Tuscaloosa formations. 

What is interesting is not so much that China has bought its way into the extraction of a resource that the USA has in some abundance. What is more troubling is that China has bought its way up the learning curve in horizontal drilling and fracturing. 

According to the article in Bloomburg Businessweek-

China National Petroleum Corp., Sinopec Group and Cnooc Ltd. are seeking to gain technology through partnerships in order to develop China’s shale reserves, estimated to be larger than those in the U.S.

“In these joint ventures, the partner does typically get some education on drilling,” Scott Hanold, a Minneapolis-based analyst for RBC Capital Markets, said today in an interview.

So, the business wizards at Devon in OKC have arranged to sell their drilling magic to the Sinopec for a short term gain on drilling activity. Way to go folks. Gas in the ground is money in the bank. These geniuses have arranged to suck non-renewable energy out of the ground as fast as possible.  Once again US technology (IP, which is national treasure) is piped across the Pacific to people who will eventually use it to beat us in the market.  Score another triumph for our business leaders!!

The market is like a stomach. It has no brain. It only knows that it wants MORE.    Th’ Gaussling.

 It’s a banner day for American Business.



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