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Necessity is the mother of invention. Greek philosopher Plato said these words noting that a problem encourages creative efforts to solve it.

During the American Revolutionary War, soldiers had to get pretty creative as gun powder was scarce. To fill the void and their guns, they decided to make their own powder with pee, soil, ash and sticks. Whether or not they knew that the ammonia in urine would react with oxygen to form nitrates that would bond with potassium ions in the ash to form potassium nitrate -- the main ingredient in gun powder (aka black powder) -- isn’t clear. And the pee, soil and ash slurry certainly didn’t help them win the war as it took too long to ferment and process. But it is pretty impressive that someone would even consider the byproduct of their wilderness bio-break to be useful.

This short Reactions video from the American Chemical Society details the innovation and eventual introduction of better alternatives to black powder. Although, black powder is still used for fireworks. So, if you’re enjoying an Independence Day display, you can think about peeing soldiers in 1776.

How Pee Helped Win the Revolutionary War (Maybe...) - July 4th Special Episode - YouTube

 

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. She is fascinated by how inventive people can be. She also wonders if this really where the term “powder room” originated from. You can email her at tpurdum@putman.net.

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I recently wrapped up the judging process for Putman Media’s Influential Women in Manufacturing (IWiM) awards. This is our second year highlighting women in all industries. Last year 22 women were named to our list (see: Influential Women In Manufacturing Earn Recognition).

Reading through all the applications I was pleased that the chemical industry appears to be a viable avenue for women. That notion was quashed when I opened an email that pointed out women are often the major minority when it comes to the chemical sector. The email also highlighted a McKinsey report titled “One is the loneliest number,”  which commands that we “put an end to the costly workplace isolation experienced by many women by clustering them on teams and improving the promotion process.”

Now anyone who knows me knows that A.) I started singing the Three Dog Night classic “One” and B.) I went down the rabbit hole and started reading and clicking all sorts of links relating to women in industry.

The initial email was touting the experience of Els De Cremer, founding partner and managing director of Borderless -- a firm that finds and attracts senior-level executives for multinational companies in the life sciences, chemicals and converting, and food processing sectors. De Cremer spent 18 years at Dow Chemical before she founded Borderless. She feels that appealing to female talent will be a boost to the sector as a whole.

In an opinion piece that she penned, she said: “Managing a chemicals portfolio for the company [Dow Chemical] in Europe, I was accustomed to being the only woman. Whether this was at trade association meetings, conferences or internal meetings, the picture was always the same. Don’t get me wrong; there were some benefits of being the only woman. If you are good at your job, you do stand out and create exposure for yourself. But most of the time it meant putting in a lot of extra effort to be seen to be good at your job and to make sure your voice and ideas were heard.”

She also pointed to the McKinsey findings for North America that, although the proportion of women joining companies is rising steadily, female representation in the C-suite is stuck at 20%. Moreover, when women find themselves in a group of men, they are more prone to having their opinions questioned.

I interviewed a few women from last year’s IWiM roster and they echoed McKinsey and De Cremer. One winner, Rachelle Howard -- senior process control engineer, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and Chemical Processing’s newest editorial board member -- noted that gender bias is a challenge she still sometimes faces.

In the article “Rachelle Howard Answers 9+ Questions” she said: I have to prove myself a lot more before I get the crowd to start to listen. At my old job, I had to go through the task of having the same thing said by a couple of guys and then it was like, ‘Oh, okay. Yeah. Well, now I believe you.’ It was a little frustrating.

So while programs like IWiM and firms like Borderless are helping women feel less lonely in the chemical industry, there is still work to be done. I will do my part by highlighting accomplishments and pointing out bias whenever I can.

 

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. She is a champion of anyone who excels at their jobs. She also bursts into song at the drop of a hat. You can email her at tpurdum@putman.net.

 

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Last year I wrote about predatory publishers pushing out fake science in order to make a buck -- well a whole lot of bucks. One of the publishing houses called out by name was India-based Omics. The practice works like this: Omics offers a pay-for-print method to circumvent the lengthy process of peer-reviewed journals. So, if you have a paper that claims Marie Curie was an alien sent from another galaxy to help us advance in science and you have money, you can get this paper published and it will appear legit. Where it gets messy: Not every journal published by a predatory publisher is itself predatory. Some have active editorial boards and provide real peer review. (see: “Fake Science Sullies Sound Research.”)

The Federal Trade Commission just cleaned up some of the mess. The FTC won a summary judgement against Omics, which was hit with a $50 million  fine for deceptive business practices, along with permanent injunctions against most of the activities that made it money.

It is a very long tale of deception and nincompoopery and you can read all about it in an article from ARS Technica, which sums it up:

Many of the companies that engage in predatory practices are small and based overseas, so it's not clear how well the FTC will be able to pursue them. And, as long as these journals are willing to provide crackpot ideas with a veneer of scientific legitimacy, it'll be tough to shut them down entirely. Still, it's nice to know that there's legal recourse should predatory publishers become a large-enough problem.

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor and fan of science fiction from folks like Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams and Ray Bradbury -- NOT predatory publishers. You can email her your legitimate science-based news to tpurdum@putman.net.

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By Alyssa Edmunds

My mom is a cosmetologist. Growing up, I’d sometimes go with her to the salon where she worked. I asked her several times about how hair dye works, but it would always go over my head, like much of the complex content Chemical Processing produces. When I stumbled upon a recent Reactions video from the American Chemical Society, my curiosity was reignited. Now as an adult, I am able to comprehend the science behind it.

According to the video (see below), the hair shaft, which is covered in a layer of cuticle — or overlapping keratin cells — protects and waterproofs hair. So, when you use temporary spray hair color to show your team spirit or finish off your Halloween costume, all this does is coat the cuticle and that’s why the color fades rather quickly.

However, it requires much more chemistry to permanently dye hair. Prior to working as an intern for Chemical Processing, I had not realized the extent to which chemistry pervades everyday life. I always thought of my mom’s workplace as a beauty salon, but now I see it as a cosmetic chemistry lab. It’s led me to think about more than just the hair coloring aspect of her work and question the science behind even more services the salon offers, like perms and keratin treatments: things I hear my mom mention daily when she recounts her work day.

Had I known about the chemistry involved in hair sooner, I probably would’ve listened to my mom more. She warned me several times that highlighting my hair would weaken my hair fibers. She also warned me to wash my hair immediately after going swimming. Had I listened to her, maybe my hair wouldn’t have turned green one summer. To ensure you don't have any hair surprises, watch this short video.

How Does Hair Dye Work? - YouTube

Alyssa Edmunds — pictured here as a wee tot with her mom, Melissa — is Chemical Processing’s social media intern and a student at The Ohio State University. She is studying Actuarial Science. The older she gets the more she understands that her mom really does know what she’s talking about.

 

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When you ask the public to help you name something you have to be prepared for silly suggestions. Keeping in mind what happened when the Natural Environment Research Council wanted help naming its new polar research ship (voters pushed RRS Boaty McBoatface to the front of the fleet), The Bank Of England said it would not be bound by a public vote -- it was merely asking for suggestions to choose who’ll be the face on the new £50 note. The BOE even put out a fun video (below) to kick off the six-week nomination period, which closed in mid-December.

There were 227,299 nominations -- of which 991 met the criteria: real people, deceased and have contributed to science in the UK. The Banknote Character Advisory Committee will now consider the merits of each. They will announce who will appear on the new note in summer 2019.

Some of the contenders include Ada Lovelace, a 19th-century mathematician known as the “grandmother of computing”, Stephen Hawking and Nobel prizewinner chemist Dorothy Hodgkin, according to an article in The Guardian.

You can check out the list of 991 names here.

£50 note character nomination - Think Science! - YouTube

 

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. She’d like to take a ride on Boaty McBoatface someday. She’d also like to win a bag full of the newly faced £50 notes. It’s doubtful she will do either. You can email condolences to tpurdum@putman.net.

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By Alyssa Edmunds

The recent California wildfires have caused unimaginable destruction and loss. This disaster has much of the country wondering what to do. Unfortunately, the science behind them is largely unknown, making stopping them extremely difficult. As climate change continues, hot weather and droughts become more frequent thus making larger and more intense wildfires more likely.

According to atmospheric chemist Carsten Warneke of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), wildfire smoke is a main concern regarding air quality and climate going forward. In fact, by 2050, a 57% increase in the number of smoke waves will affect more than 80 million people. This can cause major health issues, especially for people with pre-existing lung problems.

On the bright side, for the next two years, two projects— one funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the other funded by NASA and the NOAA — are researching the chemistry and physics of wildfires and the impact that they have on climate, pollution and health. Both projects strive to fly through the wildfires to obtain samples of organic compounds, like nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide that wildfires release in order to understand the chemistry behind wildfires because the current models scientist use to predict the chemical makeup of smoke emitted from these fires have very large margins of error.

Many chemical companies care deeply about environmental issues and have done philanthropic things to help those affected by the tragedy that wildfires cause. According to a recent press release, Chevron has donated $1 million to support those devastated by the recent California wildfire and this is not the first time they’ve made such a generous donation. In years’ past, the Chevron Global Community Fund has donated more than $2.5 million, specifically for wildfire relief in California. Not too long ago, when a wildfire ravaged Sonoma County, California, BASF announced that they donated $10,000 to the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation’s Ag Employee Wildfire Relief Fund to aid farmers who suffered economically due to the burning of their crops and homes. Similarly, Dow Agrosciences, a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals, helped ranchers recover from a wildfire by donating to three different foundations for ranchers and farmers, according to a press release. Not all the companies donating are even directly affected by the wildfires, their altruistic aid is solely due to good corporate citizenship and care for good air quality.

While sometimes it may seem that there is nothing we can do to reverse the effects of climate change, because of the hard work of scientists, there is hope. Even if you are not directly involved in any organizational effort to protect the environment, you can still do environmentally friendly things like recycle and reduce your emissions.

Alyssa Edmunds is Chemical Processing’s social media intern and a student at The Ohio State University. She is studying Actuarial Science. She is a champion for the environment and was recently elected vice president of The College Democrats At OSU. O-H…..

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Representatives from 57 nations are assembled at the general conference on weights and measures in Versailles. Tomorrow -- Nov. 16 -- they will vote to decide on the fate of the kilogram. Sure, we will still have the good old kilogram to kick around but how it is measured will be based on something more consistent. The consistency will ensure that if aliens visit us we won’t be embarrassed by our current measurement standard.

According to an article from The Guardian, the roots of modern measurement can be traced back to the mid-18th century. A meter was defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator. A kilogram was the mass of a liter of water. To make the units more practical, each was enshrined in a physical object, a metal bar for the meter and a weight for the kilogram. These measurements are kept in a vault in Paris.

However, the platinum doo-dad used to represent the kilogram gets grimy and the cylinder gets ever so slightly heavier. When it is cleaned, the kilogram loses weight as tiny amounts of alloy are removed.

The Guardian article goes on to note that it is enough to irk metrologists. “If aliens ever visit Earth what else would we talk about other than physics?” says Stephan Schlamminger, a physicist at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, who is in Versailles for the vote. “If we want to talk about physics we have to agree on a set of units, but if we say our unit of mass is based on a lump of metal we keep in Paris, we’ll be the laughing stock of the universe.”

Apparently this is a done deal -- the vote is just to make it official. So, for the first time since 1889 the kilogram will be measured in a whole new way. Specifically, the kilogram makeover will derive mass from the Planck constant, a number deeply rooted in the quantum world.

Learn more by reading “In the balance: scientists vote on first change to kilogram in a century.”

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. She believes in alien life and is very pleased that the kilogram will no longer make us the butt of intergalactic knock-knock jokes. You can email her at tpurdum@putman.net.

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Process safety is paramount. We dedicate a whole series to it via our Process Safety webinars (we partner with the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center to present these free webinars) and we write about the topic often.

It’s a serious subject and sugarcoating it is counterproductive. In fact, the late Dr. Sam Mannan drove the point home in a few of our webinars. You can read about his message here “Should Leaders Be Fired For Poor Safety Records?” and here “Expert Says Safety Regulations Haven’t Made Us Safer.” Mannan was the Regents Professor in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M University and Director of the Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center. He helped us develop the series concept.

That said, there is room for fun in safety. Presenting safety protocols in an entertaining manner can even help cement best practices. Enter Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown of asapScience Inc. The duo create song parodies and short videos on “fun and interesting science.” “Lab Rules” (video below) takes the Dua Lipa song “New Rules”  and works it into sound advice for process safety. Enjoy. And don’t blame me if this gets stuck in an endless loop in your head: “Working in the lab and I’m thinking about safety….”

Oh, and if you want more song parodies, check out these:

LAB RULES - Dua Lipa "New Rules" Parody - YouTube

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. She has no idea who Dua Lipa is but enjoys the parody anyhow. Some day she hopes to meet the King of Parody Weird Al Yankovic. If you can arrange an introduction, email her at tpurdum@putman.net.

 

 

 

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By Alyssa Edmunds

There’s been a big push for green alternatives to products and activities that harm our planet. In fact, the European Union is setting an ambitious goal to have all plastics reusable or recyclable by 2030, despite some difficulties associated with it, according to a recent article in Chemical Processing -- “Europe Eyes Plastic Recycling Efforts.”

Additionally, many companies in the U.S. have attempted to be more eco-friendly in order to appease customers. A common trend in fast food restaurants, for example, is to use “green plastics,” which they tout as a biodegradable alternative to traditional plastics. However, in a lot of cases, this is likely causing more harm to the environment than good.

According to a Reactions video from the American Chemical Society, “green plastic” is made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from fermented starches, which are treated to form a polymer and then shaped into plastic. Under specific circumstances, this plastic can be composted. PLA will only biodegrade if its tough crystalline structure is melted down so that bacteria can eat it. In order to do this, a lot of consistent heat is needed that is only available in certain facilities. So, someone using a recycling bin at their home will likely not be able to provide the necessary conditions to make PLA biodegradable.

The biggest problem concerning the use of plastics made from PLA is that if it comes in contact with other plastics, it will contaminate them. A better alternative to purely using PLA is to make plastic from a mix of PLA and polycaprolactone because this will be able to break down in a home compost bin. Even with this option, issues arise because polycaprolactone is made from a non-renewable source: petroleum. For a more in-depth explanation, check out the short video below.

After seeing green plastic alternatives at my campus’s dining halls, I am saddened to learn that by using these alternatives, students may be inadvertently hurting the environment because I am not sure that my school takes the necessary measures to ensure that the green plastic will biodegrade. However, scientific research to find more eco-friendly alternatives to our everyday products gives me hope. Until then, I will opt for reusable dishes to save the environment.

Can Plastic Be Composted? - YouTube

 

Alyssa Edmunds is Chemical Processing’s social media intern and a student at The Ohio State University. She is studying Actuarial Science. From her dorm room in Columbus she is cheering on scientists in their effort to search for the best alternative to traditional plastics.

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I have a fascination with the periodic table. I’ve blogged about it A LOT. Here are just a few examples:

And guess what? This post will be added to the list and I know it won’t be the last. Especially when other media outlets find the table as interesting as I do.

Indeed, a recent article in The Guardian details the unearthing of one of the oldest surviving wall charts. It was found in Scotland. According to the article, “The chart was found during a clean-out at the University of St Andrews in 2014 and appears to date from 1885 – 16 years after the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev published his method of showing the relationships between the elements in 1869.”

I think my fascination with the table began in the 11th grade. One of my favorite teachers, Mr. Venefra, had the chart proudly displayed in his classroom and I can still picture his animated lectures in front of it. He’d get red-faced when he got really excited -- or really mad. But he always had the same goal: To make his students appreciate chemistry. I wrote about him in another blog, in case you’re interested: Did Big Hair Put A Hole In The Ozone Layer? (Added bonus: You get to see my senior picture with hair so high it made me 4 inches taller).

And be sure to also jump over to The Guardian article to read the full account of the 134-year-old discovery.

 

Photograph: University of St Andrews/PA

Traci Purdum is Chemical Processing’s senior digital editor. If she could, she would wallpaper an entire room in her house with various periodic tables. You can email her your chemistry-related decorating tips to tpurdum@putman.net.

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