Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chemistry is all around

If you don’t think that chemistry is everywhere, consider the following news items from the past few days:

Oil dispersant still remains in Gulf – January 26th

In a study released yesterday by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, researchers looked for evidence of sodium dioctylsodiumsulfosuccinate (DOSS), the dispersant used to break up the oil spill at Deep Horizon last year.  DOSS is a major component of the mixture, called Corexit, that is a common dispersant used for oil cleanups, and manufactured by Nalco.  In addition to DOSS, Corexit contains 2-butoxyethanol and propylene glycol.  Do you need a degree in organic chemistry to follow what’s going on?  Not really.  The key to the chemistry behind dispersion derives from the fact that water and oil are immiscible (look at a bottle of oil and vinegar salad dressing some time…) because, while the bonds in water (O–H) are polar, the bonds in oil (C–H) are not.  The adage “like dissolves like” comes into play here: polar or ionic substances will dissolve more readily in polar solvents; non-polar substances dissolve more readily in non-polar solvents.  At any rate, this is where surfactants come in.  Surfactants tend to be long chain molecules with a hydrophilic (“water loving”) section containing a charged – or at least polar – group that is miscible with water, and a non-polar hydrophobic ("water fearing") section that is miscible with oil.  The combination of these two features allows surfactants to break up large oil samples into small microscopic droplets.  Bacteria have an easier time metabolizing small droplets (yes there are bacteria that can live off oil!) and dispersing the oil slick is a critical first step in remediation.  That there is still some DOSS in the ocean is important, as it appears not to have undergone biodegradation.  That said, the quantities of DOSS measured are approximately 1/1000th of what would be considered toxic.  Whether these concentrations will have a deleterious impact on the Gulf ecosystem remains to be seen.

State of the Union Address – January 25th     

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama called for the following science initiatives:
  1. Put 1,000,000 Electric Cars on US highways in 5 years.
  2. Obtain 80% of our energy from “clean” sources in 35 years.
  3. Establish eight "Blue-Sky" research centers.
  4. Train 100,000 science teachers 

Of course, these items are are related.  A division of the Department of Energy called ARPA-E is interested in funding 8 centers for research into our energy future, each with a price tag of about $25 million dollars.  The DOE believe that an infusion of $$ into the academic and national laboratories of the best and brightest offers attractive prospects for addressing our future energy needs.  25 million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it is only a fraction of the money that we currently spend on oil.  Given that the supply of oil on the earth is finite, it is only logical that we should pursue other means of energy generation (solar, nuclear, biomass, etc.) and hopefully, the ARPA-E centers will usher in a new wave of innovation.  In case you didn’t know, in a 40-ish gallon barrel of oil, we burn about 87% to move cars and trucks around on highways and to heat our homes, leaving only 1 ¼ gallons of oil left to make things.  When the price of oil goes up, gasoline prices go up to, but so do the prices of everything else that is made from oil-based sources (plastic, for instance).  And, owing to increased pressure on our oil supply, these prices can only continue to go up.  Research in energy will make it possible to build better electric cars as well as the electric grid to charge them efficiently.  Science teachers will make it possible for the next generation of scientists to be ready for the challenges that they will face.

As I wrote in an earlier blog (Parents matter in science education), we’re in a tough spot when it comes to the level of preparation of science students (only 2% of high school students nationwide were found to be “advanced” in their preparation of science).  Some have argued that the focus of testing on reading and math, to the exclusion of science, has contributed to this deficiency.  Whatever the cause, we have to turn that number around.

International Year of Chemistry - January 1st 

In case you weren’t already aware, 2011 has been declared the “International Year of Chemistry” which is, in my opinion, totally cool.  There are a wide array of sources with interesting tidbits but, for starters, go to the IYC web site for links to upcoming events and history.  But that’s not all: there are pages from other scientific societies and publishers like the American Chemical Society and the journal Nature that are chock full of chemistry nuggets.  For example, the ACS web site identifies January 23rd, 2011 the date (in 1911) that Marie Curie was denied membership to the men-only French Academy of Sciences (this was after she had received her 1st Nobel Prize).  I recently read a wonderful biography of Dr. Curie written by Barbara Goldsmith (Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie, Norton, 2004), recommend it highly, and I will likely devote a future blog to the Curie family and their contributions to nuclear chemistry.

There is much to enjoy and discover in chemistry, if not in science.  I hope you will enjoy the journey.

No comments:

Post a Comment