Monday, August 8, 2022

Well, *that's* an interesting letter

Tucked in the letters to the editor in C&EN, an unusual comment about the death by exposure to dimethylmercury of Dartmouth chemistry professor Karen Wetterhahn: 

I read the article on Karen Wetterhahn with a profound sense of loss and sorrow that has not fully abated after 25 years. I was one of Karen’s graduate students, and I have come to recognize that she trained her other students and me very well.

I’d like to share an anecdote about Karen’s teaching style. Karen cultivated an air of omniscience, which certainly drove her students to prepare well for discussions with her about their research. One of her favorite questions was, “Don’t you know?,” implying that the student had not done their homework. Karen had wide-ranging knowledge, but she also had human limitations. Once, I called Karen’s bluff and confessed that I didn’t know the answer to a question, so I asked her what the answer was. We both chuckled when she admitted that she didn’t know either. Nevertheless, all her students learned the importance of asking insightful questions.

This brings me to a deeply troubling point raised in the article. I don’t agree with the conclusion about how Karen was poisoned. Karen taught me that if you disagree, you better have data on your side, so here goes. The New England Journal of Medicine article estimated that Karen likely absorbed about 1,344 mg of mercury, meaning she likely absorbed 0.44 mL of dimethylmercury. To do so meant she had to have been splashed with more than that—probably closer to 1 mL since some of the compound would be lost to evaporation or remain in the glove. This is a lot more than a drop or two.

When I was in Karen’s lab, I did some experiments using coaxial nuclear magnetic resonance tubes, which allowed a small volume of an external standard between the tubes. I don’t know what Karen was using for an NMR tube, but in currently available technology, where the reference goes into the center of a larger sample tube, typical volumes for the inner reference standard for a 5 mm tube are 60 ┬ÁL, while the outer sample volume is 10×. If Karen was using less than 0.1 mL of dimethylmercury, how could she have absorbed 10× what she was transferring? (Her lab notebooks might provide insight.) My supposition is that either she was splashed with more dimethylmercury than what was released from the pipette through her glove, or there was another method of ingestion, conceivably involving the deliberate actions of another individual.

Samuel Brauer
Shelton, Connecticut

Editor’s note: An investigation into Karen Wetterhahn’s death concluded, “The rapid, monophasic, first-order increase in the mercury content of hair is consistent with either one or several episodes of exposure to dimethylmercury beginning on or about August 14, 1996, and is consistent with the evidence (reports from coworkers and information from labeled vials and laboratory notebooks) that a single accidental exposure to dimethylmercury occurred on August 14. . . . Our patient’s accidental exposure may have resulted from both transdermal absorption of the liquid (given the lack of protection provided by disposable latex gloves) and inhalation of vapors (even though the work was conducted under a fume hood)” (N. Engl. J. Med. 1998, DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199806043382305). Wetterhahn did not record in her lab notebook the quantities she used or planned to use, according to John Winn, a Dartmouth professor emeritus of chemistry, who was chair of the department when Wetterhahn died.

I'm not an analytical chemist, so I can't pretend to have an educated opinion about who is right or who is wrong, but it seems that there are more possible explanations other than deliberate poisoning...

(Read all the letters for lots of articles about dimethylmercury in the good old days...)

Friday, August 5, 2022

Have a great weekend!

Well, my work week will extend a bit, but it's been a relatively successful one. Here's hoping that you had a good week, and that you have a great weekend. See you on Monday! 


C&EN: Major chemical company Q2 results look good (for now):

Via C&EN's Alex Tullo: 

The largest chemical companies posted upbeat results for the second quarter despite external economic factors, namely the war in Ukraine, which is driving up European energy costs. Chemical executives worry that the coming months could see a full blown crisis that could scuttle European chemical production.

For the second quarter, the world’s largest chemical maker, BASF, posted a 16% increase in sales and a 17% increase in profits versus the same period in 2021. Elemental to the company’s gains were its chemicals and materials businesses, which saw sales increases of 27% and 30%, respectively, mostly due to higher product selling prices.

A weakness for the company was its surface technologies unit, which houses its automotive catalysts business, hit hard by sluggish car production. BASF’s second quarter sales in China declined by 17% due to COVID-19 lockdowns in the country.

In a speech to analysts, BASF chairman Martin Bruderm├╝ller said that compared to the first quarter, uncertainty around the economic outlook has increased. “The main reasons for this are the ongoing war in Ukraine, the risks associated with natural gas supplies in Europe, and the resulting high prices for raw materials and energy as well as China’s zero-COVID strategy and related lockdowns,” he said.

For those of us (myself included) who are thinking about an economic downturn in late 2022, this is good news. Now we wait for winter... 

Thursday, August 4, 2022

23 new positions at Organic Chemistry Jobs

Over at Common Organic Chemistry, curated by Brian Struss, there are 23 new positions for July 30. The jobs can be viewed on the website or spreadsheet.

Don't forget to check out the Common Organic Chemistry company map, a very helpful resource for organic chemists looking for potential employers. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

C&EN: great profile of Michaeleen Doucleff

In this week's Chemical and Engineering News, a fun profile (article by Bethany Halford) of PhD physical chemist and NPR reporter Michaeleen Doucleff, including this funny tidbit (emphasis mine):

While doing her postdoc, Doucleff moonlighted as a freelance writer, penning articles for health magazines after a day in the lab. Realizing that she didn’t want to be a researcher, Doucleff applied for academic teaching positions and jobs at scientific journals. She decided to take an editing and writing position at the journal Cell. “That’s where I realized I love writing,” she says. But her writing almost got her fired. Doucleff angered her bosses at Cell when, without their permission, she wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about why Adele’s “Someone Like You” is a tearjerker. Their response prompted Doucleff to apply for an opening at National Public Radio (NPR).

I imagine that there might be circumstances where there would be limits to what kind of writing an editor can participate in, but this seems a bit extreme. 

It's funny how employers don't like their employees having side gigs, but it seems to me that's the sort of thing that should be established clearly and requires some kind of financial compensaion for not taking other positions...  

Covestro: Winter is Coming

Very similar to The Polymerist's comments, this concern about steam generation at Covestro's German plants: 
German materials giant Covestro warned Tuesday that the rationing of gas could see some of its sites shut down, as its CEO stressed the importance of reducing the company’s reliance on fossil fuels.

In a statement outlining the company’s performance in the second quarter of 2022, Covestro said it was undertaking “various measures” to lower, over the short term, its gas requirements in Germany, where the firm’s facilities represent roughly 25% of its worldwide production capacity.

These measures include using oil-based steam generators. “If gas supplies are rationed in the further course of the year, this could result in partial load operation or a complete shutdown of individual Covestro production facilities, depending on the level of the cutback,” the company said.

“Due to the close links between the chemical industry and downstream sectors, a further deterioration of the situation is likely to result in the collapse of entire supply and production chains,” it added.

I cannot imagine the level of disruption in the US if natural gas was suddenly cut off (or reduced!) in the United States. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The 2023 Chemistry Faculty Jobs List: 86 research/teaching positions and 1 teaching position

The 2023 Chemistry Faculty Jobs List (curated by Andrew Spaeth and myself) has 86 research/teaching positions and 1 teaching position. 

Want to help out? Here's a Google Form to enter positions.

To see trending, go to Andrew Spaeth's visualization of previous years' list.

On August 3, 2021, the 2022 Chemistry Faculty Jobs List had 62 research/teaching positions and 1 teaching faculty positions. On August 4, 2020, the 2021 Chemistry Faculty Jobs List had 28 research/teaching positions and 5 teaching faculty positions. 

Want to talk anonymously? Have an update on the status of a job search? Go to the first open thread. 

Don't forget to click on "load more" below the comment box for the full thread. 

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Monday, August 1, 2022

The Polymerist; Winter is Coming

The Polymerist is a continued must-read, with last week's comments on the natural gas crunch really key: 

I don’t usually write about natural gas and oil on Tuesdays, but things are developing quickly over in Europe and I’m concerned. If you don’t know there is a major natural gas pipeline called Nord Stream 1 that delivers natural gas to Germany, Europe’s largest economy and chemical producing powerhouse, and it’s been undergoing maintenance since July 11th. Maintenance is normal. A good preventative maintenance program keeps things running smoothly and it usually only last 10-12 days. Natural gas started flowing again on July 21st, but only at 40% of normal levels, which had started before the planned shutdown.

...No matter how you look at this problem this is not a good thing for the European chemical industry. The chemical industry is reliant of natural gas for two primary things:

  • Feedstock: steam reforming of methane to make carbon monoxide, steam cracking ethane/propane to make ethylene/propylene)
  • Steam generation: applying heat and performing #1

If you ever get a chance to hang out in a large scale chemical manufacturing operation the use of steam is everywhere. Steam is how heat gets moved around (heated oil is also used, but less common) and whenever you need steam it’s often generated at the site. If you want to run a distillation you need steam. If you want to steam crack some stuff, guess what, you need steam. If you want to run your reaction at 200 C or higher you need steam. Without steam the chemical industry for the most part stops running and without the raw materials to make stuff, which the chemical industry makes, then supply chains falter even more than they are now.

There's a lot of room for DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMM in my thinking for chemical manufacturing in the fall, i.e. it feels like China's supply chain/zero COVID disruptions are never-ending and the Ukraine/Russia issues are making things extremely hard for Europe, which means that it's going to be hard for American chemical manufacturing supply chains. I'd like to think that both things won't happen, but I have a much stronger sense that the European situation is going to be brutal. Here's hoping I'm not right. 

Friday, July 29, 2022

Have a great weekend

Another relatively chill week. Hope you had a great week and hope you have a great weekend. We'll see you on Monday. 


Q2 GDP growth was negative

Via the New York Times: 
A key measure of economic output fell for the second straight quarter, raising fears that the United States could be entering a recession — or perhaps that one had already begun.

Gross domestic product, adjusted for inflation, fell 0.2 percent in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That drop followed a decline of 0.4 percent in the first quarter. The estimates for both periods will be revised in coming months as government statisticians get more complete data.

News of the back-to-back contractions heightened a debate in Washington over whether a recession had begun and, if so, whether President Biden was to blame. Economists largely say that conditions do not meet the formal definition of a recession but that the risks of one are rising.

For most people, though, a “recession” label matters less than the economic reality: Growth is slowing, businesses are pulling back and families are having a harder time keeping up with rapidly rising prices.
I am a pretty big stickler for the NBER definition of a recession, i.e. I don't think two quarters of negative growth automatically mean we're in a recession etc etc. But nevertheless, I think I was right - hiring in the fall of 2022 will be worse than that of fall 2021 in the economy as a whole. What does that mean for chemists and hiring? I do not know. We're not seeing (yet) major news of layoffs in either pharma or the chemical industry, so that's good. We shall see...

Thursday, July 28, 2022

19 new positions at Organic Chemistry Jobs

Over at Common Organic Chemistry, curated by Brian Struss, there are 19 new positions for July 23. The jobs can be viewed on the website or spreadsheet.

Don't forget to check out the Common Organic Chemistry company map, a very helpful resource for organic chemists looking for potential employers. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The secrets of baseball rubbing mud

Looks like a solid batch from the kilo lab
Credit: New York Times
Via the New York Times, this article about a prominent trade secret: 
LONGPORT, N.J. — A 45-gallon rubber barrel sits in a cluttered garage along the Jersey Shore, filled waist-high with what looks like the world’s least appetizing chocolate pudding. It is nothing more than icky, gooey, viscous, gelatinous mud.

Ah, but what mud. The mud that dreams are made of.

This particular mud, hauled in buckets by one man from a secret spot along a New Jersey riverbank, is singular in its ability to cut the slippery sheen of a new baseball and provide a firm grip for the pitcher hurling it at life-threatening speed toward another human standing just 60 feet and six inches away.

Tubs of the substance are found at every major league ballpark. It is rubbed into every one of the 144 to 180 balls used in every one of the 2,430 major league games played in a season, as well as those played in the postseason.

...But M.L.B. executives do not exactly get all misty-eyed over the whimsical tradition of what is called Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, which they say is too often inconsistently applied. In their quest to make balls more consistent — and the game more equitable — they have tried to come up with a substitute, even assigning chemists and engineers to develop a ball with the desired feel.

The score so far:

Lena Blackburne: 1

Major League Baseball: 0
I can't imagine that this stuff is that difficult to reproduce, but I do indeed like that it is a weird, mysterious tradition. 

(I imagine that if baseball really wanted to, it could get sufficient quantities of scientists and engineers together to reproduce this mud, or at least standardize it. How large is this secret spot, anyway? Will erosion/climate change change the composition of the mud in another 50-100 years?) 

Warning Letter of the Week: try, try again edition

In a letter to the Chief Executive Officer of Bioiberica, SAU, the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research notes these issues: 

1. Failure to establish written procedures to monitor the progress and control the performance of processing steps that may cause variability in the quality characteristics of your intermediates and API.

You failed to establish appropriate monitoring and controls for reworking batches of [redacted] USP, API. In 2020 and 2021, approximately 23 batches of [redacted] USP, API were reworked in your industrial [redacted] because of microbiological out-of-specification or non-conforming high [redacted], a class 3 residual solvent, content results. The use of the industrial [redacted] was not part of the established process validation for [redacted] USP, API. The investigator documented this [redacted] was used to rework multiple batches from [redacted] to as many as [redacted] times until acceptable results were obtained. No studies had been performed to establish the effectiveness of this rework step. Additionally, your industrial [redacted] was not equipped with real time [redacted] monitoring or a [redacted] summary to monitor the performance of the [redacted].

No product too holy to be reworked, folks! (Guessing that they chose to use a different piece of equipment than what they laid out earlier.) 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The 2023 Chemistry Faculty Jobs List: 66 research/teaching positions and 1 teaching position

The 2023 Chemistry Faculty Jobs List (curated by Andrew Spaeth and myself) has 66 research/teaching positions and 1 teaching position. 

Want to help out? Here's a Google Form to enter positions.

To see trending, go to Andrew Spaeth's visualization of previous years' list.

On July 27, 2021, the 2022 Chemistry Faculty Jobs List had 40 research/teaching positions. On July 28, 2020, the 2021 Chemistry Faculty Jobs List had 23 research/teaching positions and 3 teaching faculty positions. 

Want to talk anonymously? Have an update on the status of a job search? Go to the first open thread. 

Don't forget to click on "load more" below the comment box for the full thread. 

Job posting: Academic Coordinator - Undergraduate Instructional Support, UCSB, Santa Barbara, CA

From the inbox: 

The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of California Santa Barbara invites applications for a 75% Academic Coordinator 1 position for Undergraduate Instructional support with the anticipated start date of September 18, 2022. The department is looking for a qualified individual with a particular emphasis in the area of working in an academic instructional laboratory.

Responsibilities of the position will be to implement laboratory course material directives and to accurately prepare experiments for all teaching labs. The Academic Coordinator serves in a key role for the successful operations of the instructional teaching laboratories in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.

The university is especially interested in applicants who can contribute to the diversity and excellence of the academic community through research, teaching and service, as appropriate to the position.

The University of California is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability status, protected veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by law.

Full ad here. Best wishes to those interested. 

Chemistry Bumper Cars

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Monday, July 25, 2022

CTV: One dead, three injured at Polymer Source in Montreal

Via CTV: 

An explosion at a polymer research centre Friday in the Montreal suburb of Dorval left one dead and at least three injured. 

Paramedics received a 911 call at around 11:30 a.m. for a report of an explosion. They said a 40-year-old man was pronounced dead at the scene, and two others were sent to hospital for non-life-threatening injuries. A third worker who was injured refused to be sent to hospital. 

The explosion happened at the Polymer Source, a company that describes itself as a supplier of high-quality polymers and bio-polymers for academic and pharmaceutical and industrial research.

Three teams of paramedics responded to the scene. Firefighters were also on site. 

Reaction on Twitter indicates that this is a well-known source of research material. Condolences to the families and friends of those killed and injured. 

Water and air make hydrogen peroxide?

In this week's Chemical and Engineering News, this letter to the editor: 
Thermodynamics in hydrogen peroxide reaction

The question of whether water can form hydrogen peroxide should be answered by thermodynamics (see C&EN, June 13, 2022, page 3). If a reaction is possible (spontaneous), then the change in the Gibbs energy at constant temperature and pressure must be negative in sign. For the reaction of water with air (O2) to form hydrogen peroxide, the change in the Gibbs energy at standard temperature and pressure is positive (+116.78 kJ/mol for liquids or +136.25 kJ/mol for gases). Therefore, the production of hydrogen peroxide by reactions of water with oxygen is not possible for such laboratory conditions.

Thermodynamics never depends on any proposed reaction mechanisms, such as sprayed water droplets or the condensation of such water vapor on inert substrates.

Melvin H. Miles
St. George, Utah

Not quite sure what I think other than "gee, this seems really weird."  

Friday, July 22, 2022

Have a good weekend

I had a decent week, surprisingly so. Hope that you had a good week, and that you have a great weekend. See you on Monday! 


American Chemistry Council: Regional production down 0.1% in June.

Via the American Chemistry Council:  

WASHINGTON (July 21, 2022) — The U.S. Chemical Production Regional Index (U.S. CPRI) eased by 0.1% in June following gains of 0.5% in May and 1.0% in April, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Chemical output was mixed across regions. The U.S. CPRI is measured as a three-month moving average (3MMA).

On a 3MMA basis, chemical production within segments was mixed in June. There were gains in the production of synthetic rubber, industrial gases, coatings, manufactured fibers, synthetic dyes and pigments, adhesives, other organic chemicals, crop protection chemicals, other specialty chemicals, and fertilizers. These gains were offset by lower production of plastic resins, organic chemicals, and consumer products. 

As nearly all manufactured goods are produced using chemistry in some form, manufacturing activity is an important indicator for chemical demand. Manufacturing output eased by 0.1% in June (3MMA). The 3MMA trend in manufacturing production was mixed, with gains in the output of motor vehicles, aerospace, iron and steel, oil and gas extraction, and rubber products.

Compared with June 2021, U.S. chemical production was ahead by 2.5%, a slower rate of growth than last month. Chemical production was higher than a year ago in all regions except the Gulf Coast, which was 0.5% lower. 

I would expect the high-volume chemical manufacturing industry to show signs of slowing; hopefully this doesn't spill over into employment as well. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

28 new positions at Organic Chemistry Jobs

Over at Common Organic Chemistry, curated by Brian Struss, there are 28 new positions for July 17. The jobs can be viewed on the website or spreadsheet.

Don't forget to check out the Common Organic Chemistry company map, a very helpful resource for organic chemists looking for potential employers. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Colorado Court of Appeals: chemistry is not speech

Via the Denver Gazette: 
A Colorado Springs man who argued the state's law against manufacturing controlled substances is unconstitutional because it infringes on the protected "speech" of chemists ran into resistance last week from the Court of Appeals.

Because chemistry is not intended to convey a message, it is not legally speech, a three-judge appellate panel concluded.

"In sum, while 'Breaking Bad' is a constitutionally protected work of art, Walter White’s production of methamphetamine wasn’t," wrote Judge Jerry N. Jones in the July 14 opinion.

Kynan S. Arnold is serving a 48-year sentence after a jury convicted him in 2011 of multiple drug charges, including possessing chemicals or supplies to manufacture a controlled substance. Authorities who searched Arnold's apartment and storage unit found a methamphetamine laboratory and other items that indicated manufacturing activity.

The Court of Appeals upheld Arnold's convictions in 2014 and again in 2020. Arnold then attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the drug law under which he was convicted. He claimed the law swept up legal forms of speech through outlawing the possession of "one or more chemicals or supplies or equipment with intent to manufacture a controlled substance."

"It chills the First Amendment rights of anyone who might consider taking up chemistry as a hobby and those who may wish to purchase, possess and use glassware to experiment, create, invent, patent or replicate existing patents," Arnold, who represented himself from prison, wrote to the Court of Appeals.

The judge's opinion is pretty interesting, especially the conclusion (emphasis mine): 

We conclude that engaging in chemistry, as Arnold characterizes it, doesn’t convey an intent to present a particularized message and therefore isn’t speech. To hold otherwise would seem to permit literally anyone to assert a facial free speech challenge to any law criminalizing almost any conduct. Moreover, it’s clear that the statute only proscribes conduct related to otherwise illegal activities: the actor must have the “intent to manufacture a controlled substance.” §  18-18-405(1)(a). 

In sum, while “Breaking Bad” is a constitutionally protected work of art, Walter White’s production of methamphetamine wasn’t.  

I guess I never thought that doing chemistry was an act of speech, but now we have some legal precedent. (If you're making thiophenols, aren't you definitely presenting a particularized message?) 

Reuters: German chemical industry running out of natural gas

Well, this isn't great news: 

BERLIN, July 19 (Reuters) - Germany's chemical industry has already done everything it can to conserve gas use, said chemical association VCI on Tuesday, which warned that the only steps left for the industry would be to scale back or abandon production altogether.

"For our companies, we are currently once again doing everything we can to exploit every last potential gas saving," said VCI's chief executive, Wolfgang Grosse Entrup.

"But there's not much more we can save, as efficiency has already been the driving force in the past few years," he added.

According to VCI, which represents about 1,900 companies, Germany's chemical and pharmaceutical industries are the country's largest gas consumer, with 15% of total consumption.

Industry leader BASF is considered Germany's largest industrial gas consumer.

VCI issued the warning and called for "a societal show of strength to conserve gas" to get through the winter unscathed as the gas supply from Russia grows increasingly uncertain.

I would really like our supply chain nightmares to end, but it doesn't really feel like it...