Monday, February 20, 2017

This most unusual opening to an article you will read this week

Also in this week's C&EN, a story about earwax in the cover story about naturally-derived catalysts: 
As a teenager in the 1960s, Charles V. Johnson of Lake Geneva, Wis., was tinkering with his chemistry set when he discovered that earwax could serve as a catalyst for making pigments. Later on, as a zoology undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Johnson took a daring chance in a chemistry lab: He applied earwax to a boiling chip and substituted it for a palladium catalyst in an organic synthesis experiment. It worked well to make trans-stilbene, although his professor didn’t seem impressed. 
“That’s the thing that has bothered me most,” Johnson told C&EN in a 2012 interview. “My instructors didn’t think there was anything to it.” After graduating, Johnson worked as a chemical technician at Sigma-Aldrich until he retired. He occasionally toyed with using earwax as a catalyst over the years to, for example, polymerize a methacrylate-based material he bummed off his dentist. 
Johnson often contemplated what the active catalyst might be in earwax, but he wasn’t able to do an analysis to find out. Most likely, it’s an amino acid or protein, he assumed. Amino acids such as proline are well-known organocatalysts. And catalytic proteins, known as enzymes, have been used since the dawn of civilization—though not knowingly until modern times—for food and beverage processing.
Naturally, I suspect palladium in the boiling chip, but who knows? I tend to doubt that squalene has catalytic properties for carbon-carbon bond formation...

(Does anyone remember Dylan and his earwax?)


  1. Boingboing post on the earwax.

    Also, IIRC, JJLC used a catalyst (Ag2O) embedded in paraffin wax in his hexacyclinol performance-art-piece. It was one of the few technical questions he was able to answer in detail as I believe he also used it during his PhD work.

  2. I hadn't heard about Dylan and his earwax before. I thought a lost verse of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" had been found.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20