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?)