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. 

Chemistry Bumper Cars

Check out the latest moves here! 

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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.