Thursday, June 07, 2012

This Week's Economist: Technology Quarterly

This week's Economist contains a section that all introductory chemistry students should read. So much of the time introductory students can't see the big-picture applications of all of the jargon and vocabulary they are learning. I know this because I felt this way when I took introductory chemistry. (Many of my friends felt the same way.) It all seemed like a foreign language to me and I couldn't see the bigger picture of why I would ever need to know any of it.

The Economist addresses just that problem this week. In this 24-page special report about new technology numerous chemicals are mentioned both in a healthy and positive way and also within the context of poisonous toxins for which we should all be concerned.

A few of the articles that were of particular interest to chemists include:

Dribbles and Bits: I happen to have a personal interest in this one. My family owns a farm in Nebraska and my father has recently purchased some pivots to increase the crop production on some of the fields. This technology could directly affect my family's farm finances- let's hope for the better. In order to more efficiently water fertile areas of ground while conserving water (and fertilizer) in less fertile areas, farmers submit topographical data into a software program. That program feeds the information to a GPS-type system that monitors the location and water usage of each pivot. This has the potential to allow farmers to conserve resources where they are currently wasted while expending extra resources in areas where crops are imminent. This has environmental consequences -the reduction in fertilizer means fewer nitrates and other nasty compounds running into the ecological web of life. I can't wait to see this unfold- before my eyes really- within the context of our family farm.

Please Rinse and Return: This article has practical consequences for all of us because it changes the way we do laundry. Yes, laundry.
Scientists are attempting to make some of the compounds used to make our clothes clean in a reusable form. This means we would wash our clothes with soap and some kind of additive that is removed and reused from the laundry machine after every load. Most likely this will be some form of plastic bead.
In bench science, enzymes are reused in reaction after reaction. A group of scientists wondered why the enzymes in laundry detergent couldn't act the same way so they tested their idea. And.... results show that this is feasible.
Ten years from now we could all have a bucket of laundry beads in our cupboards and spend a fraction of what we currently spend on soap.
I find the most interesting part of this experiment the PVC material they used to attach their enzymes in the experimental stage. I first encountered PVC pipe when I judged the San Diego Science Olympiad a number of years ago. The students used it to build musical instruments like a small tuba, flute and other wind-like contraptions. It is the plastic piping used under your bathroom and kitchen sinks. So there is yet another use for PVC pipe- in our laundry machines. (Actually this is not entirely true as the PVC pipe was just used for experimental work and they would likely come up with another material for the everyday product. Still, I find it fascinating that PVC pipe seems to be so versatile in its uses.)

Pipecleaner: In this technology, scientists are trying to find a compound that makes pipes explosion-proof by repelling water molecules from the surface of the pipe. Developing water-repelling compounds sounds a little like the chemistry behind surfactants and simple soaps (polar, nonpolar concepts)

Talking Trash: This article touts incineration as the way to cut down on landfills and recycling costs. The author claims the previous dangers of chemical release into the environment (dioxins, furans, volatile metals) are gone because of advancements in technology in the process of incineration. The author concludes with a powerful statement about the real problem: American consumption. Americans create 4.5-7 lbs a day of garbage while other countries create 2-3 lbs a day per person.

This special report is a must-read for anyone wondering why the concepts of introductory chemistry are relevant to people's lives. All students should go peruse this site for interesting applications. Use it as inspiration!