Monday, December 19, 2005

More on John Thomas and epsilon-caprolactam

I was at Cambridge University last week presenting some research that i'm involved with at the moment and Sir John Thomas (he of the chem geek post last week) gave the after dinner speech. The man is literally encyclopedic when it comes to catalysis and it is quite daunting to see him comment on every single talk given at a conference where you can barely understand half the talks (getting biologists and catalytic chemists to understand each other is a tall order).
Anyway, he commented on the paper that i mentioned and went on to say that he originally had it titled 'better synthesis of epsilon-caprolactam' or some-such but one of his colleagues in Egypt asked him what the heck epsilon-C was and why should we be interested and when JT told him that it was the major precursor to nylon, the guy told him 'then put that in the title!'. Even though the work had been mentioned previously, this paper had been commented on and mentioned in the popular press all around the world.
Just goes to show, even in the sciences, perception can often be more powerful than the message.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Jonesy and 2BG on the Cronulla Riots

This man is evil. No really.
He used to be amusing in a redneck, throwback kinda way, kind of like seeing those old magazine ads that feature labour saving cooking utensils for women to keep their man happy. You'd just shake your head, wonder who the hell actually listened to this freak and move on with your day. Unfortunately, swing voters listen to this freak. Poor, marginalised disenfranchised people listen to this freak.
And Jonesy incited them to make a mob and attack poor helpless Australians based on the colour of their skin to retaliate for another stupid act.
Jonesy, you make me sick and I think i'd be a little bit embarrassed to be an Orstralyan this week.

Electricity Subsidies

here's an example of a hidden subsidy in the renewables electricity industry (ignore the electricity fields give you cancer rubbish). don't be shocked, the old industries have been getting these kinds of subsidies for decades so they're learning from the pro's.
here's how it works out, i build a windfarm/solar tower/whatever in the middle of nowhere (assuming you aren't blocked by people that like living and looking at the view in TMON) from a business case that assumes x dollars per kilowatt hour (if kW.h isn't your bag, just think 'a bucket of electricity' it'll mostly work out). now they lobby the gummint for transmission lines to take their power from A to B and call it a 'strategic' investment for the whole country. this is a great way of keeping off your books one of the biggest costs of building generation plant - the ability to get it to your customers!
now the question of where your transmission lines are built and what constitutes a reasonable cost and how people that are affected are compensated are all good questions to ask, but preferably, these are asked in tandem with the generation proposal itself, anything else is somebody ripping off the rest of us with a dodgy business case.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Nice piece of heterogeneous catalysis chemistry

Warning: chem geek ahead.

Nature is one of the two major weekly science magazines (along with Science). Heterogeneous catalysis is an old discipline and not overly interesting (huh!) in this day and age of genomics, preteomics and nanotech so when a nice piece of work is done, and recognised, it's only fitting i give it a plug (Nature, News & Views, 27 Oct 2005).

Green chemistry (no, it's not an oxymoron) is a research theme that tries to minimise the amount of wasteful products produced during the synthesis of commodity chemicals. In fact, with a lot of chemicals, you can accurately describe the 'desired' product as a minor by-product of the synthesis route. Ratio's of [weight not useful]/[wt useful] of 1000:1 are not overly uncommon, especially with tricky organic molecules (needed for all those pesky FDA studies...).

A lot of chemical synth's are done in liquid form with the catalyst (a substance that speeds up the rate of the rxn) also in liquid form (homogeneous catalysis). This makes for tricky clean-up of your product at the end and it is often very difficult to recycle the catalyst itself - this all adds up to $$
It would be much nicer to do a reaction between two liquids and have the catalyst as a solid (heterogeneous catalysis). Recycling the catalyst is then pretty trivial.

John Thomas and Raja (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 102, 13732-13736 (2005)) have come up with a way of doing both the redox and rearrangement steps of Epsilon-caprolactam synthesis on the same catalyst. They have taken a novel structured pore oxide system (Aluminium Phosphate Oxides, AlPO's) and replaced about 4% of the Al atoms in the framework with manganese and magnesium.
Epsilon-caprolactam is the precursor to nylon manufacture and its classic synthesis involves both sulfuric acid and fuming sulfuric acid (don't ask, it's as bad as it sounds). All this acid needs to be neutralised and vast quantities of ammonium sulphate get generated. Considering some 4 million tonnes of CPL are produced each year, eliminating the waste (the major product!) would be a good thing all round.

Even if you're not a huge fan of industrial chemistry (which i would debate, there's no iPods without chemistry...) you would have to agree that investing some research money into developing cleaner methods for delivering our chemistry needs is a good thing and the efforts of JT and R should be applauded as a high impact example of what can be acheived. Well done.

tag: Un-freakin-believable

The 2005 yoyo winner on Google Video.

Pro-nuclear blog posts

There's a couple of pro-nuclear blogs i'm bloglisting at the moment, Atomic Insights somehow figured out i linked to him and actually commented on one of my posts (i'm known! ahh, finally the recognition endorphins are kicking in...).
However, it should be stated right up front, i am the most reluctant pro-nuclear guy you'll ever meet. At most i would consider myself neutral-nuclear - i believe that we need another round of nuclear investment, but i'm not at all happy about it.

Hydrogen efficiency - here. Unless you are comparing two very similar technolgies, efficiency is not overly useful as a metric for choosing between them. For instance, if i had two car IC engines, i would obviously choose the most 'efficient' one - the choice gives me more mileage per litre of fuel (and assuming the fuel is similar, that's why well-to-wheels analysis is so important).
If you use hydrogen as a fuel, the 'efficiency' of the engine becomes kinda moot, it is all about how the hydrogen (or hydrogen equivalent like hydrides, chemical hydrates etc) is produced and distributed. If, and only if, the hydrogen comes from renewable sources are we better off. If it comes from oil pumped out of the ground, you may as well just burn the oil in your car and not waste some of it turning it into hydrogen. The key concept here is 'carbon impact'. Efficiency is not an interchangeable unit.

Using bio-derived fuel for cars seems like an eminently sensible idea. Plants are 'only' 30 odd% 'efficient' at turning sunlight into chemical bonds but since sunlight is free, we can discard it from our efficiency calculation and focus on whether it is economic (and some parts of the world are very good at growing things, energy security will come with multiple suppliers and a world-wide distribution network). At the moment, i suspect ethanol subsidies are a more important driver for bio-fuels than GHG emmissions and i think we should be doing more research in bio-tech in this area.

Nuclear - the pros and cons. I don't believe any of the numbers thrown around for justification. not pro, not anti - i don't think anyone actually knows, the whole thing is a viper's nest of lies, damned lies and dodgy business cases. Let's not forget, these are the same people who told us it'd be too cheap to meter, store their waste in 'temporary' pools for decades or dump it in the nearest ocean trench. I don't trust you 'cause you haven't earned it...

Geothermal isn't exactly impossible - if we can send someone 100,000 km's to the moon, why can't we dig a hole 10 km straight down? There's enough heat under (deep under) everyone's feet, if we really wanted we could figure out how to extract it over the next 50 years, but i'm not going to hold my breath.

Another comment at The Ergosphere that i wholeheartedly support - plug-in cars. The potential for spontaneously creating microgrids is huge. When Toyota realises that they are in the portable power pack business, we're gonna see some radical changes to the 'way things have always been done'. Where you get that electricity though is the key question, which grumbling and swearing, leads me back to nuclear (or preferably/in tandem, geothermal)...

Transpower pylons kicked for touch?

here. Putting this decision off until 2021 is hardly going to help. I'm suspicious of a NIMTOO angle here and forgive me if i don't believe that Transpower is going to come up with a better plan over 15 years, it'll just ignore it until 2015 and then dust off the old plan again.
Waiting for LNG or new off-shore gas supplies though is a good idea, it would be far more sensible to build generation north of the Harbour Bridge or more plant at Otahuhu and generate it closer to where it's used. Renegotiating the Comalco contract doesn't help too much since we can't get that power to the north island, the current system is whacking up against capacity constraints on a regular basis (thats why the price spikes on a daily level, it's usually a rate problem not a capacity problem, the long term trend up is a capacity problem however).
And why do the protesters keep mentioning houses with little kiddies? There's no evidence that it is dangerous and if Transpower is paying you to plonk a pylon on your property, move your freekin house wherever you like (its part of the cost-benefit analysis...)

TVNZ One drags itself into the 21st century

by providing streaming news clips. Well done, it's nice to hear an accent that's familiar ;-)
Can't really say i'm too interested in the minutae of kindy teachers in NZ at the moment (that's NZ news in general for you though, i'm still hanging out for Australian SBS news full show on-line each day...aarrgghghhhh) but at least they are starting to decouple the medium from the message - now, if only their quality of the reporting could improve...

CIA renditions across Europe

Gwynn Dyer in The Age today on the CIA flights moving prisoners to other countries so they can torture the bejeezus out of them.
What the hell is America doing? They have become what they claimed to be fighting against. Torture, lack of due process, kidnapping of suspects, deaths in custody, cruel and inhumane punishment - does anyone really think they are safer from suicide attacks because of this?? If so, you're a bigger idiot than i gave you credit for. Since it is (nominally) a democracy, I am forced to assume that the majority of Americans agree with this behaviour - if so, your founding fathers must be spinning in their graves.
I'd be wary about aligning myself with this country, best thing to do with a rabid dog (if you can't put it down) is to avoid it, don't get in its way, and let the thing die on it's own...

Where does Tassy get these guys??

The Liberal Senator for Tasmaina, Guy Barnett, is proposing that all Australian ISP's filter internet content for porn for the sake of the children... (when your reason has been parodied on The Simpsons, it's time for some new dogma).
Ye Gods, with freaks like this keeping an eye on all the bad stuff in the world, who needs enemies? Here's some questions:
  1. Who gets to decide what 'porn' is?
  2. How long until they start censoring other sensitive on-line material?
  3. When exactly did you start hearing the voices that said you should tell the rest of us what we should and shouldn't do with our time?
In fact, regulate this: Go $%^$ yourself ya stuck up twat.

Yes, it is a little sad that the greatest communications medium ever built is being used initially for porn and gambling but hey, human nature is what it is; plenty of cool stuff is also going on.
If you want to spend $100 million dollars, how about building a .kids domain and verifying that all material on this domain is kid-friendly - far easier than forcing adults to opt-in for 'porn' (and how long until that list leaks onto the web huh??).
Or here's another idea, instead of putting the computer in little Johnny's room, how about keeping it in a public space of your home like the TV? Chances are little Johnny quite likes surfing for porn, if he's a fairly normal adolescent boy growing up in the 21st century anyway. As Scott Adams pithily said 'never bet against the laser like focus and dedication of a horny 18 year old kid trying to circumvent a porn filter'
Senator Barnett, you are my pick for Dickhead of the Day. Take a bow... and a flying £"$" at a rolling donut.

Plugged in - scary as £$%$%

via Reddit, this is just so scary it's funny, at least, i hope i'm laughing and not panicking...

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Niche tech development in NZ

Smart materials developer Zepher Technology (can't wait for the Mk III version of something...). Good synergy between the real and the info - the smart material 'knows' somethings happened but that's pointless if you can't retrieve the information, know what it means and get the recomendation to the right person.

A swiss investment fund seems to be doing the circuit as well. Yet to make an investment though although i wholeheartedly agree with the direction that NZ should be focusing it's attention (agricultural products leveraging our expertise in exporting rain, sun and minerals in .biological packaging).
I am concerned that NZ is not taking this seriously enough, there are disadvantages to not staking a claim early. Companies will go where the talent is, talent will go where the companies are. It is incredibly hard to figure out which comes first and if you are a global company/investor, you don't give a rat's where it spontaneously happens, but you know it will happen somewhere. I fear that Fonterra's decision to base itself in Melbourne is a symptom of where they (and they are an international 800 lb gorilla in dairy) see the next 20 years of talent and research being done.
Question to Helen Clark: You've had 10 years of phenomenal commodity prices and tax income. What have you done with it? Can you spell 'opportunity cost'? Where is the next $50 billion of NZ GDP coming from?

Te Wananga Chief called on to quit

Like that was never going to happen (NZ Herald).
These guys have ripped off $240 million dollars of tax payer money for dodgy basket weaving courses and funneled the money into nepotistic land deals and consulting fees.
Good grief, get Haliburton on the phone and put this man's talents to good use, he's wasted in NZ.

Very cool magnets

There are some seriously cool toys, errr, magnets available nowadays (hattip to Boyd and an increasingly efficient US military-industrial complex). You can not only do some room temperature levitation stuff but check out this Maganview liquid! How cool is that?
Last time i had heard about magnetic fluids (or rather magnetic stuff in fluids) a company was trying to use them to give the illusion of 'space' when viewing 3D images. They had the liquid in little tubes stitched into a glove and depending on what you did with your hand in space (i assume you have on some goggles so you think you're grabbing something) different combinations of tubes would become magnetised and you would feel as though you had actually grabbed something. They were having trouble with maintaining the solution but maybe they've cracked that nut over the last 5 years - now that'd be cool, imagine grabbing a widget from a design engineer that only exists on a CAD program....