Green Future

News from the future, of a sustainable world as dictated by the green movement, in which there would be no chemical industries.

May 062013

Planned obsolescence

In the 1960s, Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, which surprised and shocked people because it revealed that in the US, companies were deliberately producing products with a short lifespan. It was called planned obsolescence and it was designed to keep the wheels of industry turning so that the mass unemployment in the Great Depression of the 1930s would never occur again. This theme was taken up by Giles Slade in his book of 2006 called Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. However, by this date it wasn’t done to keep people at work but to ensure that the US won the Cold War, which it did in 1990. That little known story is told in Chapter 8 of Slade’s book.

In the 1970s and 1980s the USSR needed microchips and computers in order to exploit its vast reserves of oil and gas to earn the foreign currency it badly needed. A US embargo was denying them the necessary technology, but then Gus Weiss came up with an ingenious idea: allow the Soviet agents to succeed in obtaining what they needed but make sure they bought specially doctored microchips. These looked like the real thing but had inbuilt obsolescence. (Weiss was a White a White House policy adviser on technology, intelligence and economic affair and worked on national security.)

And so they were produced and the USSR was allowed to get them. The chips had inbuilt obsolescence of a kind that included sudden catastrophic malfunctioning, such as instructing a pump suddenly to work at a pressure far higher than a pipeline could withstand. The result was a series of spectacular explosions, some so large that they were observed by satellites. One failure burst an oil pipeline, creating a lake more than 10 kilometres long and 2 metres deep before it was brought under control. This industrial sabotage ensured the USSR lost the Cold War says Slade. Maybe it did.

Made to Break is both entertaining and thought provoking, but somewhat unsatisfying in that it doesn’t say whether planned obsolescence is still part of everyday life. I suspect it’s no longer needed, unless of course it’s why we always seem to be endlessly replacing equipment, not because it doesn’t function, but because newer and better alternatives are always being launched.


May 012013

A condition known as Chinese restaurant syndrome (CRS) appeared in the USA in 1968 and its first victim was a Dr Robert Ho Man Kwok who described its symptoms in a leading medical journal, The New England Journal of Medicine. He said it had afflicted him soon after he’d eaten a meal in a Chinese restaurant when he became aware of his mouth had become numb, he felt a tingling sensation in his neck, and he had a headache, all of which lasted about 24 hours. The newspapers seized upon this report and, of course, sensationalised it.

Soon CRS was afflicting many other people, and the agent responsible was said to be mono sodium glutamate (MSG) which was a cooking agent widely used in oriental dishes. This is a flavour-enhancer rather like salt, except that it enhances the umami or savoury flavour of dishes to which it is added. Soy sauce relies on MSG. Today the media scare rumbles on and you can still see labels on some supermarket products that assure the buyer that it contains no MSG.

In fact, while there might be a condition with the symptoms of CRS and caused by the food we eat, it is certainly not due to MSG, as later tests proved. People who said they were affected by CRS were given MSG without their knowledge and suffered  no ill effects, while others who said they were allergic to it were given food which they were told contained MSG, but which in fact had not been added, and they then suffered the symptoms to CRS.

In the book ‘Was it something you ate?’ which I wrote with a medical doctor, Peter Fell, we devoted a whole chapter to MSG. Of course you can eat a meal to which had been added too much of this, and then suffer an upset stomach and headache while your body deals with it. In the same way as your body reacts to an excess of other natural chemicals, like alcohol, caffeine, etc.

It is not possible to be allergic to MSG because it is a natural component of a living cell and is a molecule which the human body itself produces. MSG occurs naturally in many foods and is especially high in cheese, peas and tomatoes. It has the food code number E621 which indicates it is regarded as safe to use in EU countries.

MSG has been a part of oriental cooking for centuries, and is generally added in the form of soy sauce. It is possible to eat a meal with a high MSG content, and you might well encounter such a meal in a Chinese restaurant if you were to eat wonton soup, prawns, duck, mushrooms, and soy sauce. If you finish such as meal with something like camembert or brie cheese you might well exceed the 3 grams of MSG that the body can cope with at any one time. Then you might feel uncomfortable for a while afterwards as the body deals with the excess MSG.


Apr 302013

Alternative energy; but just how much fossil carbon is there?

‘…and what will men burn when there is no coal? Water. Yes, my friends, I believe that one day water will be employed as a fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light.’

So wrote Jules Verne, the father of science fiction, in his 1875 novel Mysterious Island. And sometime this century his prediction might well come true. Of course we won’t be using water as such, but if we really can harness science and technology to solve the world’s energy needs, then we might well be using the hydrogen it contains. Some catalysts are already known which can convert water to hydrogen by the action of sunlight, although their efficiency is still only around 5%.

Can we really transform the world into one that no longer needs fossil fuels? What can replace the energy that they provide and which now meets most of our needs? Some countries are well on their way to achieving sustainable energy, while others are finding it less easy to move in that direction. If we could gather and use a mere 1% of the energy that the Earth receives from the Sun then our problems are solved. It’s a simple as that – and it’s as difficult as that. Moreover we have a large moon which moves our huge oceans endless to-and-fro and that energy might be used, and we are sitting on the thin crust of a sphere of molten magma whose vast energy store we might also tap into.

Of course we could still rely on fossil energy and there is indeed an awful lot of this as you can calculate using a simple bit of chemistry. The oxygen of the atmosphere has all come from carbon dioxide (CO2) and for every O2 that is released then there must be a C somewhere on Earth.  The amount of that carbon can be calculated from the amount of O2 in the Earth’s atmosphere which amounts to 1015 tonnes, which is a 1,000,000 billion tonnes. That being so then there must be 350,000 billion tonnes of carbon in the Earth’s crust. Of this we extract 10 billion tonnes a year, which is only 0.003%. In a hundred years at the present rate of extraction we will use only 0.3% of what is there.

Of course if we do this then we might well have an impact on the environment that will affect us all. And there may be unexpected consequences as well. No, the answer is to use science, and especially chemistry, to generate renewable energy and ensure that what we do produce is not wasted on inefficient heating and inefficient transport.

Apr 292013

Hair removal is no longer the preserve of women. Hairy chests, once seen as very masculine, are no longer fashionable, having been replaced by stubble on the chin as a sign of masculinity. So how can chest hair be removed? You can either break it down chemically or pull it out by its roots.

Hair relies on sulfur-to-sulfur bonds for its structure and strength. Break these bonds chemically and the hair is weakened and becomes detached from its follicles and so can be wiped away once the chemical reactions have taken place. The chemicals that react and break the sulfur bonds are those with a high pH, such as calcium hydroxide, aka slaked lime, Ca(OH)2, or sodium hydroxide, aka caustic soda, NaOH. Some hair-removal creams are based on potassium and calcium thioglycolate which carry out the same chemical reaction.

The alternative method of hair-removal is to use a body waxing strip of the kind employed by women to remove hair from their legs. These consist of three components: (1) a wipe to clean and deaden the area to be depilated; (2) a gummy strip to remove the hair; and (3) a wipe to clean the skin afterwards.

The first step can also desensitise the skin if the wipe is impregnated with menthol (aka 2-isopropyl-5-methylcyclohexanol) which makes the skin feel cooler by triggering its cold-sensitive receptors. It might also contain kava extra which comes from a Pacific plant that contains molecules that have a numbing effect on the skin.

Then comes the painful bit, the waxing strip. This relies on triethylene glycol rosinate which is a tacky viscous glue to which hairs adhere strongly, and strong enough for them to be pulled from their roots when the strip is peeled off. It is manufactured from gum rosin, which comes from pine tree oil. The glue also contains anti-inflammatory chemicals

Finally there is the soothing and finishing wipe to remove traces of the glue. This will contain things like vitamin E, almond oil, and an antimicrobial agent such as BHT (aka butylhydroxytoluene).

Or you could just shave your chest as necessary, which now appears to be mandatory for men who appear topless on television.

Apr 282013

Real Yorkshire puddings

There are several Yorkshire pudding recipes. Even the BBC has one on its web site which is not too different from the one reported below, which is based on a family recipe. I am originally from Yorkshire. When I was young, we had our Yorkshire pudding served both with the main meat course and then as a desert served with sugar and milk. This might explain why it is called Yorkshire pudding which is a curious name for either an entrée or an accompaniment to the main course. Traditionally, Yorkshire pudding is eaten with thick gravy as a separate item before the main meat course. It is now more usual to serve it as an accompaniment to roast beef.

Yorkshire pudding should be light, with crisp edges, melting in the mouth. Yorkshire people all have their own method, including special family traditions to follow. There must be more contradictory statements concerning the method of making this simple dish than any other, when really it is just a question of making it to suit the taste of your family. The following recipe has been tried and tested for years.

Ingredients 1 tablespoon and a half of plain flour, 1 egg, skimmed milk with some water added (ratio 9 parts milk to 1 part water), half a teaspoon of salt.

Method Put flour in a bowl, make a well in the middle, add the egg, stir until the two are combined then start gradually adding the milk and water combining as you go. Add the liquid and beat the mixture until the batter is a smooth and thin consistency. It should sound like waves lapping the shore. Stir in half teaspoon of salt and leave to stand for 10 minutes. Do not put in the fridge! Put a little beef dripping or oil into one large tin or several smaller ones but don’t use too much fat, only enough to ensure the pudding will not stick to the tin or tins. Put tin or tins into a very hot oven until the fat starts to fume.Give the batter a final stir and pour into the tin or tins. Place in hot oven until well risen, to about 3 to 4 inches, and this should take 10 to 15 minutes.

Serve Ideally serve as a separate course before the main meal and use the best gravy made from the juices of the roast joint. As you probably were aware, people said the reason Yorkshire housewives served Yorkshire pudding before the meal was that it filled people up so that they would eat less of the more expensive main course.

Yorkshire pudding was sometimes made using the beastings, which is the first milk produced by a cow after it had calved and which was is flecked with blood. While this was believed to have special properties it looked unappetising and so cooking with it would be a way of using it.