Should you line dry your clothes?

The last time I cleaned out the dryer vent, I felt like my clothes were disappearing before my eyes. So much lint, all produced when my clothes break off fibers as they tumble in the hot air. My use of cotton, which gets more linty than synthetic fibers helped fill the lint trap.

However, a switch to non-natural fibers produces other problems. Many synthetic fabrics shed dryer lint microplastics which can be can be bad for birds, and if the particles come out in the wash, bad for aquatic life. And plastic clothes disappear, too. The shirt I have on in my profile picture has gotten almost see-through! Fragrance from dryer vents is a source of pollution. Not only that, lint is flammable. It’s estimated that many home fires start in the clothes dryer or uncleaned ducts . Yes, your dryer is a fire hazard.

Clothes dryers were developed in the late 1930s and became popular in the 1960s. I used to consider line drying something older people did. I have memories of staring at bras on the neighbor’s clothes line and wondering if I’d ever need one that large. (Turns out, I didn’t.)

Eek, it’s underwear–these are going to smell wonderful!

Each load of laundry dried at home costs about $1 . Most families do nine loads of laundry per week. It adds up to$468 per year. Dryers use more energy than refrigerators–about 4% of your total electricity costs. One solution could be to use dryer balls , which allow air circulation between your clothes and this reduces drying time and possibly keeps items of clothing from rubbing on each other.

Likewise, using the shortest wash cycle possible, avoiding hot water, and sorting clothes so that rough clothes like jeans don’t rub on soft clothes like t-shirts will help cut down on the wear and tear and broken fibers on your clothes.

I’ll be honest, I have another solution. I can’t wait until the skies clear, the sun comes out and with the help of a gentle breeze, it dries my clothes. If you find joy in the the smell of line-dried clothes, you’ve got a discriminating sniffer. Line dried laundry contains special scents, created by the sun. One, nonanal (not pronounced as you might think), is found on the skin of older people, is called aldehyde C-9 in the perfume industry, and it was one of the magic ingredients that made Chanel No. 5.”

Line drying won’t wear out your clothes or shrink them as dryers do. The sun can sterilize clothes to some extent. Some items such as Turkish towels, with extra long fibers, are meant to be hung to dry, not put in the dryer.

One concern about line drying is outdoor pollen falling on your laundry. There are a few ways to minimize this problem such as not line drying when pollen counts are high or putting the laundry in the dryer for five minutes after it hangs outside to rid it of the allergens.

Currently, only about 8% of homes in the US use a clothesline. In some places, they are banned as being unsightly, especially if used for underwear. Most people find line drying too time consuming. I must admit that a sunny day plus time to hang clothes is a luxury. Until self cleaning clothes became a reality, I’m going to indulge and breathe in the nonanal as much as I can. Please try not to look at my underwear.

Rising action: the baking powder debate

While working on a new novel, I needed a way to determine if something was acidic. I asked myself, how about adding baking powder and seeing it if fizzes–ala the volcano kids like to make with our kitchen supplies? But, since this is a paranormal historical, I wondered: was baking soda or anything like it even used in 1872? The answer is Yes. Baking soda’s near twin, soda ash or sodium carbonate has been used since the days when chemistry was alchemy or “the dark art of Egypt” and was used in mummification. It can be mined or produced chemically.

An old bottle of sodium carbonate, NaCO3, also known as soda ash

Baking soda, a less caustic close relative to soda ash, known to chemists as sodium bicarbonate, can be found along with sodium carbonate in natural mineral springs. Saratoga New York and Manitou Springs Colorado are examples of highly bicarbonated waters. It’s believed that an underground reaction produces the bicarbonate. Carbonates are common in nature and are found in limestone and shells in the form of calcium carbonate, and even in geodes.

The baking product, baking soda, was developed in by Church & Dwight to replace potash or potassium carbonate made from wood ashes, which was hard to make, not very pure, and had a weird smell.

Most laboratories have some baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3) handy to neutralize acid spills

Baking soda, soda ash and baking powder act as rising or leavening agents, producing bubbles of carbon dioxide to make baked goods rise and become fluffy. This rising action is called leavening. An alternative to adding a leavening agent is to whip the substance and stir in air.

Yeast is biological leavening agent, releasing carbon dioxide as an an exhale. The problem is, it takes a while to act.

Baking soda works almost instantly, but must be mixed with an acid such as cream of tartar, sour milk, sour cream, or vinegar, creating the carbon dioxide producing reaction. It’s also dependent on the amount of acid added and some things such as sour milk are not consistent in their composition.

The first baking powder contained baking soda and cream of tartar (tartaric acid, a by-product of wine making) which reacted together quickly and was expensive. Modern double acting baking powder contains an acid and baking soda plus corn starch to keep them from reacting when solid.

And believe it or not, controversy surrounded it.

Created in 1859, the first modern version contained monocalcium phosphate, calcium dihydrogenphosphate to chemists, made from animal bones. Corn starch, and baking soda were additional ingredients. It slowly activated when water was added and fully reacted when heated (making it double acting and slower rising) Later, the monocalcium phosphate used was mined. This company was Rumford, which still makes this version of baking powder. Rival companies sprung up and alum, which was very cheap, was used in products such as Clabber Girl, clabber being sour milk. Thanks to politicians bought with baking powder fortunes, the alum based products were temporarily banned as being unhealthy.

Despite politics, the alum based powders won out due to their low price. But was the competition right, are alum based powders are bad for you? What do we know about the health effects of aluminum, the third most common element in the Earth’s crust?

Recently, nanoaluminum particles were found to impair memory and cognition in zebra fish. (Fan, Rong, et al. “Effects of Nano-Alumina on Learning and Memory Levels in Zebrafish: Roles of Particle Size and Aluminum Ion.” Huanjing Yu Zhiye Yixue = Journal of Environmental & Occupational Medicine, vol. 36, no. 6, 2019, pp. 526.)

Miners exposed to aluminum dust have elevated incidences of Parkinson’s. (Zeng, Xiaoke, M.Sc, et al. “Aluminum Dust Exposure and Risk of Neurodegenerative Diseases in a Cohort of Male Miners in Ontario, Canada.” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, vol. 47, no. 7, 2021, pp. 531-539. )

There are perhaps links to aluminum exposure through dust or food and neurological problems. However, most studies do not find aluminum to be easily absorbed when eaten or put on the skin. (Lead is a much greater risk and is associated with breast cancer so it would be better to worry about bullets than your leavening agent.) Aluminum and other metals are found in the brains of people who had Alzheimer’s, but it’s not known if the aluminum caused the disease since healthy brains also have some aluminum in them. One except is if aluminum is mixed with a fluoride product. This combination is toxic. One thing to keep in mind is that aluminum is commonly used in water treatments to remove cloudiness.

In any case, most baking powder now is alum based for better or worse. But there are exceptions for those who want the good-old fashioned formula. So bakers, rise and shine!

No need for sour milk. Have some alum instead.
No bones about it, alternative baking powders are still out there.

Notes from an old chemist:Common Suffixes Used with Nouns in Chemical Terminology

Long ago, when my chemical world was new, I had a wise teacher by the name of David Crichton. He was a stickler for proper terminology and one thing he passed along was the proper chemical suffixes. I can’t find this list elsewhere so I’m posting it here for the Good of The Order.

David Crichton

Common Suffixes Used with Nouns in Chemical Terminology

-ance, -ence: denotes a state, a condition, a quality of being

            Example: valence, conductance, resistance, absorbance

-ant, -ent: denotes a thing acting as an agent

            Example: precipitant, titrant, diluent, dissectant, eluent

-ate: denotes nouns made from participles (verb forms), something resulting from the action of

        the verb stem

            Example: precipitate, distillate, condensate, decantate, eluate, absorbate

-gram: denotes something drawn or written

            Example: polarogram, spectrogram, chromatogram

-meter: denotes an instrument for measuring some specified thing

            Example: thermometer, spectrometer, spectrophotometer, photometer, potentiometer

-or: denotes an agent or doer

            Example: desiccator, monochromator

-tion, -sion: denotes action, a process

Example: precipitation, distillation, condensation, dissociation, decantation, elution,

    adsorption

-ty, -cy: denotes a quality, a state, a condition

            Example: density, conductivity, resistivity, absorptivity, accuracy

-graph: denotes an instrument for making records

            Example: polarograph, spectrograph, chromatograph

Desiccant (the blue stuff) does the drying and it goes in a desiccator (the glass thing).

Curious Rebels

Science is a new endeavor, being around 400 years old. It’s assumptions are simple, but limited.

1. Nature can be understood. 2. Science can be verified.  Under the same circumstances, nature can be perceived in the same way by all observers. Repeatability is important to science. Measurement allows for duplication of results. 3. Human reason is adequate to understand nature. 4. Every effect has a natural cause.

The word “science” is based on the Latin word for “knowledge”. Science searches for order in nature.Science is a body of knowledge based on OBSERVATION. It’s dynamic, meaning that it is ever changing in content. It is a quest for understanding requiring Curiosity—asking questions, Creativity—ability to solve new problems, reasoning ability, and more recently Team work.

It’s certainly changed the world and killed superstition. However, Stripped of its glamor, day to day science can be routine and even boring. Or perhaps, at the best of days, familiar. Why does a person undertake being a scientist? Scientists are often driven by having outsider status.

In the book The Scientist as Rebel (2006) Freeman Dyson makes this statement.  “There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision.  Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions.  But there is one common element in these visions.  The common element is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture.”

Michael Strevens, a philosopher at New York University, supports this notion. He aimed to identify that special something that drives people to collect data. The something special, he says, is that they want to produce new evidence to argue with. He maintains, it is “the key to science’s success,” because it “channels hope, anger, envy, ambition, resentment—all the fires fuming in the human heart—to one end: the production of empirical evidence.”

I was a curious little girl, always asking why and what if. And science suits me. The routine is a comfort and the new is a thrill.But I might not have become a scientist at all if I hadn’t been told I couldn’t do it.

Thus,it should come as no surprise that the most recent winners of the Nobel Prize for chemistry are two women. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna. The two are noted for their development of a bacteria based gene editing technique known as CRISPR.

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPRs, are repeating sequences found in the genetic code of bacteria. Bacteria use specific CRISPR associated genes as a defense mechanism against viruses. Viruses are as dangerous to bacteria as they are to us. In the CRISPR process, a protein is produced. It cuts viral genetic material, and the bacteria pockets it as a mug shot to use to identify the virus. Thus, the technique can cut and store bits of DNA in a cell’s strand.

For more information, watch this.

Fanciful Illustration of crispr gene engineering

Scientists are curious rebels. They don’t accept the limitations of society and those with something to prove are among the most successful. It can be argued that to teach conformity and acceptance is to snuff out the scientific spirit.

Freeman Dyson warns, “If science ceases to be a rebellion against authority, then it does not deserve the talents of our brightest children…We should try to introduce our children to science today as rebellion against poverty and ugliness and militarism and injustice.”

Scientists are inherently skeptical and require a lot of proof for a new idea.  They are also curious and like new ideas. This creates a tension. Most scientists enjoy and celebrate this tension.

And with this new Nobel, I have something to celebrate, since the CRISPR technique is used in my latest novel Lost in Waste. Catch the Crispr fever! For a copy click here, or comment.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And thanks to Curious Rebels forty years ago, the default for scientist is no longer a man.

What’s the spread?

The pandemic brought out the urge for comfort foods and panic eating in many people, including me. One thing I indulged in was butter on homemade bread. But with all of the discussion on the relationships between fat, covid complications and obesity, I grow concerned about my new eating habits. I asked myself, how bad is butter?

Some studies have said that butter isn’t all that bad for you.

The alternative, margerine, is syntheic and at one time was made from laboratory created trans fats. Trans fats, along wih their identical twin saturated fats, in simple terms, are solid at room temperature as opposed to unsaturated fats, which are liquid. Trans fats are hard on blood vessels and can damage the inner lining.

We all need some fat. Fat is needed for brain function. It’s needed for hormones and reproduction. (although too much is detriental to fertility). In fact, fat and cholesterol are important starting materials in making sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. However, too much of some fats can increase the damaging LDL (Low-density lipoproteins ) form of cholesterol. This type of cholesterol packs a choleresterol punch and provides an excess and even worse, it doesn’t move around in your body easily. It plugs up your arteries instead of doing much good. HDL, however, contains more protein, which is used to help move cholesterol to the proper spots.

With this in mind, I read an interesting study from the Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine published in March 2018. Men and women between 50-75 years old were divided into three groups and given 50 g of one source of fat to eat as a suppliment or use instead of other fat in their normal diets. Their blood serum chloresterol, weight, and body measurements were taken before the study and after four weeks.

The three fats were

butter- an animal derived saturated fat (solid at room temperature)

coconut oil -a plant derived saturated fat (solid at room temperature)

olive oil -a plant derived unsaturated fat liquid (although it also is high in saturated fats as well).

All of the fats were organic.

After the results were reviewed four weeks later, the participants had not gained weight or body mass. All groups had slightly higher total cholesterol, with olive oil showing the least change. However, the butter group had the highest increase in cholesterol and less good cholesterol and much higher bad cholesterol. The other groups, coconut and olive oil, had mostly increased good chloresterol, with coconut oil increasing the most.

This study only examined three fats and only for a short amount of time. It was enough to jolt me back into healthier eating habits. Only four weeks of butter eating made a big impact, adding 30% more bad cholesterol. As for margarine, most no longer contains trans fats, which have been banned. However, I don’t like the taste. I for one am going switch to olive oil and when it comes to fat, I’ll read the label with an eye towards less saturated fat and no trans fat.

Which one will it be?

Is it the hand sanitizer?

You go through your day in a fog. You’re tired all day but jazzed at night. You get in the car and can barely drive. You have a headache and congestion and maybe a cough due to post nasal drip but no fever. You ask yourself, is it covid? Ask a second question: how much hand sanitizer did I use today?

In these times, I find myself drifting between normalcy and hypochondria. If I have a period of time when I can isolate, I am at peace, but if I have to go out, I might not be able to sleep afterwards. Yes, it could be anxiety. Or is it the hand sanitizer? Today, I got in the car for a grocery pick up. A delivery driver pulled up. I didn’t want to leave the package sitting on the porch. I put on a mask, got out, retrieved the package, got back into the car, and generously used hand sanitizer.

The grocery pick up involved popping the trunk for the grocery delivery, closing it, and driving away. But I felt bad, like I had stumbled in a hole. In fact, I got out of the car in the garage and I almost did stumble. Worried, I took my temperature. It was normal. Then, I thought through the chain of events and took a moment to review the hazards of the active ingredient in my hand sanitizer, ethanol. Here it is:

Do not breathe mist, spray, vapors
Wash exposed skin thoroughly after handling
Do not eat, drink or smoke when using this product

I had the sanitizer in my hot car even though another hazard reads: Store in a well-ventilated place. Keep cool.

From another site:

Inhalation: Inhalation of high concentrations may cause central nervous system effects characterized by nausea, headache, dizziness, unconsciousness and coma. Causes respiratory tract irritation. May cause narcotic effects in high concentration. Vapors may cause dizziness or suffocation. 

As a chemist, I should have known better than to use hand sanitizer in a hot car with the windows rolled up. It’s basically booze.

From a study in 2017 “Inhaled alcohol may be associated with enhanced behavioral effects including increased risk of addiction. “:

The study includes this chart:

From Alcohol Clin Exp Res
 2017 Feb;41(2):238-250.
 doi: 10.1111/acer.13291. Yale based reserch group

In other words, not much is known about inhalation of alcohol, but it does get into your blood more quickly and at a higher concentration than if you drink it. Alcohol can cause covid-like symptoms such as a headache and stuffy nose. Alcohol can make anxiety worse and cause sleep problems.

The bottom line is NOT that you should not use hand sanitizer. COVID is a dangerous virus. You must protect yourself. However: USE SPARINGLY AND IN A WELL-VENTILATED AREA!

And of course, the best protection is quarantine, followed by masking. Hand sanitizer should not be used as an excuse to allow gatherings or to force workers into dangerous situations. It’s not a panacea, only a caution, and it has its own drawbacks. A better alternative to school situations is probably to have hand washing stations with soap and water in classrooms, similar to what you find at outdoor concerts and music festivals.


In the bag: tips for the perfect coffee

Recently, the act of grinding coffee beans for the days’s cup struck me as pleasantly normal. Back when I was rushing off to an office and classroom, even something as small as grinding coffee was just one more obstacle to getting out the door. Whole bean coffee was in the “not worth it ” category, along with, at times, ironing. The semester from hell was over. Now, suddenly, I had a moment to appreciate the freshness and aroma of newly ground coffee. But what helps make coffee fresh? What keeps it fresh? And why does ground coffee smell so good?

Coffee beans undergo chemical reactions when roasted. This process creates hundreds of new chemicals.

Many of these chemicals are are good for you and and a few are bad. The good ones can “protect against gout (by lowering uric acid levels), tooth decay and gallstones… there is mounting and strong evidence for coffee providing some protection against type 2 diabetes.”  Coffee might even prevent Alzheimers disease.  Acrylamide is one of the few bad chemicals and more is found in in light roasts.

One thing that happens during roasting is the beans get lighter and more porous. The pores hold both carbon dioxide and the chemicals which give coffee its aroma. Of the many chemicals in coffee only a few are responsible for the aroma. Of these, a furan-2- methanethiol gets the most attention. Its odor has been described as a combination of nutty and burnt match. Clearly, the full range of aromas combine to give coffee its good smell. Medium roasts are most aromatic.

The good smell is created by less than 1% of the gases in coffee beans. Most of the gas trapped in the pores of a roasted bean is carbon dioxide. It makes up 1-2% of the weight of the roasted coffee.

Fresh coffee when brewed will have a delightful white foam called crema. This is made from carbon dioxide.

The way the coffee is roasted has a large effect on the gases trapped in the beans. Dark and medium coffees are highly impacted by roasting temperature and high temperatures release more gas–which you do not want. In the case of coffee, we want gas. Darker roasts are more porous and hold more gases to begin with. But the pores break down quickly when ground.

Keeping oxygen away is an important part of keeping coffee fresh. Carbon dioxide is found in highest concentrations in freshly roasted coffee. In a bag of coffee, carbon dioxide forms a protective atmosphere to keep oxygen away. Always close up your bag or canister of coffee to keep out oxygen and keep in carbon dioxide.

Grinding coffee will release up to half of the carbon dioxide within a few minutes and the grind will slowly lose the carbon dioxide over the course of days. Course ground coffee will lose the least carbon dioxide and fine ground the most. Keeping the bag closed will help prevent further loss.

An issue to be aware of when buying and drinking coffee goes further than the bag. Many coffee plantations are human rights violators, especially in Brazil. Many large suppliers of coffee have purchased coffee grown and picked using slave labor. Although coffee is originally from Africa, it was stolen and imported to South America and Haiti, along with Africans captured to tend it. Native people, particularly the Mayans, were also enslaved to bring us coffee.

This means that besides grinding beans before use & keeping the bag closed, the ideal cup of coffee will be Fair Trade.

Bulletproof is one such brand and here’s my favorite.

This company will let you select country of origin, are Fair Trade, and send you a clip to keep the coffee closed. They also advocate putting coffee in the freezer and I agree. The gases will be lost from the coffee pores much more slowly when cold.

There are plenty more to choose from should you do a search. Like grinding my coffee, paying attention to Fair Trade has not been a priority of mine. However, it will be in the future.

Thanks to this article for information on carbon dioxide in coffee:

Time-Resolved Gravimetric Method To Assess Degassing of Roasted Coffee, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2018, 5293-5300. Corresponding author is Chahan Yeretzian

Dirty Butts

Butts can keep away parasites in a nest but also spread poison and disease

Last week, while driving, I turned the corner on Main & University and a woman going the other direction in a white car sat at the stoplight. As I passed, she flung a cigarette butt in my direction from her open window. I had to wonder: do cigarette butts carry coronavirus?

Believe it or not, cigarette butts are the most prevalent trash–4.5 trillion are discarded annually world wide. They consist of cellulose acetate, a fairly standard plastic. Seventy-five percent of smokers admit to tossing their butts onto the ground or out car windows. They persist in the environment for a long time, and what’s caught in them flows out into the wide open spaces.

Chemists have been studying the environmental impact of cigarette butts on the environment. Being the kind of chemist who might study such a thing, an analytical chemist, I’ve attended talks about butt pollution. In one study, chemists at a university tested the ground at a pristine park and at a well known smoking area near by where butts littered the ground. No surprise, nicotine was found in the soil in the smoking area. More surprisingly, other chemists found that the butts emit vaporized nicotine and other toxins for up to a week after they’ve been used. Cigarette butts give off heavy metals such as lead and arsenic (which are toxic). They contain cholesterol (also in smoke according to a 1971 study). They leach plasticizers. Butts inhibit plant growth.They sicken kids who eat them.They are almost as dangerous as cigarettes themselves. Being near an ash tray is like smoking. (Some people advocate coffee grounds in ashtrays to soak up the smell.)

Sharing a smoke spreads all sorts of things–viruses, bacteria, flu, Hepatitis A. Cigs are not well regulated and are filled with toxic mold and bacteria. Do butts carry coronavirus? I can’t find any evidence. Yet, it seems likely they do.

New York is covered with butts and they have an outbreak.

People smoke most in Southeast Asia. They haven’t been hit hard by the virus, or are underreporting.

Even tidy Singapore has coronavirus. Health officials there are looking askance at disposable items such as napkins used in outdoor markets as “mini biohazards.” They note that birds will fly around with disposable items such as tissues. Birds also pick up cigarette butts, and sometimes feed them to their babies, not only in Singapore but across the globe.

The butts create water pollution. Even if they don’t spread coronavirus, which can live on surface for days so it is a possibility, they are harmful. People are rushing to stock up on toilet paper in case of a quarantine. It would be good if other butts, along with disposable napkins, cups, etc. were cleaned up as well.

A burning look at P (phosphorus) and its history

I swear, I’m not obsessed with urine, but we do need to talk about P, and by that I mean, the element phosphorus. It’s been in the news lately, allegedly used as a chemical weapon against children and civilians in Syria.

The story of phosphorus begins, ironically, with urine. Urine was a well-used chemical in ancient days, staring possibly with the Romans. It’s s source of ammonia and phosphorus which can be used for cleaning, tanning leather, and fertilizing crops. It was used to make tooth whitener and gunpowder and in the dye industry.

It makes sense in a strange way, that urine, plentiful and golden, would be used in experiments and alchemist Henning Brand used it in his quest to create gold in his lab. In 1660 he boiled urine and heated it in a furnace with plenty of stirring. The 1,500 gallons of urine transformed not into gold, but into a glowing, waxy substance. Although he was not sure of a use for it, other chemists soon noted it could catch on fire and produced burns that were slow to heal.

Once something is discovered, it has to be used and even exploited. What does a good alchemist do with a new material? Makes it into a tonic. Phosphorous works in conjunction with calcium to form bones. It’s the backbone of DNA. We need phosphorus to live. Our bones, teeth, and brain contain much phosphorus. The tonics were various amounts of phosphorus in water, cod liver oil, and phosphorus salts in pills. Cures for tuberculosis and mental instability were reported. It was also known to be a poison in high doses and used as such for killing rats, spouses, unwanted children, and inducing abortion. It’s very soluble in alcohol and rum disguised its garlic smell and flavor. Symptoms of phosphorus poisoning include jaundice, vomiting, and thirst–common with liver failure. Phosphorus poisonings were popular through the 1950s. Phosphorus remains in the intestines and can be extracted during an autopsy and detected by its tell-tale glow.

Today the element in phosphate form (combined with oxygen) can be found in all sorts of products: chicken nuggets, hotdogs, processed and spreadable cheeses, instant puddings and sauces, refrigerated bakery products, and beverages. It occurs naturally in eggs, diary products, meat, and chocolate. I found it on the label of several products in my kitchen including kids’ cereal, evaporated milk, Velveeta mac and cheese, BelVita bars, canned clam chowder, and muffin mix from the Amish Store near Chariton. It’s used to adjust pH and enhance flavor.

Count Chocula, anyone?
Evaporated milk: Not just milk

Although miracle cures were reported, the efficacy of phosphate tonics was never proven in the past, but today, people consume too much phosphorus. The excess is damaging to our bones, kidneys, thyroid, and cardiovascular systems.

What about matches? Before the discovery of phosphorus, they were made of sulfur dipped sticks and were unreliable. The white phosphorus friction “strike anywhere” match was invented around 1830. It was a striking success thanks to a tip made from white phosphorus. The new matches were called congreves or more commonly lucifers. They were 20% white phosphorus, 30% potassium chlorate (an oxidant), 15% sulfur, 10% chalk, and 25% glue. Rumors were that battlefields were raided for bones of men and horses–a rich source of phosphorus. Match boxes were works of art. However, the toxicity of white phosphorus became horribly apparent. Workers in match factories began experiencing bone degradation and sores, especially in their jaws! The condition called Phossy jaw was understandably painful and irreversible. Click here to see and read more about phossy jaw. In the 1870, people ate matches to commit suicide. Lucifers caught on fire when stepped on. Archduchess Matilda might have burned to death due to a dropped match. Boxes of matches caught fire when shaken.

Heating white phosphorus converts it to red phosphorus. It’s much less toxic but can’t be ignited by striking anywhere. The red phosphorus is on the striking pad and the match head is a mixture of phosphates, ignitable materials, and wax.

Give humanity credit– the last use developed for white phosphorus was as a weapon. White phosphorus has been used in warfare only since WWI. It’s incendiary, meaning it catches on fire when it contacts air. (It must be stored under an air resistant material such as oil.) It creates billows of smoke. It burns. It burns to the bone. It’s poisonous. The disfiguring effects include lowered immunity and last long after the burns heal. Thus, it’s banned as a weapon. The trouble is, no one cares to enforce the ban.

Phosphorous is also used in fertilizers since it’s essential for plant growth. However, humans use way too much of it, causing algae growth in natural waters. Believe it or not, we are mining so much phosphorous for fertilizer that we are depleting natural sources. If we deplete our mineral sources, such as apatite, we might have to go back to grinding bones and urinating as sources of P.

White phosphorus hazards diamond–highly toxic and flammable.

What is Enriched Uranium?

You many have heard of a consequence of the US dumping the Iran-nuclear deal. Iran has made enriched uranium.What is that and why should anyone care?

Uranium is a dense heavy metal that decays–meaning it’s radioactive and gives off particles and energy and transforms into a slightly lighter metal, thorium, which is also radioactive. It emits an alpha particle, the Mac truck of subatomic particles, which is also a helium nucleus. This is where earthly helium comes from! All forms of uranium are radioactive..but not the helium it emits. Don’t worry, your party balloons are safe. Uranium is unstable and thus radioactive. The word radioactive was coined by the Curies in 1898, with radio being related to ray as in a ray of light Many radioactive elements and nuclear reactions cause their surrounding to glow due to their energy. It’s slowly radioactive with all isotopes having long half-lives. It can be found in deposits across the globe.

Uranium can be made into a source of power when it undergoes fission. During fission, the core of the atom (the nucleus) is hit with a neutron and split into smaller pieces and new lighter elements are made. The lighter elements are more stable and the energy needed to hold the large unstable uranium together is released. The process is shown in the figure below. You can see that more neutrons fly out and if enough atoms of the right isotope of uranium are nearby, they split other uranium atoms. A chain reaction ensues and this keeps the energy release going. If the reaction is fast enough, a bomb is created.

Illustration showing a nuclear fission

Here’s the catch, not all forms of uranium undergo fission. Only the isotope with 92 protons and 143 neutrons in the nucleus, uranium 235 or U-235, is unstable enough to be broken in this fashion. And it’s not very plentiful. Only 0.7% of naturally occurring uranium is this isotope. And to allow for the chain reaction to occur, you need to concentrate this form of the metal. This is needed for both weapons grade and power reactor uranium but weapons grade uranium needs more concentration aka enrichment. This is not easy. Why does it take so much work? Chemical reactions occur with the outside of the atom–the electron cloud. This is an easy way to separate chemicals–by their different reactivities due to different electron clouds surrounding them.

All isotopes of uranium have the same cloud of 92 electrons. This means the isotopes have to be separated by mass. The uranium is reacted with fluoride and forms a gas, then is passed through a porous membrane which only lets the smaller 235 isotope through. Alternately, it might be centrifuged. There are a few other less efficient methods of enrichment. This process demands lots of energy. Monitoring the energy use of enrichment facilities is one way to watch to see if a country is working on producing weapons grade U-235.

What’s going on in Iran? They have used centrifuge technology to enrich uranium to a concentration of 4.5%. The allowed limit with the Nuclear Deal was 3.67%. However, it takes 90% enrichment to make a bomb because a bomb reaction must go faster with more U-235 atoms close to each other. Getting to this level is a huge challenge needing a high tech centrifuge. Yes, Iran can get there if the nuclear deal remains sour for years.

Right now, the world has a surplus of enriched uranium because of the many enrichment plants world wide. What country has a surplus of weapons grade uranium? The United States. Germany, the Netherlands, and Japan also have plenty of the stuff. Scientists worked hard to create the bomb. Some did it unknowingly and other suffered remorse at how it was used. Scientists approved the Nuclear Deal, they supported it, and scientific collaboration is suffering at its end.