Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Exxon to Produce Biofuel from Algae

The New York Times reports that Exxon Mobil will be investing $600 million to produce liquid biofuel from green algae for transportation purposes, in partnership with biotech company Synthetic Genomics -- though it could be 5-10 years before we see any large-scale commercial production of algae-based fuels. According to Exxon, algae has the potential to produce more than 2,000 gallons of fuel per acre per year, which is significantly more than the 650 gallons for palm trees, 450 gallons for sugar cane, and 250 gallons for corn. The biofuel derived from algae is supposedly similar in chemical structure to petroleum products and should be compatible with the existing transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, algae can be grown in areas that aren't suitable for farming food crops and could help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Apparently, Exxon and Synthetic Genomics plan to genetically engineer new strains of algae that will be able to absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

I was never a big fan of the idea of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels, especially when it means using crops that would otherwise be used to feed people -- there are still millions of starving people living on this planet of ours. Furthermore, to grow the crops at a scale that will make a difference, we would have to cut down even more forests to make way for farm land. Then there's the issue of carbon emissions, and using biofuels will not help the environment in that area either. However, in this case, if Exxon and Synthetic Genomics can pull it off, then this algae-based biofuel could be promising.

[Aside: Hydrogen is the cleanest fuel, but there are still so many hurdles in the way before it can even become practical. In the meantime, it makes sense to look at other fuel alternatives, but let's hope that we don't give up quite yet on hydrogen.]

The New York Times' Green Inc. blog has posted an article about the biofuel debate.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Where do guys find so much time to play video games??

This is a question that has puzzled me ever since I discovered that my husband is addicted to video games. Why is it that I'm always struggling to find free time to do stuff I like, while he's got time to play video games? And he can literally play for hours...

A new study from Michigan State University has found that girls spend less time playing video games compared to boys because they have less leisure time. Huh, what a surprise. Of the 276 MSU undergrads who participated in the study, female students spent much more time on jobs, homework, and other "obligatory" activities than male students. The male undergrads reported having almost twice as much free time per week than female undergrads. The study also confirmed what I could have guessed: once a gamer, always a gamer. Students, both male and female, who played more video games at an early age continued to do so. Amazingly, playing video games did not appear to impact a student's GPA. (According to my in-laws, my husband's grades actually got better after they got him a game system when he was younger.)

The study suggests that girls are possibly less interested in gaming because there are fewer women working in the game-design industry (it's 88% male!) such that games tend to be geared more towards guys. The researchers think that if there were more women involved in creating the games, then the games would naturally be more appealing to women. The researchers suggested that the ideal game for women would provide stress relief, brain exercise, more quality time with family/friends, and be playable in short chunks of time. I totally agree -- though playing video games still won't be the first thing I think of doing when I have some free time.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The modern maternity ward

Talk about sweet! While the last thing on a woman's mind when she's going into labor is, "Does the room have Wi-Fi?", apparently many hospitals are renovating their maternity wards to include such things as whirlpool tubs, Wi-Fi, more attractive decor and linens, and the availability of message therapists, portrait photographers, and manicurists. Why? Of course, they aren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts because they understand what a stressful, tiring, and painful time it is for moms and moms-to-be. The bottom line is: $$$. Hospitals -- now highly competitive businesses -- are trying to capitalize on the nation's crazy obsession with pregnancy and babies, trying to win over an apparently coveted demographic: women. That's because women tend to be the ones who take charge of their children's health care and take care of a sick or aging relative.

Glad to know that hospitals have our best interests in mind...

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Meth labs: Do you know the history of your home?

I've been watching the first season of the AMC television series called "Breaking Bad" in which the main character, a high school chemistry teacher, decides to use his chemistry skills to produce high quality methamphetamine with a former student, after he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Why? Because he wants to make sure his pregnant wife and teenage son, who has cerebral palsy, are financially secure once he is gone. I want to point out that while using your chemistry degree to make illegal drugs is bad, this is one of the few (if not the only) instances where a chemist is the main character on a TV series, and he's not your stereotypical nerdy, geeky, white male in a labcoat either. OK, maybe he starts out that way...

Anyway, I recently saw this article in the New York Times, and it's horrifying. I've heard about how once a residence has been the site of a meth lab, it's pretty much uninhabitable. What I can't believe is that such information can be withheld, and people have no idea that they're moving into and living in a toxic waste contaminated home. One homeowner later found out that there were high concentrations of meth on her kitchen countertops -- where she was sterilizing bottles and preparing baby food(!)

According to the article, people who live in these contaminated environments have succumbed to mysterious illnesses -- migraines, kidney disease, respiratory problems -- and pets have died. The fumes and chemicals from methamphetamine production can permeate drywall, carpets, insulation, and air ducts. The cost of cleaning a site can range from $5,000 - $100,000. Some states require cleanup and disclosure at the time of sale of the house's history. This obviously works really well, since one homeowner said that the former owner of their house -- who is now in prison -- had checked "no" on the disclosure form when asked if the house had ever been a meth lab...

Here is a document from the EPA titled "RCRA Hazardous Waste Identification of Methamphetamine Production Process By-products" that describes generally how methamphetamine is made, and it has a surprisingly lengthy list of chemicals commonly found at former meth labs. Here are some nastier ones: sodium/potassium/hydrogen cyanides, dimethyl sulfate, phosphine, sulfur trioxide, thionyl chloride, lead acetate, and the list goes on...

Unfortunately, there are no national standards governing meth contamination, and where there are state laws, the property owner is almost always held financially responsible for the cleanup. The CDC has a list of documents (alphabetically by state) that give a general overview of legislation, ordinances, policies, and regulations regarding methamphetamine, meth lab cleanup, and public health risks.

Do you know the history of your house?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Chemtastic Designs: Little Stinker, Little Screamer

I just posted two new designs at Chemtastic Designs.

"Little Stinker" is a contribution from my husband. The idea was his -- funny, considering that I'm the one who changes all the poo diapers -- but the design is mine. Apparently dimethyl sulfide is a main component of poo smell...

"Little Screamer" was inspired by our recent long distance plane trip with Jessie. She screamed almost the entire way... When we got off the plane, we passed by some other passengers who were on the plane with us, and I overheard them say, "Oh, look, it's the little screamer!"

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Genetically altered mice can convert fat into carbon dioxide?

Guess what? Researchers at UCLA have shown that mice can be genetically altered to convert fat into carbon dioxide... AND they can eat a diet of "fast food" and still stay skinny. Sounds like a dream, doesn't it?

The researchers were inspired by plants and bacteria, which digest fat differently than humans and mammals. Plant seeds typically contain a significant amount of fat, and when they germinate, a set of enzymes called the "glyoxylate shunt" help them convert the fat into sugar. The researchers then introduced the genes for these enzymes into cultured human cells and found that the cells converted the fat completely into carbon dioxide. Then they introduced the genes into the livers of mice and found that the mice stayed skinny even when they ate a high-fat diet, and they also showed lower cholesterol levels and lower fat levels in the liver. What happened to all the fat? Well, it wasn't converted into sugar. It was converted into carbon dioxide!

Could you imagine if all the people in the world were treated with this "glyoxylate shunt therapy" and went on their merry way eating tons of fatty foods with no *apparent* consequence -- how much more greenhouse gases would we be adding to the atmosphere? :)

Not sure why, but I keep thinking of the humans in WALL-E ...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Recycling -- Bad for the Environment?

Who knew that recycling could be bad for the environment? Discover Magazine points out that while recycling is better than tossing in the trash, problems arise when people don't pay attention to the type of plastic they're throwing in the recycling bin, mixing plastics that shouldn't be mixed together. Why? Because the presence of other types of plastic or foreign materials like food can ruin an entire batch of recycled plastic. Of course, the plastic is first sorted at a sorting plant prior to recycling, but the automated sorting process isn't perfect, and any contamination will compromise the strength and durability of the recycled plastic that is produced. Poor quality recycled plastic will just lead manufacturers to use more new plastic instead -- and this is where recycling can be bad for the environment.

The Daily Green has a nice slideshow describing what the different recycling symbols and numbers mean.

Our city only collects number 1 (PET or PETE - polyethylene terephthalate) and 2 (HDPE - high density polyethylene) plastics for recycling. I'm very conscientious about sorting out plastic at home, but sometimes it can be tricky. I've seen some fresh fruit packaging that looked like it could be PETE, but surprisingly it turned out to be polystyrene (PS, number 6 plastic)...

Horizon Organics and Puppy Mills???

I was rather disappointed to find out that Horizon Organics has been linked to a puppy mill in Lancaster County, PA. B&R Puppies -- which was cited a year ago for keeping dogs in filthy cages and not vaccinating them -- has apparently been supplying milk to Horizon. Horizon sent an inspector to B&R and confirmed this, leading the company to suspend the farmer, who has since closed his dog-breeding business. Believe it or not, this has allowed him to continue supplying milk to Horizon. Due to the efforts of Bill Smith, who has dedicated his life to fighting puppy mills, Whole Foods has sent out a request to all its vendors saying that it will not accept any products that come from farms where dogs are mistreated.

I guess there's just no way for big companies to monitor every little detail in their business, but it does make you wonder about the quality and source of the food you eat from "trusted" brands.

New, Safer Form of Acetaminophen

Following up on my previous post about acetaminophen... Apparently, scientists in Louisiana have developed a way to scale up production of a safer form of the drug, which had previously been difficult to produce in large quantities. This alternate form of acetaminophen reportedly has similar potency to the original but with a lower risk of liver toxicity. So far, they are able to produce the drug in multigram quantities with 99% purity.

Monday, July 13, 2009

FDA Wants to Ban Popular Painkillers Containing Acetominophen

Apparently, the FDA is thinking of banning painkillers like Vicodin (hydrocodone + acetominophen) and Percocet (oxycodone + acetominophen) because they contain... acetominophen, best known as "Tylenol." Acetaminophen is added in the formulations because it acts on different pain receptors than hydrocodone and oxycodone. An FDA advisory panel argues that acetominophen can cause liver damage if it is taken at high doses and is urging the FDA to lower the recommended maximum doses for the drug. The issue with Vicodin and Percocet is that patients may not realize that they contain acetominophen and may mix them with other drugs that contain acetominophen, like NyQuil and Theraflu, and there is some research that suggests the possibility of greater liver damage with these two painkillers. If the ban on Vicodin and Percocet goes through, doctors will have to figure out how to manage their patients' pain using other (and perhaps more complicated) methods. Of course, the pharmaceutical industry is planning to fight the ban, since prescription drugs containing acetominophen generated $1.4 billion in sales in 2008.

I always thought that acetominophen was the typically recommended over-the-counter painkiller because it was "mild" -- I guess in that it doesn't irritate your stomach like aspirin and ibuprofen can. I'm also aware that combining the use of acetominophen with alcohol is bad for the liver -- so don't try to take Tylenol to take care of that awful hangover! Apparently, it's the painkiller of choice for pregnant women, as it's recommended for use in all stages of pregnancy for short-term fever and pain relief. While it's been safely used as the standard remedy for fever and pain in children, parents need to be careful not to mix Tylenol with other medicines, such as cold medicines which often already contain acetominophen or contain alchohol in their formulations. The Mayo Clinic has published an article that contains some useful information, as well as a dosage chart for children that also lists the toxic amount over a 24-hour period for a given child's weight.

I used to be a big fan of Tylenol, but I found that it took too long to take effect, so I've mostly switched to Advil (ibuprofen), and I don't take it unless I absolutely need to. I think I was given prescription strength Motrin (also ibuprofen) both when I had wisdom tooth surgery and my c-section, and I recall feeling some withdrawal symptoms, like headaches, when I stopped using it. The nurses and doctors at the hospital called me "iron woman" when they found out I stopped taking the Motrin 3 days after surgery. :)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Who owns your favorite organic food brands?

Did you know? Big corporations own many popular organic brands, and they don't really want the consumer to know about it. For example, brands like Back to Nature, Cascadian Farm, and Odwalla are actually owned by Kraft, General Mills, and Coca-Cola. Apparently, since 2002 when the government implemented organic standards, these large companies have been quietly acquiring popular organic brands in a bid to buy the consumer loyalty that comes with these brands -- though they don't want to advertise this, since it could damage the "natural" image that they're paying for. Michigan State University professor Phil Howard created a chart that shows who owns what in the organic food industry.

Jessie drinks Horizon milk and eats Stonyfield Farm yogurt. We eat Kashi cereal. Horizon is owned by Dean Foods, Stonyfield Farm is owned by Danone (Dannon), and Kashi is owned by Kellogg... Not surprisingly, these large corporations are also introducing their own lines of organic products. I've also noticed that supermarket chains like Kroger have introduced their own organic products as well, and interestingly, they don't put them in the organic food section of the store. They put their organic products right next to the regular stuff. Hmm...

For further reading, there are a bunch of articles on the topic of "corporate organic food" on the Cyber-Help For Organic Farmers website.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I'm the natural mosquito repellent...

I got bitten like crazy by mosquitoes this past July 4th. It's my own fault because I don't like to use insect repellent because I don't want to absorb stuff like DEET through my skin. Besides, when I've actually succumbed to using mosquito repellent, I still get bitten. N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET), the active ingredient in the most effective insect repellent formulations, is absorbed through the skin in varying amounts depending on its concentration and the presence of other chemicals (such as alcohol) in the product. Furthermore, once in the body, DEET can cross the placenta in pregnant women. Now if I were going to be in an environment where there was a very high risk of catching mosquito-borne illnesses, like West Nile Virus, malaria, or encephalitis, then I would use it, since the benefits outweigh the risks.

In any case, I was the mosquito repellent for everyone else at the party, since all the mosquitoes were attracted to me... Now, recently, I got excited when I saw the ads for the new OFF! Clip On Mosquito Repellent. What a great idea, I thought. The device is pretty simple. The "refills" consist of a piece of paper that has been impregnated with the active ingredient, and a little battery-powered fan disperses the repellent in the air around you. Then I wondered what the active ingredient was. Metofluthrin. Metofluthrin vaporizes pretty readily at room temperature, which makes it ideal for this application. Then I looked more carefully at the EPA report on the chemical, and was somewhat disturbed to find that it has been classified as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans." Great. If this is indeed the case, I'm not sure I want to be breathing in this stuff as it's dispersed in the air around me. It's still a relatively new chemical, so who knows?

Here's the California Department of Pesticide Regulation Public Report on Metofluthrin.

How well does the OFF! Clip On mosquito repellent work? People I know claim that it works well only if you're not moving too much. For example, wearing it while walking your dog will probably not work too well, because by the time the repellent has been dispersed in the air around you at any given moment, you will have moved away from that location...

There are some plant-based mosquito repellents, such as citronella, geraniol, p-menthane-3,8-diol (from eucalyptus), and soybean oil, but just because they seem more "natural" doesn't mean they're healthier. They also have their own health risks.

Monday, July 6, 2009

How do they make fireworks in different shapes?

We missed out on the fireworks this year. The show was after Jessie's bedtime, plus, at her age (14 months) she'd probably be more terrified than excited about all the loud booms. Chris and I miss seeing fireworks. The last time we saw a real fireworks show was in 2006, I think. My favorite types of fireworks are the kind that explode into those giant expanding 3D balls, and the blue ones -- the most expensive color. The blue color comes from copper salts, such as copper(I) chloride, which is unstable at high temperatures, so the firework has to burn bright enough to be seen, but it can't get too hot. Here's a list of metal salts and the colors that they produce in fireworks.

Have you ever wondered how they make fireworks that produce shapes like stars and hearts? Apparently they paste the metal salt pellets on a piece of paper in the desired pattern, and then place explosive charges above and below the paper in the shell. When the pellets go off, they spread out in the same pattern as they were arranged on the piece of paper. Cool!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

What did kids play with before electronic toys existed??

Have you noticed that practically every toy has some sort of electronic component to it these days? Before I had Jessie, I had decided that I didn't want my kid to play with toys that made annoying noises, but that's pretty much impossible, unless you restrict them to playing with traditional toys like building blocks, stuffed animals, dolls, etc. But now, I'm guilty of accepting and buying (oh no!) toys for Jessie that make noise... Sigh. She has plenty of non-electronic toys as well, and she plays with them just as much, so I can't say whether "hi tech" toys are better. I just hope she grows to like LEGOs as much as I did when I was a kid. I think LEGOs are one of the simplest toys out there that will encourage kids to be creative.

Anyway, getting back to electronic toys... I never thought about this until I saw the crossed-out wheelie bin symbol on many of Jessie's toys. You think about recycling your cell phone or computer or other electronic devices, but do you think about recycling your kid's electronic toys? That crossed-out wheelie bin symbol means you can't just throw that toy in the trash, you need to recycle it with other electronic waste. Here's a great website with information about recycling and even composting.

I'm wondering how aware parents are about this and whether they're disposing of their kids' electronic toys properly...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hilarious: 'Sleep Training - A Baby's View'

We recently came back from a trip to Taiwan, and the 12-hour time difference made it very difficult to get Jessie back to her normal sleep schedule. We basically had to sleep train her all over again... It was a painful experience... In fact, it was even more painful than the first time we sleep trained her. In any case, if you've ever tried to sleep train a baby, then you will appreciate how funny this article is. It's called "Sleep Training - A Baby's View":

OK, here's my situation. My Mommy has had me for almost 7 months. The first few months were great--I cried, she picked me up and fed me, anytime, day or night. Then something happened. Over the last few weeks, she has been trying to STTN (sleep thru the night). At first, I thought it was just a phase, but it is only getting worse. I've talked to other babies, and it seems like it's pretty common after Mommies have had us for around 6 months. Here's the thing: these Mommies don't really need to sleep. It's just a habit. Many of them have had some 30 years to sleep--they just don't need it anymore. So I am implementing a plan. I call it the Crybaby Shuffle. It goes like this:

Night 1--cry every 3 hours until you get fed. I know, it's hard. It's hard to see your Mommy upset over your crying. Just keep reminding yourself, it's for her own good.

Night 2--cry every 2 hours until you get fed.

Night 3--every hour.

Most Mommies will start to respond more quickly after about 3 nights. Some Mommies are more alert, and may resist the change longer. These Mommies may stand in your doorway for hours, shhhh-ing. Don't give in. I cannot stress this enough: CONSISTENCY IS KEY!! If you let her STTN (sleep through the night), just once, she will expect it every night. I KNOW IT'S HARD! But she really does not need the sleep, she is just resisting the change. If you have an especially alert Mommy, you can stop crying for about 10 minutes, just long enough for her to go back to bed and start to fall asleep. Then cry again. It WILL eventually work. My Mommy once stayed awake for 10 hours straight, so I know she can do it.

Last night, I cried every hour. You just have to decide to stick to it and just go for it. BE CONSISTENT! I cried for any reason I could come up with. My sleep sack tickled my foot. I felt a wrinkle under the sheet. My mobile made a shadow on the wall. I burped, and it tasted like pears. I hadn't eaten pears since lunch, what's up with that? The cat said "meow". I should know. My Mommy reminds me of this about 20 times a day. LOL. Once I cried just because I liked how it sounded when it echoed on the monitor in the other room. Too hot, too cold, just right–doesn't matter! Keep crying!! It took awhile, but it worked. She fed me at 4am. Tomorrow night, my goal is 3:30am. You need to slowly shorten the interval between feedings in order to reset your Mommies' internal clocks.

P.S. Don't let those rubber things fool you, no matter how long you suck on them, no milk will come out. Trust me.

It's very therapeutic, even for when you've just had a rough day with the kid. I already feel better. :)