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February 16, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 7

Bubble trouble

Bethany Halford's "What's That Stuff?" article on champagne needs some clarification (C&EN, Jan. 5, page 27). The "happy accident" of a second fermentation of still wine after bottling is a different kind of fermentation that happens to also produce carbon dioxide. The alcoholic fermentation that produces the wine does not stop with the onset of cold weather. It normally proceeds to completion, as it is significantly exothermic. Only the addition of an agent that causes yeast to stop working (such as brandy or sulfur dioxide) can stop the alcoholic fermentation. The fermentation that would occur in the springtime (and sometimes cause the container to explode) is malolactic fermentation, wherein malic acid is converted to lactic acid and carbon dioxide.

The second alcoholic fermentation to produce sparkling wine requires the addition of a "liqueur de tirage" consisting of a quantity of more yeast and sugar carefully measured to produce the desired gas pressure in the final product. These days, the malolactic fermentation is controlled, because it affects the taste of the wine (and its acidity). It can be avoided altogether or induced, at the discretion of the winemaker. Bottles of wine are no longer in danger of exploding.

A. E. Lippman
St. Louis

In the formation and lasting of "tiny bubbles" in champagne, not only is thermodynamics involved (Henry's law, in a first approximation), but a great deal of kinetics, too. There are two steps in bubble formation: nucleation (generation of nanobubbles) and growth of bubbles.

Since a new (gaseous) phase is formed within the liquid phase, a large energetic barrier (activation energy) must be overcome, due to the higher pressure inside the bubble than outside (above the liquid phase), with an amount equal to the capillary pressure p = 2s/r (s = surface tension, r = bubble radius). The smaller the bubble, the higher the pressure needed to generate it. If the solution contains other dissolved gases or small solid particles (impurities), they can act as nuclei, easing the generation of bubbles. That is the case of soda or mineral water, or of boiling ordinary tap water, which have smaller or larger amounts of air in solution.

In pure liquids, without suspensions or other dissolved gases, generation of bubbles is very slow, as in the case of champagne or soft drinks. Shocking or shaking the champagne bottle generates lots of nuclei, and opening it results in overflow of foam. Careful opening of the bottle (without shaking) generates no foam. Even when pouring the liquid into a clean glass, no foam or just a small amount of foam is formed; instead, bubbles appear once in a while and rise to the surface. In contact with the tongue, bubbles are massively released, to our joy.

The second step, the growth of bubbles, depends not only on the diffusion coefficient, as mentioned by Halford, but also on the mobility of molecules at the surface of the bubbles in the liquid. A high molecular mobility and good diffusion coefficient mean bubbles grow fast and vice versa.

In the case of champagne, both nucleation and bubble growth appear to be slow processes.

Gavril Niac
Cluj-Napoca, Romania

Fresh start for EPA?

C&EN's article about the departures of some of the Environmental Protection Agency's career enforcement lawyers--"EPA's Top Cops Resign"--may leave the impression that their leaving is bad news for the environment (C&EN, Jan. 12, page 8). The truth is the opposite, because they championed regulatory policy and an approach to enforcement that did more harm than good. Under EPA Administrator Carol Browner, their approach came to dominate EPA.

EPA's offices of enforcement and general counsel and the Department of Justice (especially during the Clinton Administration) fought every effort to make reforms to get results instead of simply imposing punishment and counting cases. Their approach delayed reforms and hurt EPA. They did great damage to what had been decades of growing consensus in the responsible business community in favor of cooperation with the government. In part, they did this by using enforcement instead of tightening rules to force changes in environmental policy.

As my first boss at EPA used to say, "Industry has the obligation to comply with environmental rules, but it has the right to know what the heck the rules are!" Using enforcement instead of rule-making violated this principle.

When enforcement drives environmental policy, it creates policies that are classic examples of "the perfect being the enemy of the good." This was perhaps most evident in a Superfund program that generated more litigation than cleanup and a new source review program under the Clean Air Act that discouraged modifications of industrial plants that would have benefited the environment and helped to preserve manufacturing jobs.

Were there companies deserving of enforcement? Of course there were and are, but the enforcement mind-set sees every failure as something to be punished, not a problem to be fixed. The damage done by the distortion of policy-making during the period of enforcement domination is even acknowledged (but usually privately) by many in the EPA program offices and state agencies.

It will take a long time to rebuild the political capital that was dissipated during the period of enforcement dominance. Moving forward with the process of returning policy-making to EPA and state program offices should result in policies that rely more on scientists and engineers and less on lawyers Such policies will advance the partnership approach, which will be good for the environment. A progress-driven, rather than punishment-driven, approach will also give a greater advantage to those companies that take their environmental responsibilities seriously.

Ernie Rosenberg
Arlington, Va.

Prying into prions

The recent discovery of a cow in the U.S. with bovine spongiform encephelopathy (BSE) has triggered a wave of concern and also highlighted how little we really know of these prion diseases (C&EN, Jan. 5, page 11). BSE seems to have originated with cows being fed protein from sheep infected with scrapie, another prion disease, and also seems to have been transmitted to humans who ate meat from infected cows--particularly if that meat was contaminated with neural matter from the infected cows.

The basic cause of these prion diseases is generally accepted to be the misfolding of a normal brain protein into a pathogenic configuration, which can then serve as a template for further misfolding of additional molecules of normal protein. This may indeed be the mode of action for the slow development of the diseases, but it cannot explain their transmission. This is the crucial missing link in our understanding of these diseases.

It is clear that misfolded proteins cannot survive the digestive process, be absorbed whole into the bloodstream, and then pass the blood-brain barrier. Some smaller molecule has to be responsible for initiating the misfolding. Moreover, this infectious agent is not only spread by eating infected body parts. Sheep transmit the disease to one another, and apparently also to goats, even though they are herbivorous. Similarly, another prion disease, chronic wasting disease (CWD), is now spreading in the Western U.S. among deer and elk--thus, also among herbivores and also crossing a species boundary. Transmission is not even necessarily through the digestive tract. In addition, a number of suspicious cases have raised the possibility that CWD is also being transmitted to humans.

These obvious facts have two very disturbing implications. First, once one cow has been infected, it is possible that the disease can be transmitted to healthy cows who never receive infected fodder. Second, if the infective agent moves through the bloodstream, then any body part of an infected animal can be infectious, not only the neural matter that may contain misfolded proteins.

For this reason, intensive research must focus on these missing links--how the diseases are actually transmitted between animals and even across species barriers. Until we know more of this, we are simply not in a position to make judgments on the safety of any meat products from these animals, or even of any contact with sick animals.

Edward Corcoran
Arlington, Va.

Opening up the books

Upon reading Charles P. Casey's ACS President's Message, I was beginning to think that all categories of chemists were addressed with the exception of the one that I am most interested in--the chemist who is individually employed, a consultant, retired, or a retired consultant (C&EN, Jan. 5, page 2). Then I came to the last page and things looked better. The reason: Casey's concluding remarks about "open access" to literature.

For us, the university library is our main literature search area, and since libraries are cutting subscriptions or opting out of printed editions in favor of electronic editions, it is becoming more difficult to access journals. Yes, you can read abstracts on publishers' Web pages, but to evaluate an article's figures, one has to pay to buy the whole article--trusting that the figures are the cogent ones you are looking for. Furthermore, the quality of electronic images is not always comparable to a well-printed image. Something has to be done, and I applaud Casey's remarks on this subject.

Ronald W. Smith
Lake Havasu City, Ariz.

Making a killing

The article about the increased costs of drug development, if it is truly an increase, points out another more damning fact about the drug industry (C&EN, Dec. 15, 2003, page 8). In a recent issue, the profits as a percentage of sales for both the chemical industry and the drug industry are noted to be an average of 5% for the chemical industry, the historical percentage for manufacturing industries, whereas the drug industry averages a bit over 20%, in general where it has always been.

Obviously, no matter what the drug industry has to pay for development costs, they make up for it with their greed and grotesque overcharging for their products. This is just like Charlie (Engine) Wilson, head of General Motors, who, when he appeared before Congress, was told, "You have come to us claiming hunger when in fact you are carrying a ham under each arm."

Until there is an acceptance of ethics in the "ethical drug industry," the ability of a large portion of the U.S. public to afford the necessary products of this industry will be nonexistent.

The U.S. should be ashamed that, whereas other much poorer countries have provided their citizens a national health service, the U.S. has consistently failed to do so. Though I am not a Mexican citizen, I can have complete health care here under Seguro Social for about $250 per year. In the U.S., I could not even afford one of my prescriptions for that amount for that period.

Ellis Glazier
La Paz, Mexico

Space: An expensive frontier

In light of the recent announcement by President George W. Bush on plans to establish a permanent manned station on the moon with an eventual manned mission to Mars, I feel that I must respond to an article on the International Space Station (ISS) (C&EN, Dec. 22, 2003, page 28). First, I commend C&EN for its attempt to report progress on the space station from a science perspective. The comment that I strongly question is attributed to Albert Sacco Jr., professor of engineering and director of the Center for Advanced Microgravity Materials Processing at Northeastern University: "I look at the ISS as a multi-billion-dollar tool, just like the beam line at a national lab, which costs about the same amount." This statement is, at best, misleading.

Obviously, I do not know which "beam line" he is referring to, but the "beam lines" that I am familiar with are those at the national user synchrotron radiation sources at the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory and the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Taking the facility that cost the most to construct as a worse-case scenario, the APS, construction costs were an estimated $1.2 billion in fiscal 2003 dollars, and construction of the approximately 40 beam lines was another $300 million, for a total cost of approximately $1.5 billion. This pales in comparison to the U.S. contribution to the ISS of $21.8 billion, as reported in the article.


Cost alone should not be the sole comparison; we should also compare the number of users of the respective facilities and the scientific productivity of each facility. At the APS, there were more than 2,700 users of the facility in 2003, with more than 500 publications in peer-reviewed journals as a result of work performed there. How many peer-reviewed publications have there been from science conducted at the ISS, and how many users of the facility for the $21.8 billion?

As a user of synchrotron radiation facilities for many years, I have been involved in trying to make the science conducted at the synchrotrons more visible to Congress, with the aim of increasing the funding for the Office of Science, the organization that, through its Office of Basic Energy Sciences, funds these national user facilities. When one compares the level of funding and scientific productivity of these facilities with that of the ISS, the U.S. taxpayer is getting a fantastic bargain with the "beam lines" at U.S. synchrotron radiation facilities.

Simon R. Bare
Glen Ellyn, Ill.

Jobs go overseas

With regard to your editorial titled "No Safety Net," I'm reading the same article over and over in newspapers and magazines about many of our U.S. industries (C&EN, Jan. 19, page 5). Jobs are being exported overseas in every field, including customer service. I think this is crazy. As public companies try to squeeze more and more profit out of less and less growth, they're grasping at any economic straw.

Now instead of talking about uncompetitive industries, as was the case in the 1970s, we're talking about uncompetitive labor. Since that stretches across the bulk of the economic activities, at some point we're going to lose a "critical mass" of gainfully employed citizens and living wages such that there are no U.S. markets except for those living on pensions and personal fortunes. There's only so much entrepreneurism that will be able to take up the slack.

Companies at some point are going to wake up to the fact that if they are all keeping only a handful of investors financially happy, that leads in the extreme to having only a handful of customers. Keeping a large workforce financially happy leads to a large market for your products. Henry Ford understood that, so it is not a radical idea.

Stanley D. Young
Fort Collins, Colo.

It is in the national interest of the U.S. that the export of high-tech jobs and contracts to low-wage countries is stopped. The presence of a healthy high-tech industry defines this country's leading role in a global economy. It is also a matter of national security, as our safety (drugs, software, military equipment, et cetera) should not depend on foreign sources.

High-tech jobs also come with higher wages, which appears to be the root of the problem from a corporate point of view. However, well-paid employees pay higher taxes, allowing governments to sustain a responsible society. A healthy high-tech industry creates a host of secondary jobs, from analytical services and patent lawyers to cleaners. The U.S., however, is spiraling down to an economy that borrows (foreign capital) and does not produce tangible goods, quality service, and intellectual property.

So what can be done? First, R&D and chemical products need to have even more added value to downright outsmart foreign competition. This will require a change in attitude from thinking about today's stock value to thinking about the future to secure a role for U.S. technology. Focusing on a minor improvement of an already existing drug as the new blockbuster, dwelling on existing patents, and developing "me-too" products are not signs of a future vision for the industry. The oil giants should start thinking about new sources of energy.

Second, chemistry education needs to be improved. B.S. chemists should leave campus at the same level as today's second-year graduate students, and Ph.D.s should be encouraged to seek foreign postdoc positions. The programs could be more like those found at European universities, where students are submerged in chemistry from day one. This will require a radical change in the thinking of the more liberal educators at U.S. universities. The high quality of U.S. chemists should persuade employers not to consider cost alone when deciding on the location of a new R&D or production facility.

The government should realize that a secure future is not one of a welfare state but that of a technologically advanced society. Funding of institutes such as the National Institutes of Health and universities should be improved, and in exchange their efforts should be focused on finding solutions. Tax incentives should be offered for new R&D and production facilities and start-ups. I also believe that the U.S. should seriously reduce the available number of student- and employment-based visas for foreign scientists from low-wage countries whose high-tech industry is on the rise and costing this country more jobs every day.

The U.S. economy is a flexible one though, and the flexibility should come from chemists as well by considering alternative careers that may be just as satisfying. Because at the end of the day, the person from the credit card company, calling you from Calcutta, does not care where the money to pay your overdue bill comes from.

Pieter Otten
Winchester, Calif.

I have been reading about the export of jobs to countries where wages are much lower. Corporate management justifies these exports with the huge savings they bring to their shareholders. How much do CEOs make in these low-wage countries? Just think how much we could save by exporting those management positions. Wouldn't that be poetic justice?

Thomas Brumfield
Williamsburg, Va.


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