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June 6, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 23

Chemistry not so appealing

The lesson is clear from the employment statistics assembled by Michael Heylin that a bachelor's degree in chemistry no longer commands a premium in the marketplace, nor does it ensure a position upon graduation (C&EN, April 18, page 51). Similar salaries and even better opportunities for employment are available to those who choose not to face the great obstacles to obtaining a bachelor's degree in chemistry--these students can get away with lesser degrees, lower grades, a less demanding curriculum, and much less academic effort.

What does this say to the aspiring young scientist? That one must desperately want a career in chemistry, since the financial attraction is minimal, if not nonexistent. While this will not discourage those who are motivated, the lack of difference in pay between an exceptional student and those barely graduating is negligible. The field of chemistry has a problem when there is no financial appreciation for the work of young scientists, forcing them into other professions with a brighter economic future that require less academic achievement.

Nelson Marans
Silver Spring, Md.

Let's be practical

F. David Doty's letter "Biofuels versus Hydrogen" was extremely informative (C&EN, March 14, page 6). The U.S. should be vigorously pursuing the directions detailed in that letter. Someone (I do not recall who it was) once declared, "Hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and it always will be the fuel of the future." Right on. The same could also be said for hydrogen fusion. The money spent on these two futuristic problematic sources of energy would be much better spent on less esoteric and more practical solutions to this country's energy needs.

Eric Brown
Delavan, Wis.

The common green thread

There is a connecting thread among several articles in the March 21 issue of C&EN that some of your readers may have missed: mercury (page 11), arsenic (page 14), an accident in Salt Lake City (page 34), railroad security and terrorism (page 35), accidents with chlorine (page 35), homeland security (page 38), climate change (pages 40 and 47), and biocatalysis (page 41).

The connecting thread is the need for green chemistry, which tries to minimize waste and the use of toxic chemicals while using a minimum of energy and basing processes on renewable raw materials wherever possible. The adoption of inherently safer chemistry would reduce the severity of many of the problems reported above. For example, adding more guards and building higher fences around chemical plants will do little to deter a suicide bomber who comes by air. But what terrorist would attack a brewery, which is what a plant using biocatalysts amounts to?

Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) introduced a bill in the last Congress that called for chemical plants to evaluate green processes to replace their conventional ones. (Such laws have worked well in Massachusetts and New Jersey, often saving money.) The Corzine bill did not pass. The House passed a green chemistry bill by a large bipartisan majority in the last Congress, but it stalled in the Senate. Perhaps it is time to reintroduce such legislation.

Albert S. Matlack
Hockessin, Del.

Pondering potash

In the News Of The Week item "Potash Projects," I was surprised to read a statement indicating that potash is potassium chloride (C&EN, April 18, page 10). It is true that the "potash" industry refers to the potassium chloride that it mines as potash, but this is chemically in error. Potash is not actually the chloride, but rather mostly potassium carbonate, often with some hydroxide and sulfate, plus a very little bit of the chloride.

As I learned in my high school chemistry classes, potash was originally made from the ashes left over after burning wood, in particular hardwoods such as beech, oak, and elm. The wood ashes were then extracted with water and evaporated in iron pots; hence the name "pot-ash." Potash crops up as parts of the old names for may potassium compounds, such as caustic potash (KOH) and muriate of potash (KCl), and of course the name of the element potassium in turn has its roots in the word potash.

Potash has quite an interesting history. It first became important in Europe for soap and glassmaking after the fall of the Roman Empire. In the mid-18th century, demand for potash in England dramatically increased because of the burgeoning mill industry, in which potash soap, or "fulling sope," was used to wash wool before it was woven. The yield from burning wood was very low and might be considered a classic example of an unsustainable agricultural practice.

The increasing demand could not be met from the already severely depleted British forests, and potash was imported first from Russia, then subsequently from the American colonies. Potash thus became America's first industrial chemical, and the U.S. remained the world's leading producer until about 1860, when mining of deposits of potassium chloride, then called muriate of potash, began in Germany. Presumably someone dropped the "muriate" part of the name; the product of the mining then being referred to as just "potash." Today, "potash" demand is higher than ever, with the primary use in the manufacture of fertilizer.

Graham N. George
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

Outsourcing's pollution perils

Outsourcing is in part cheaper because the countries doing such work often lack the full range of regulations that folks in the U.S. consider reasonable. These regulations are in place to protect the populace and the environment. They aren't in place to punish the chemical industry. I just noticed a report in the New York Times describing a large riot in China due to poor environmental controls on adjacent chemical factories (apparently there are 15 of them in the local area).

Now I'm hard-pressed to remember any rioting in recent U.S. history due to chemical pollution. That means it must be pretty bad over there, particularly given the penalties for rioting in China, which, I've heard, can include torture and death. In my opinion, as the concept of "responsible care" would indicate, chemical companies from the industrialized world better make very certain that the manufacturers they deal with in the developing world are themselves being good citizens. This is an entirely reasonable thing to do.

It may be that the companies in China, for instance, that international companies are dealing with are the cream of the crop and don't create an unreasonable amount of pollution. Still, it would be nice to see more mention of issues like these in C&EN. All I ever see is glowing coverage of outsourcing, which to me just equates with loss of white-collar research jobs in the U.S. Oh, and I see lots of complaints that there aren't enough new chemists and engineers being produced in the U.S. That seems odd, given the outsourcing trends. Ph.D.s in China and India cost a tenth of a U.S. Ph.D., after all.

David Mosley
Cambridge, Mass.

Speaking a common language

The May 9 issue of C&EN produced a state of cognitive dissonance. I encountered articles at the forefront of our science that questioned such long-held approximations as the Franck-Condon principle (page 7) and noted the creation of a new journal to report work on the boundary between chemistry and biology (page 11). Unfortunately, I also came across an article that questioned the skills of K-12 teachers of science, the work ethic of today's students, and the level of excitement about science created by our introductory courses (page 29). The same issue contained an article in which Peter-Alexander Wacker lambasted the inflexibility of the German academic system (page 16). The transition to a state of dissonance was completed while reading the article on Diels-Alderase enzymes, which noted that theoretical studies by my friend and ex-colleague William L. Jorgensen suggested that a Michael-aldol reaction pathway had transition states that were 17.7 and 12.1 kcal per mole more stable than the Diels-Alder pathway (page 38).

It has been more than 100 years since Giovanni Giorgi showed how to produce a rational, coherent set of base units for measurement, starting with the units of meter, kilogram, and second. Perhaps by the 50th anniversary of the 11th Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures, which promulgated the International System of Units in 1960, we might be able to convince our colleagues, if not the general public, of the convenience of using a common set of units across the science of chemistry. We might reach the point where ACS journals no longer publish papers that use units such as kilocalorie per mole.

We might even admit that part of the problem we face for the future of science is not the result of K-12 teachers or the students who enter our classes. That, in some ways, we are as inflexible as the German academics. We might admit that it is easier to put a barrier in the path toward understanding of chemistry among students than it is to adopt a common set of units that would not only allow students to make connections among the subdisciplines of chemistry as they go from one course to another, but, perhaps, enhance communication across boundaries between chemistry and biology, physics, or engineering.

George M. Bodner
West Lafayette, Ind.

PubChem versus CAS

In "Database Debate," C&EN noted controversy over the National Institutes of Health's database of chemical structural information, PubChem (April 25, page 5). The article reports statements by officials of Chemical Abstracts Service that "PubChem has overstepped its function" in producing this publicly accessible online database.

I presume that NIH would like to associate CAS Registry Numbers with the substances in this database and that CAS not only has refused to provide them, but views PubChem as a turf incursion.

The world has changed since CAS was the best source for abstracts of the chemical literature. We no longer require leagues of abstract writers, since most journals require submissions to include an abstract. Even interpreters, although still essential, have a diminished role with the advent of language-conversion software.

Our library has dropped its subscription to hard-copy Chemical Abstracts and funnels requests for literature searches through a single subscriber. For most purposes (in a health department), services from other search providers such as Ovid and ISI overlap what would be provided by CAS, and the expense is one we can do without.

In general, the American Chemical Society has done an admirable job of adapting the literature under its control with the advent of the Internet. Most, if not all, issues of the society's journals are accessible to subscribers under terms that compare favorably with those offered by other publishers.

This enlightened use of the Internet is not entirely true of CAS, which jealously guards every bit of information under its control. It could be argued that the CAS number is the most important unique descriptor of a substance and is thereby public currency which should be granted freely. It is a datum that can provide a link to all scientific literature for a substance and thus will bring people (not just chemists) to the ACS publications pertinent to their needs; these people could purchase that information for a small fee.

CAS has the ability to provide a database, not unlike PubChem, and the question becomes not one of NIH overstepping its function, but of CAS failing to adapt to potential new markets for its information. I pose this question: Why won't CAS provide me, a dues-paying chemist, with the information that PubChem is offering to the public? A follow-up question is this: Why won't CAS open to every person that portion of its database which would increase the accessibility of the chemical literature? This would not only benefit the public, but also the publishers of that information.

Robert G. Briggs

Albany, N.Y.

The article about the new NIH PubChem open-access chemical database is quite interesting to me, as a scientist in a small company. While I understand the view by ACS that a publicly funded entity ought not compete directly with private enterprise, I wonder if the emergence of the service is at all due to the fact that Chemical Abstracts, in the form of SciFinder, is now restricted at college libraries to college students, staff, and faculty. Chemical Abstracts on paper has always been freely available, and I find it ironic that just as chemical information is more accessible than ever via computers, access to it is now on an ability-to-pay basis. Large companies can afford this access, but small companies cannot. And this is at a time when overseas competition is greater than ever.


Jon Kremsky
Arlington, Mass.

LNG: A wise choice?

The cover story on Liquefied Natural Gas prompts me to ask whether a vigorous policy of globalizing the natural gas market and constructing vastly expanded LNG capabilities is the right policy direction for the U.S. (C&EN, April 25, page 19). I recognize that natural gas is a resource on which we depend heavily and that is in declining production within the lower 48 states, but seeking to expand our dependence on it by increasing imports of LNG is problematic for at least three reasons.

First, it will do nothing for our balance-of-trade problems, which are already staggering. Second, it will increase our energy dependence on resources that are now controlled by nations with whom we have generally poor international relations. And third, this policy will not move us in the direction of creating a sustainable energy supply base for our economy--a direction that we need to pursue much more vigorously than we are now doing.

Kenneth Piers
Grand Rapids, Mich.

On page 21 of "LNG Weighs Anchor," C&EN states, "In 1944 ... the Cleveland LNG storage plant exploded, killing 128 people, injuring more than 200."

The plant did not explode. One of three aboveground LNG storage tanks developed a crack in its cold steel hull that allowed the liquefied gas to leak onto the ground. The "river" of liquid gas quickly caught on fire. The unquenchable fire killed the workers trying to escape the plant, plus the people living in the neighborhood. I was a research fellow at Case Institute of Technology at the time, working for Matthew Braidech, who was hired to investigate the cause of that terrible accident.

Harry Gilbert


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