Saturday, October 18, 2008

It's all interconnected, somehow, someway

Did you do the school experiment where you mashed up a spinach leaf, put a drop of it on a piece of filter paper and wicked alcohol through the spot? Did you see the green and yellow and red light-gathering pigments separate into distinct spots? Well, that is called chromatography (chromos, colors) and that is what I do. Unfortunately, there is an acute global shortage of the chemist's favourite solvent, acetonitrile. Let me tell you about that.

The monomer acrylonitrile is polymerized to make acrylic fibers for acrylic sweaters, industrial fabrics and rugs. Acetonitrile is a 3% by-product of the process. Acetonitrile is not actually made in chemical plants, it all comes out of this process. Now, auto sales are very slow, the global economy is tanking, and the recent hurricane in LA-TX has temporarily closed some chemical plants that affect acrylonitrile production. They aren't making as much acrylic rug fabric since cars aren't selling well. The result is an acute shortage in our favorite solvent. We actually use columns packed with little particles instead of filter paper these days, (that's what I help labs work with) and run water-acetonitrile mixtures through that to elute drugs and impurities, etc. No acetonitrile - no chromatography. Pharmas and biotechs are howling, my chemical distributor has no bottles to distribute, and life in the lab as we know it is disrupted. Who would think GM's problems would be affecting the Genentechs of the world? It's going to be one rocky economic ride for a bit.

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