Humourous ups and downs, veterinary pharmaceuticals and a carbon capture query.

Cover to cover

I’d like to commend the Chemistry World team on a great September 2013 issue. I’ve always enjoyed browsing the magazine but I found myself reading most of the articles in this issue. 

I found ‘Call to arms on data integrity’, thought provoking. It is disappointing that with the pressure to publish papers, scientists feel the need to manipulate data. It seems researchers will do anything to show how great their results are. We must be honest about all our results, then perhaps we will be more credible in the eyes of the public and each other. 

I also laughed with Derek Lowe’s article ‘The never-ending story’, regarding keeping up with literature. I’m currently finalising my PhD thesis and it is becoming near impossible to always stay current. I agree with Philip Ball’s opinion on ‘Putting the “I” in science’ – I prefer the personal ‘voice’ because I don’t feel separated from my work and would like to use it when communicating my research. 

I particularly enjoyed all the articles on diversity. The articles are collectively well balanced and show how ‘unbalanced’ the chemical sciences are with regards to attracting and retaining a variety of people. I attend a number of chemistry-related conferences and one-day meetings and see very few to no other fellow women of African descent. I always ask myself: ‘Why is this, and what can I do to help change it?’

So well done to all on a truly great issue.

E Mwenesongole

Cambridge, UK

We don’t need no specialist education

I was interested to read the article ‘Inspiring the next generation’ and concur that high quality teaching, curricula and assessments are vital.

However, I am unconvinced this will automatically be achieved by the Royal Society of Chemistry’s ideal of all post-14 students being taught by a specialist. I have had chemistry graduate colleagues with decent degrees whose knowledge of aspects of the curriculum was insecure, particularly A-level physical chemistry and even combining half-equations and basic mole calculations. 

Of course, forcing unwilling non-specialists to teach chemistry is wrong, and unenthusiastic or inadequately knowledgeable teachers are a problem. However, I must confess to a bias: I am a maths graduate (and teacher), but taught GCSE chemistry for 15 years. My non-specialist status never prevented my going beyond the specification, or stopped my students being enthusiastic, achieving highly and progressing to A-level. I am surely not the only non-specialist who loves the subject and aims to stretch and inspire their pupils. By all means, replace us with enthusiastic, knowledgeable specialists if they are to be found, but don’t judge on qualifications alone.

I also have mixed feelings about Peter Wothers’ suggestion that assessments become more challenging, though I do not deny the need for more challenging material. Promoting thinking and problem-solving rather than rote learning is desirable, but a significant portion of students in the A-level chemistry cohort are taking it to access medically-related degrees; such students (even those who are very successful in their degrees) often seem to find chemistry their toughest subject. 

C Brown

Birmingham, UK

Carbon capture queried

The article on ‘Chemistry’s grand challenges’ mentions carbon dioxide capture by chemical means, citing Peter Styring at University of Sheffield, UK, and is very misleading in several ways. 

The idea is misguided to begin with: to match human use of fossil fuels you need to create by far the largest industry ever, covering 1000 Earth surfaces. It would create huge environmental problems even at a small scale and also use up the energy sources we have available. 

Mechanical pumping of CO2 underground is similarly expensive and futile. Norway has built a facility in Mongstad at a cost so far exceeding £500 million, which will probably never be taken into ‘production’.

Styring also argues that new catalysts could make CO2 a building block in chemical industry, evidently forgetting that catalysts do not remove the need for adding huge amounts of energy to the process. CO2 is an end product on the energy scale. 

Better leave carbon capture to life processes under the Sun and photosynthesis – the basis for all life in the normal sense on Earth.

P Stilbs FRSC

Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden

Dog’s life

Thank you for publishing an article on the world of veterinary pharmaceuticals. As a vet with a partner who receives Chemistry World, it was good to read something in my own field. 

However, I want to correct an error in the first paragraph, regarding the effects of chocolate cake on dogs: while normal chocolate does contain theobromine, which is toxic to dogs and is metabolised much more slowly than in humans, it does not produce renal failure. The normal range of toxic effects of theobromine runs from vomiting, diarrhoea, excitation and convulsions to arrhythmias, collapse and death. A dog may well suffer renal failure if, instead of chocolate, the cake is a fruit cake, as approximately 10% of dogs develop proximal renal tubular necrosis in reaction to grapes or raisins.

C Williams MRCVS

By email

Apiarist accuracy

As a beekeeper, I have to take exception to the inaccurate and misleading inset box which dealt with ‘Bees’ disease’ in an otherwise informative, if rather US-biased, article on the challenges in veterinary medicine

The idea of bee medicine is not, as the article states, a recent one; antibiotics have been used for bees in the UK for about 50 years. Also, in combating the varroa mite, pyrethroids are of little use in the UK as the mite has developed resistance, and the organophosphate insecticides mentioned are not licensed in the UK, although they may be obtained from Europe, via a vet. Further, AFB and EFB are not pests but bacterial infections, caused by Paenibacillus larvae and Melissococcus plutonius, respectively.

The article muddies the water with talk of colony collapse disorder. Considerable resources have been thrown at this and the clear message is that it is multi-factorial, while the key factors remain elusive. The sweeping statement that it is likely to respond to veterinary medicine once the syndrome is unravelled seems rather naïve. The final observation that honey might be subject to controls akin to those of milk is already the case – honey extracted from colonies that have had an oxytetracycline treatment is quarantined for at least six months before it is allowed to enter the food chain.

One becomes accustomed to reading nonsense about chemistry in the popular press but now I read beekeeping nonsense in my professional journal.

R Smith CChem FRSC

By email

And into the fire?

While reading ‘Phasing out fire retardants’, I wondered how likely a future ban on antimony oxide will be. 

Antimony oxide is commonly used as a synergist with a halogenated additive, but it has been reported that zinc stannate and zinc hydroxystannate can be used as replacements. I also wonder how the new flame retardants will behave under ‘abuse’ conditions; will objects made from the new plastics function well after being abused? 

In the quest for less toxic and more environmentally friendly products we need to avoid creating products that will fail early and then contribute to environmental despoliation. While we need to minimise the environmental impact of objects, the failure of plastics can exacerbate or cause an accident. For example, the sooner a power, command or data cable fails during an accident the harder it will be to mitigate the accident or gather data to help prevent later accidents. 

The electrical insulation resistance of PVC cables containing non-toxic calcium carbonate can decrease during a Fukushima type accident. When PVC is irradiated, it forms hydrogen chloride, which reacts with calcium carbonate to form calcium chloride, which is hygroscopic and a strong electrolyte. I would expect that the electrical performance of a PVC cable stabilised using a toxic organotin or lead salt would be better in such a loss of cooling accident under the same combination of radiation and humidity. (Dialkyl tin dichlorides and lead(ii) chloride are poorly soluble in water.) 

However, sometimes you can get the best of both worlds: a fire retardent halogen-free plastic cable will not exhibit this failure mode as it is unable to form metal chlorides.

M Foreman CChem MRSC

Nuclear Chemistry, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden

Periodic league table

I enjoyed Jamie Gallagher’s article ‘The elemental treasure hunt’ about the ‘league table’ of nationalities of discoverers of elements. 

It brought back memories of my first job at British Celanese in Derby 40 years ago, where I filled in an odd few hours by reading monographs of the elements. I too remember being surprised at the time by the number of elements discovered in Sweden. The name I remember, which was not mentioned in the article, was Jöns Jacob Berzelius, who identified silicon, selenium, thorium and cerium, and students working in his laboratory discovered lithium and vanadium. 

Perhaps we should not be so surprised by the number of Swedish chemists as their ranks include possibly the best known name of all – Alfred Nobel.

A Smith CChem MRSC

Preston, UK

Ups and downs

We have always read this excellent journal avidly, but without realising how gifted the editorial staff and correspondents are. 

The article on the ‘Ups and downs of erectile dysfunction drugs’ was most apposite. The crowning glory in the humour came with the section headed ‘Stiff competition’. 

The questions which spring to mind are: Who is organising the competition and how is the stiffness to be judged and assessed? Are the measurements to be based on simple rigidity or stress and strain? (In which case the force per unit area needs to be measured.) I suppose that Hooke’s law would also be applicable but then the decision would need to be made whether the measurement is to be transverse or longitudinal. 

Also, would we measure the ‘shear’ delight of the process? Perhaps a determination of the bulk modulus and Poisson’s ratio would be appropriate. The only instruments available would seem to be the Searle extensometer, the basic dilatometer and the cantilever bending beam device. Can we expect to see a league table of the results in a forthcoming issue? 

As your journal shows, chemistry is life and there is nothing in life that is not chemistry. 

M Cartwright FRSC

Faringdon, UK