Forensic detail, biological weapons and IRrelevant spectroscopy?


Regarding the article ‘Knowledge lost or time gained?’, I was very much in agreement with the sentiments expressed but somewhat dismayed at the illustration of an IR cell and spectrum, the implication being that IR spectroscopy is a redundant technique. 

I can assure the writer that IR and the associated technique of Raman spectroscopy are alive and well, both generally and in the pharmaceutical industry. The 200th meeting of the infrared and Raman discussion group was held at University College London, UK, in December last year attracting over 130 participants. Speakers came from Europe, UK and the US with a large number of students displaying posters. There was also a well attended meeting on advances in Raman spectroscopy in pharmaceutical analysis held in London last year. Working in the US the author may well not be aware of all this, however he should be aware of the annual SciX meeting being held in Milwaukee this September, which has major sessions on both IR and Raman spectroscopies. 

While sharing the concern about the reduction of good spectroscopists who can interpret spectra – with too much reliance, by management, on computer searching – I must dispute that the techniques are no longer well used, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry. Perhaps the article reflects more on the author’s lack of knowledge of the information available, physical as well as chemical, in the spectra rather than the redundancy of the technique.

G Dent

Oldham, UK

While some of the old analytical instrumentation may be left gathering dust, I can reassure Derek Lowe that infrared spectroscopy, at least, is still in use in many laboratories. Sometimes it is the only technique that can diagnose problems in the manufacturing industry.

For example, my adhesives company received a complaint that our tapes were not sticking as well as before. Tensile testing on a sample provided confirmed the problem, but what was the cause? I noticed that the peeled adhesive left a trace of residue on the test plate, so I washed it off with solvent and evaporated the solution on an ATR (attenuated total reflectance) window, to run an FT-IR. This showed the presence of hydrocarbon wax; not a normal ingredient in a pressure sensitive adhesive.

A visit to the customer revealed that the paper separator discs used to keep the tape rolls apart were of a wax-coated type rather than the siliconised paper we should have been using. The adhesive contains a tackifier resin that had extracted wax from the paper, which was verified by comparing the infrared spectra of the paper with what had been extracted, followed by some storage tests with the adhesive tape and discs. Our buyer had swapped these cheaper discs for the usual silicone types without running the idea past the chemists. The discs (and the buyer) were quickly replaced.

I’ve used FT-IR for many other investigations. For a small company, this level of cost (about £10,000) is supportable, whereas other equipment, like mass spectrometry, is not.

Colin Cook CChem MRSC

Essex, UK

Forensic detail

The article ‘Forensic injustice?’ gives a useful summary of the recent changes that have occurred in the supply of forensic services, and notes the current vacuum in forensic research provision. 

The focus of the article was on forensic services directed towards support of prosecution of criminal cases. Inevitably, to maintain viability, commercial enterprises will tend to focus on high volume routine testing rather than specialised, low volume activities. Accordingly, there are commercial opportunities for smaller companies and individual practitioners in these specialised areas. It is also worth noting that there is, and always has been, a considerable demand for forensic services in civil litigation and in a much wider range of areas than those required for criminal prosecutions. 

A similar situation applies to research activity: expenditure is avoided by commercial enterprises unless a payback is expected. Proprietary research is undesirable as this can lead to issues of usability and verifiability. The openness required for evaluation of forensic analysis results implies that the background research must be in the public domain. Hopefully, sources of funding to resuscitate such research will soon be in place, creating further employment opportunities in forensic science.

S Kershaw CChem MRSC

Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

Convention compliance

I was surprised to see my photograph in Flashback, as director of the Chemical Defence Establishment. 

While an effectively verifiable convention banning chemical weapons was opened for signature 20 years ago and entered into force in 1997, efforts are still being applied to strengthen compliance with the convention banning biological weapons. These efforts are even more important in today’s world when the convergence of chemistry and biology is widely recognised and accepted, and underlines the shortcomings in the convention banning biological weapons agreed in 1972, which entered into force in 1975.

Although there is widespread international recognition of the need to be prepared for outbreaks of disease – whether natural, accidental or deliberate – there still appears to be a reluctance to work together to increase transparency in activities in the life sciences and so build confidence in compliance with the convention.

Progress has been made – notably by the University of Bradford, UK – in promoting biosecurity education for all those engaged in the life sciences to ensure that those people are aware of their responsibility, under the biological weapons convention, to do no harm.

G Pearson CChem FRSC

Gloucestershire, UK

Peter Farago

I was sorry to hear of the death of Peter Farago, and especially after a long illness. I met him about 24 years ago, soon after I retired from my full-time occupation as an industrial chemist. I wrote freelance techno-economic articles for a number of journals and I wanted to discuss the idea of being an industrial correspondent for Chemistry in Britain. At the time, it seemed to be full of esoteric stuff written by academics. He was interested and I gave him some ideas, one of which he commissioned. 

With the launch of Chemistry World, I noted the much improved journal, which continues to grow in interest, at least to retired folk like me. As far as I can see it satisfies active members too. Well done to all the staff.

J Steggles FRSC

Bury St Edmunds, UK 

As a lecturer in further and higher education, I was a regular reader of Chemistry in Britain, familiarly known as ‘blue bits’. I remember that we all regarded it as an interesting and vibrant journal.

I never actually met Peter Farago but I did attend a lecture by him sometime in the 1970s. He was shedding doubt on the quality of graduates produced at that time by universities and polytechnics delivering ‘modular’ courses. He illustrated his argument by recounting a recruitment process for an editorial assistant. 

The applicants were required to have a degree in chemistry and clearly also needed to have a high standard of literacy. 96 applications were received, about half of which were immediately rejected on the grounds that they were not sufficiently legible. Of the remainder, about half again were rejected because the applicant had not supplied the information required. In this way they soon reduced the number that they could call for interview to six. In the event, four out of the six candidates arrived late for the interview, with no explanations or apologies, so only two candidates could be considered for the post. And every one of those 96 had a degree in chemistry.

J Stephens CChem MRSC

Bicester, UK

(Ed note: Blue bits was the old nickname for Chemistry & Industry)

Troubling news from Turkey

Kemal Guruz, one of Turkey’s most accomplished chemical engineers, formerly chair of Turkey’s higher education council and subsequently of its national research council, lies imprisoned, embittered and suicidal.

I knew Guruz as a friend and colleague from the days when he returned to a developing country with a shining new doctorate from the US. When Middle East Technical University was officially closed due to extreme undergraduate unrest, he persisted in trying to work, and later, as chair of the national research council, he brought Turkish science and engineering to the attention of Brussels and commenced the negotiations that eventually generated Turkey’s acceptance into the European science framework programme. I cannot believe that Guruz has done anything that discredits Turkey or anything criminal. He was a civil servant, scrupulous in following the regulations of the constitution. He served all political parties including that now in power. 

Over a period of many years, Guruz and others like him strove wholeheartedly and with great perseverance through difficult times to improve higher education and Turkish science and engineering, thereby improving standards of living and obtaining Turkey’s acceptance by the rest of the world.

Those who converse with Turkish academia, industry or commerce should make it clear they are aware of this. Your friends and colleagues who spend their professional lives devoted to the betterment of society may be imprisoned because this has offended the regime.

Alec Gaines MRSC

Edinburgh, UK