As the world wide web continues to grow apace, the number of immensely useful sites also increases.

As the world wide web continues to grow apace, the number of immensely useful sites also increases (albeit at the risk of being drowned in a sea of completely useless ones). A site that certainly falls into the former category can be found at This site contains the fully searchable text of the last four million or so US patents, together with many others from Europe.  

It’s the ’searchable’ bit that is the beauty of the site - oh and the fact that it’s free. One can, if one wishes, search by author, by wording or whatever. And of course, much as a dictionary is a red rag to a rude-word-seeking bull, so a site like this tempts the chemist into searching for the more unlikely entries. And doing this throws up some apparent anomalies.  

Given that there are only a few tens of grams of the element in the entire Earth’s crust at any one time, it would appear unlikely that astatine could play much of a part in golf ball manufacture. But typing the element’s name into the site’s search engine results in 378 hits, one of which (6806347) is entitled Golf balls with thin moisture vapor barrier layer.  

Does this really mean radioactive balls will soon be zipping the fairways, trying to avoid lead-lined protective bunkers? Will the golfer have them ’hot’ off the nuclear press with just the 8.3 hour half life of astatine’s most stable isotope (210At) to get them delivered and get 18 holes in?  

Well no; perusal of the document reveals a more prosaic truth. The key here is to realise that patents are infused with legalese gobbledegook; definitions have to be precise and all bases covered.  

Thus it’s not enough just to refer to ’a group VIIA element’, all of them then get listed. In this particular case it’s halogenated derivatives of poly-para-xylene that are key, and while I would guess that even the most cautious author will be content to admit that the astatinated version will never even be feasible, let alone practical, the urge for inclusiveness proves too strong to resist.  

This effect manifests itself with other elements as well. Thus the even rarer francium appears in Method for applying a blood clotting agent  (6521265), promethium pops up in Ballistic resistant fabric articles (5677029) and golf again benefits from the presence of an unlikely element, this time in the form of einsteinium in the cunningly entitled Golf ball (6713565). 

Another good feature of the site is the fact that the hosts have a sense of humour and have compiled a list of ’crazy’ patents. Many of these are far divorced from chemistry; even so, who could resist the Religious meditation apparatus  (6837185) (to quote the site, ’A bird feeder shaped like a church, so that you can watch the birds as you pray’), the Inclining coffin (6725510), the Beerbrella (6637447) (’keeps the sun off your beer’) or the frankly incomprehensible User-operated amusement apparatus for kicking the user’s buttocks (6293874).  

Some of the strangest do, fortunately, hinge around some aspect of chemistry. For example, patent 6883462 describes ’an elongated hollow tubular housing made of aluminium or PVC, a detachable cylinder filled with a compressed freezing chemical or refrigerant, or compressed liquid enzymes’. Sounds like something from the cutting edge of chemical research until you read the title: Doggie poop freeze wand.  

Chemistry undoubtedly plays a part in the Toy gas fired missile and launch assembly (6055910). But whether it’s wise to dwell on this is another matter.  

But the prize for innovative chemical application has to go to patent number 5593398 wherein one Chester L Weimer describes his vision of a Protective underwear with malodorous flatus filter. The key it seems is the activated charcoal filter - a quarter of an inch thick no less. He further espouses his grand design to ’end the social stigma associated with foul smelling human gas’. An ambition not to be sniffed at! 

Paul Kelly