What the Gases You Emit Say About You

This article was originally published on RealClearScience.

You emit gas. The most obvious and offensive comes from your posterior, but that’s not the only gas you emit. Your body is constantly oozing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — small molecules that easily enter a gaseous state due to their high vapor pressure — in breath, sweat, urine, feces, and even saliva. VOCs are responsible, for instance, for the similar aromas that emanate from dairy farms and men’s restrooms. Continue reading

New Glasses Change Color on Demand

This article was originally posted at RealClearScience.

Those of us who wear glasses have long been familiar with Transitions lenses, a type of lens that darkens in sunlight but is clear while indoors. The technology relies on a chemical phenomenon known asphotochromism, in which molecules absorb a certain wavelength of light and change shape (that is,isomerize) in response. In the case of photochromic glasses, the lenses usually respond to UV light. That is why the lenses darken when exposed to the sun (which produces UV radiation), while they remain clear under artificial lights (which do not produce much UV light). Continue reading

Chernobyl Radiation Changed Rodent Hair Color?

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

When people think of radioactivity, many imagine it converting cute, fluffy animals into scary, green, glowing mutants. But, that’s just a myth. Radioactivity is invisible. The reason we associate radiation with “glowing green” is because many types of instrument dials (such as a clock face) were painted with radioluminescent paint, a mixture that contained a radioactive isotope (often radium) and other chemicals that would emit green light in response to the radiation. Similarly, while it is true that some nuclear power plants produce a hauntingly blue glow, this is not because the radioactive fuel itself is glowing, but because of a strange phenomenon known as Cherenkov radiation, in which particles moving faster than the speed of light emit photons, generally in the UV to blue light range.

However, this is not the whole story. The great radiation/color narrative has taken yet another twist. A team of scientists led by Zbyszek Boratyński has reported in the journal Scientific Reports that Chernobyl radiation has changed the hair color of local rodents. Continue reading

Will Propane-Making Bacteria Revolutionize Energy?

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Propane is the fossil fuel of red-blooded Americans. What poolside or tailgating experience would be complete without firing up the gas grill and torching some meat? (I know, I know… there are charcoal devotees out there.) Even metropolitan mass transit systems are getting in on the excitement. Fleets of buses that run on “LPG” (liquefied petroleum gas) are burning a mixture of propane and butane.

Currently, propane is extracted from natural gas or crude oil. But, in the long run, this is neither a sustainable nor an environmentally friendly practice. Burning propane extracted from the earth is also not carbon-neutral, though it is better than combusting oil or coal. Thus, researchers are looking for ways to produce renewable “fossil fuels” through the use of alternative technologies, such as synthetic biology. Last year, for instance, scientists engineered E. coli to churn out a biofuel that resembled gasoline. Continue reading

Identify a Bomb from 1 Kilometer Away

This article was originally published on RealClearScience.

One of the problems with bomb detection is that bombs tend to explode. It would be advantageous for a bomb squad to be able to positively identify the contents of a purported bomb before attempting to dismantle it. Existing techniques, however, are inefficient or of limited utility. Continue reading

Oenology: Air defences

WINE, any connoisseur will tell you, is a living thing. And as with other organisms, for it, too, oxygen is a mixed blessing. The element breathes life, but it—or strictly speaking reactive oxygen species (ROS), the byproducts of the process through which cells extract energy from nutrients—can be toxic. Oxygen plays a role in red wines’ normal ageing process. However, through ROS, it can lay waste whites. Read the rest at The Economist.

Air Pressure: The Chemistry of Weather Forecasts

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Everybody in Seattle knows Jeff Renner. He’s the weather guy on KING5 News, the local NBC affiliate. Each night at around 11:15 p.m., he provides us with little nuggets of knowledge, from the extended forecast to the type of tires we should use when crossing the mountains.

Like all scientists, Mr. Renner has his own special lexicon. Meteorologists are known to use some phrases which may not make an awful lot of sense to the average person. For instance, you might very well hear your weather guy (or gal) say, “The barometic pressure is 30.2 inches and falling.” What on Earth does that mean? Well, it helps to know a little chemistry. Continue reading

Why You Should Never Mix Different Drain Cleaners

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Your humble correspondent had quite the predicament over the weekend. I had burned one of those fake logs in the fireplace, and after the fire went out I closed the flue and went to bed. Only the fire didn’t go out. I awoke the next morning to a condo full of smoke and my wife in a semi-panic.

NaOH_-_drain-cleaner.jpgAiring out the house proved problematic. A storm was moving through Seattle (great timing!). Thus, opening the front and back doors created a miniature tempest inside our home. Worse, wind kept coming down into the fireplace, blowing ash all over the house. And we couldn’t close the flue because the fake log was still smoldering.

So, we did the only thing we could think of: We threw the burning log in the bath tub and doused it with water. That worked, but it created an entirely new problem. As the fake log disintegrated, it clogged the tub. Unfortunately, the sodium hydroxide-based drain cleaner we used to unclog it wasn’t up to the job. Continue reading