Posts Tagged ‘John Emsley’

The difference between ‘Bio’ and ‘non-Bio’

May 30, 2012
A non biological washing powder

A non-biological washing powder

You learn something new every day. The other day I reviewed John Emsley’s book on sustainable chemistry, the gist of which is that chemical engineering is woven into the fabric of our lives, literally – in terms of the clothes we wear – and metaphorically, in terms of the ubiquity of chemically-engineered materials.

I wrote that I felt insulted by his comments about non-biological washing powders. My experience was that when my son was little, wherever his skin was in contact with his washed garments – such as wrist-bands or neck-bands, he developed a rash. But after switching to non-biological washing powder, the rash disappeared. So I was pretty sure I had seen the effect of the enzymes on my son’s skin and I didn’t appreciate being told otherwise.

But nothing in life is simple. I had assumed that the difference between ‘bio’ and ‘non-bio’ powders was just in the ‘bio’-bit: the enzymes. But as it turns out, that is not the only difference.

John responded to my review and was kind enough to put me right. I will let him explain in his own words:

Fair comment, except regarding washing powders. What was causing your son’s rashes were the fragrance molecules added to the product. I used to approve adverts for TV, and part of my remit was detergents. Consequently I visited the major producers, P&G, Unilever and McBrides (who do the own label versions), and there learnt about the research that was done to uncover why the newer detergents caused skin irritations.

Eventually it was tracked down to traces of fragrance molecules that were added to these products to disguise the slightly rank odour of surfactants. As a result, they stopped using these fragrances and substituted ones that didn’t cause skin irritation. Those are the ones now used. It was never the enzymes in these products which were guilty, but those were the ingredients which were singled out as being to blame. It is only in the UK and Ireland that ‘non-bio’ washday products continue to be widely used, much to the amusement of manufacturers in the EU.

Kind regards, John.

So I will talk with my wife, and may be we will try using biological washing powder again, and see how we get on now.

Sustainable Chemistry

May 30, 2012

A Healthy Wealthy and Sustainable World is indeed possible according to John Emsley. But only if we exploit the skills of chemical engineers.

I have just read two books with a positive message about the role of chemical engineering in modern life.  A Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World and Islington Green are both by John Emsley, and they both tell the same story, but in two different ways.

A Healthy, Wealthy, Sustainable World, tells the story ‘straight up’. It considers the role of chemistry in the food we eat, the water we drink, medicine, transport, plastics and city life. In each case Emsley considers whether the status quo is sustainable, and whether it could be conceivably made so. Emsley takes a narrow view of sustainability as implying non-reliance on fossil fuels. But even that’s a tough call and his discussion of what this involves is interesting. If you were teaching GCSE or A level chemistry this would give you a plethora of applications of basic chemistry in the context of our daily lives.

Islington Green tells the same story by introducing two comic-book caricatures  Justin Thyme and Teresa Green (!) who start out trying to live an ‘organic, green’ lifestyle without using any ‘chemicals’. However they end up deciding that the most sustainable and convenient choices are those offered by the chemical industry. Along the way Emsley shares a few traditional Yorkshire opinions on the valuable contribution that merchant bankers make to our society.

I have been an admirer of John Emsley for years, ever since I acquired his book about The Elements now sadly out of print, but replaced by the excellent Nature’s Building Blocks: An A-Z Guide to the Elements. I also enjoyed his book on ‘The Elements of Murder: a history of poison‘. He writes in a clear, uncluttered style which is refreshing to read.

But I do have a caveat. If you are sceptical about the role of the chemical industry, you will find little to persuade you to change your mind. He devotes a fair amount of time to demolishing the ‘straw arguments’ of hypothetical ‘greens’, but fails to even acknowledge more mundane concerns. For example Emsley fails to mention the ozone hole

In the 1950s the chemical industry introduced a range of super-chemicals to replace hydrocarbons: chlorocarbons, fluorocarbons and mixed chloro-fluoro-carbons. These chemicals performed fantastically in refrigerators and a range of other applications. But they had the unintended consequence of lingering in the atmosphere and through a bizarre and unanticipated feature of atmospheric chemistry, destroyed the ozone layer above the Antarctic (mainly) and the Arctic (a little) each spring.

This episode must have cost billions of pounds, required the re-engineering of an entire industry, and the ozone layer will still take more than 100 years to return to normal. Independent of whether these chemicals are made with or without fossil fuels, chemistry of this type is clearly not sustainable.

The positive story about the role of the Chemical Industry is a story worth telling, and Emsley tells it well. But in my opinion it is a story worth telling with a little less hubris.

[UPDATE: May 30th: I have updated this article, removing my comments about Biological Washing Powders which may be found here.]

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