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Posts Tagged ‘chemistry

“No water, no life. No blue, no green.”*…

A sign warning buyers of the water situation is displayed across from a property for sale in Rio Verde Foothills, Arizona, on February 24, 2023

Between AD 1275 and 1300, the Anasazi, a civilization that had thrived in the canyonlands of the Four Corners area of the American Southwest for a thousand years, simply vanished, abandoning their urban centers, their irrigated lands, their sacred enclosures. Their descendants, the Hopi and Zuni, tell of a time of drought, the end of the rains. Without food in the desert, one can live for a fortnight; without water, perhaps a day. The collapse of the Anasazi occurred in a single generation.

The drought in the American Southwest has now entered its twenty-third year– and as Wade Davis explains in an excerpt from his book River Notes: Drought and the Twilight of the American West, the historic drought of the last couple of decades is threatening the Colorado River (on which 40 million Americans and 5.5 million acres of agriculture depend) and raising that specter again…

… We are today in the third decade of a drought that, despite heavy snowpacks in California and parts of the mountain west, remains unrelenting.

Over the last century, the river’s flow has averaged roughly 15 million acre-feet a year, far less than the 17.5 million acre-feet that planners anticipated when water rights were apportioned to the seven states of the basin — Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and California — in 1922. In that year, the population of Arizona was roughly 350,000, that of Nevada a mere 80,000. Between 2000 and 2022, the flow of the river dropped to an average of 12 million acre-feet; over the last three years the annual flow has been but 10 million acre-feet. Even as the volume of water coming down the Colorado has dramatically declined, the seven states of the basin continue to clamor for allotments based on flawed assessments established nearly a century ago, exerting rights to consume what the river cannot provide.

As a result, during a drought of historic severity, water consumption has consistently surpassed the total natural flow of the river; altogether since 2000, water use has out-stripped supply by 33.6-million acre-feet (an acre-foot is 325,851 gallons). To meet demand, water has been diverted from the major reservoirs. Lake Mead, last full in 1983, is today down to 28 percent of capacity, 1,040 feet above sea level, the lowest it has been since the floodgates closed in the 1930s. If the reservoir drops below 950 feet, the Hoover Dam will no longer generate hydroelectric power. At 895 feet, the reservoir becomes a deadpool; water can no longer pass through the dam. The river downstream ceases to exist.

The situation at Lake Powell is equally grim. Its capacity is now down to 22 percent. In February 2023, the reservoir dropped to 3,522 feet above sea level, the lowest since the Glen Canyon Dam became operational in 1963. Should the water level drop another 32 feet, which can readily occur in a year, it will no longer be possible to generate electricity that today powers and cools the homes and businesses of 4.5 million citizens. A power outage in Phoenix, coinciding with a two-day heat wave, could result in half the population — 800,000 or more — seeking emergency care in hospitals set up to handle but 3,000 patients. An estimated 12,800 would die. At 3,370 feet, Lake Powell will reach deadpool. The Glen Canyon Dam will be but a concrete plug. Water will cease to flow, cutting off the drinking supply of well over 25 million Americans, including most of those living in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Tucson, and much of the Los Angeles basin.

…ordinary American families are already experiencing shortages that would have been unthinkable in 2006. For decades, the Arizona city of Scottsdale has provided the Rio Verde Foothills, a community of two thousand homes, with access to its municipal water supply, sourced from the Colorado. On January 1, 2023, this supply was cut, a decision made by a city facing its own crisis, leaving the people of Rio Verde no option but to buy water by the truckload at prices that tripled overnight. Those who dug wells discovered that, after years of drought, the water table had fallen by hundreds of feet. Residents have turned to using paper plates and urinating outside, even while coping with monthly water bills as costly as their mortgage payments.

Cities such as Las Vegas have implemented strict conservation measures, banning ornamental grass, limiting water deliveries to golf courses, reducing the size of swimming pools, using recycled water whenever possible. Yet despite these efforts, Las Vegas still uses twice as much water as the average US consumption. Hedging its bets, the city is building a three-mile-long tunnel that will come up at the bottom of Lake Mead, a $1.4-billion drain to ensure that if the reservoir ever runs dry, Las Vegas will get the last drop.

In the end, what Las Vegas and other cities do hardly matters, for the elephant in the room remains agriculture. Fully 80 percent of the water drawn from the Colorado goes to irrigating some 5.5 million acres, most of which is used to grow alfalfa and grass to feed cattle, and not only in the United States. Alfalfa grown in Arizona is exported by the ton to fatten cattle in Asia and the Middle East…

Water, water– not a drop to drink? “The Climate Crisis Could Mean the Twilight of the American West,” from @authorwadedavis in @RollingStone. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Sylvia Earle


As we dowse, we might spare a thought for Bjørn Helland-Hansen; he died on this date in 1957. A pioneering oceanographer, his studies of the physical structure and dynamics of the oceans and their interactions with the atmosphere were instrumental in transforming oceanography from a science that was mainly descriptive to one based on the principles of physics and chemistry.


“Strange, strange are the dynamics of oil and the ways of oilmen”*…

An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

… and at the same time, all too predictable…

Oil executives love to talk about the energy transition. But for all the platitudes about technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture, most are doubling down on what they know best.


Spending on new offshore oil projects over the next two years is projected to soar to levels not seen in a decade.

In Saudi Arabia, the state-owned oil giant is embarking on a series of massive offshore expansion projects designed to boost the kingdom’s crude production. The United Kingdom and Norway are pumping more money into the North Sea in hopes of lifting out more oil. Exxon Mobil Corp., America’s oil giant, is plowing money into projects in waters off Guyana and Brazil.

The offshore revival represents a shift after a decade of focus on onshore shale plays and amounts to a vote of confidence in oil’s long-term future. The move is notable as it follows several years of mounting talk of diversifying oil companies’ business models…

The world is still likely to consume large amounts of oil for decades to come, even if energy transition efforts gain steam and global crude demand begins to decline. That means investment in new or expanded fields is needed to offset declining production from existing wells. The result is something of a race, with oil companies seeking to identify fields that can produce at low oil prices and outlast competitors in a shrinking market…

Rystad Energy, a consulting firm, reckons that offshore spending will eclipse $100 billion in 2023 and 2024. That would mark the first time offshore oil investment eclipses the $100 billion mark in consecutive years since 2012 and 2013, the firm said. Offshore spending will account for 68 percent of spending on newly sanctioned projects over the next two years, compared with 40 percent from 2015 and 2018…

At first glance, offshore projects appear ill-suited for a world moving away from oil. Offshore development is incredibly expensive and time consuming. Exxon’s Payara development off Guyana, for instance, comes with a $9 billion price tag. Hydraulically fracturing and drilling a shale well, by comparison, is relatively cheap and quick.

Yet shale production is increasingly challenged. Output from shale wells tends to fall quickly, meaning new wells have to be quickly drilled to offset production losses. After more than a decade of intense drilling, many of the most productive locations in the United States have been tapped, analysts say.

Rising interest rates also present a challenge for U.S. shale producers. Many shale companies are relatively small by industry standards and rely on debt to fuel their drilling programs.

Offshore, meanwhile, tends to be the domain of large producers, which are flush with cash after a year of record profits and better able to finance projects from their own balance sheets. Offshore platforms also rely on massive economies of scale, producing vast amounts of oil for decades at a time. Exxon’s Payara project, for example, is projected to deliver 224,000 barrels of oil a day…

More at: “Offshore oil is about to surge,” from @EENewsUpdates.

Related: Countries spent a record-breaking $1 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies in 2022– “Want to cut global emissions by 10%? Stop fossil-fuel subsidies.”

* Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow


As we contemplate carbon, we might spare a thought for Harry Coover; he died on this date in 2011. A chemist and inventor (with 460 patents), he is best remembered as the creator of Super Glue.

In 1951, while working at Eastman Kodak, Coover accidentally discovered (then patented) the adhesive properties of cyanoacrylate monomers that needed neither heat nor pressure to permanently bond between a wide variety of surfaces. His creation was initially marketed as “Eastman 910,” largely for industrial purposes. In 1963, Loctite purchased the patent and business from Eastman Kodak, and began marketing (what they trademarked “Super Glue”) more broadly. While it still found industrial use (and then medical application, e.g., repairing arteries, veins, teeth, and as a spray to seal open wounds of soldiers during combat in Vietnam), its big push was into the consumer market. Memorable advertising showed a car lifted by a crane using an attachment bonded with just a few drops.

Coover just before being awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Obama, 2010 (source)

“Take risks: if you win, you will be happy; if you lose, you will be wise.”*…

Franz Reichelt (d. 1912) jumped off the Eiffel Tower expect­ing this con­trap­tion to act as a parachute.

… or dead. Consider…

Ismail ibn Hammad al-Jawhari (died c. 1003–1010), a Kazakh Turkic scholar from Farab, attempted to fly using two wooden wings and a rope. He leapt from the roof of a mosque in Nishapur and fell to his death…

Andrei Zheleznyakov, a Soviet scientist, was developing chemical weapons in 1987 when a hood malfunction exposed him to traces of the nerve agent Novichok 5. He spent weeks in a coma, months unable to walk, and years suffering failing health before dying from its effects in 1992/3…

Cowper Phipps Coles (1819-1870) was a Royal Navy captain who drowned with approximately 480 others in the sinking of HMS Captain, a masted turret ship of his own design…

Thomas Midgley, Jr. (1889–1944) was an American engineer and chemist who contracted polio at age 51, leaving him severely disabled. He devised an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys to help others lift him from bed. He became accidentally entangled in the ropes and died of strangulation at the age of 55. However, he is better known for two of his other inventions: the tetraethyl lead (TEL) additive to gasoline, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) [as we’ve noted in (Roughly) Daily before]…

Just a few of the entries in Wikipedia’s “List of inventors killed by their own invention.”

* Swami Vivekananda


As we practice prudence, we might spare a thought for F. Sherwood Rowland; he died on this date in 2012. A chemist who focused on atmospheric chemistry, he is best remembered as the man who “outed” Thomas Midgley– that’s to say, for his discovery that chlorofluorocarbons contribute to ozone depletion– for which he shared 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 10, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Taxonomy is described sometimes as a science and sometimes as an art, but really it’s a battleground”*…

The periodic table of elements, in the form introduced by Dmitri Mendeleev, is something that many of us take for granted. But as Philip Ball explains, there are a number of different visualizations making claims for our attention…

The Periodic Table was conceived as a scheme for bringing order to the elements. When there were deemed to be only four of these—the earth, air, fire, and water of the Greek philosopher Empedocles (it was just one of the elemental systems proposed in ancient times, but enjoyed the weighty advocacy of Plato and Aristotle)—things seemed simple enough. But during the Renaissance, natural philosophers were increasingly forced to accept that the metals then known—copper, iron, lead, tin, mercury, silver and gold—were not as interconvertible as the alchemists believed, but seemed to have an elemental primacy about them, too. More and more of these became recognized—zinc, bismuth, cobalt, and others—along with other new elements such as sulfur, phosphorus, carbon, and, in the late eighteenth century, gaseous elements like nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen. When the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (who named those latter two) drew up a list of known elements for his seminal textbook Traité élémentaire de chemie in 1789, he counted 33—including light and heat, which he called caloric.

The list didn’t seem to be arbitrary though. In the early nineteenth century, several scientists noted that some elements seemed to come in families, resembling one another in the kinds of reactions they engaged in and the compounds they formed. Some claimed to see triads: the halogens chlorine, bromine and iodine for example, or the reactive metals sodium, potassium (both discovered by English chemist Humphry Davy in 1807) and lithium (identified in 1817). Was there a hidden pattern to the elements?

The Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, working at Saint Petersburg University, is usually credited with discovering that pattern. A Siberian by birth, with Rasputin-like dishevelled hair and an irascible manner, he published his first Periodic Table in 1869. It is “periodic” because, if you list the elements in order of their mass, certain chemical properties seem to recur periodically along the list. The table is produced by folding that linear list so that elements with shared properties sit in vertical columns (although Mendeleev’s first table had them instead in rows, effectively turning today’s table on its side)…

Still, it’s a weird kind of periodicity. At first, chemical properties seemed to recur every eight elements. But in the row that starts with potassium, there’s an interlude of ten metals—the transition metals—and so it continues thereafter, creating a periodicity of 18. And after lanthanum (element 57), chemists discovered a whole series of 14 metallic elements with almost identical properties that have to be squeezed in too—frankly, these elements, called the lanthanides after the first of their ilk, all seem a bit redundant. There’s another block like this after radioactive actinium (element 89), called the actinides. In most Periodic Tables, the lanthanide and actinide blocks are left floating freely underneath so the table doesn’t get stretched beyond the confines of the page. (Some insist that this long-form table is the only proper one.) Why this odd structure?

The answer became clear with the invention of quantum mechanics in the early twentieth century. The chemical properties of New Zealander Ernest Rutherford showed that atoms comprise a central, very dense nucleus with a positive electrical charge, surrounded by enough negatively charged electrons to perfectly balance that charge. Rutherford imagined the electrons orbiting the nucleus like moons, but in the quantum-mechanical description they occupy nebulous, smeared-out clouds called orbitals. Using quantum mechanics to describe the disposition of electrons shows that they are arrayed in shells. The first of these can contain just two electrons—this is the only shell possessed by hydrogen and helium, the two lone elements at the tops of the towers—while the next has eight, and then 18. The shape of the periodic table thus encodes the character of the quantum atom.

All clear? Not quite. Even now, there’s no consensus about how to draw the Periodic Table…

Read on to explore some fascinating alternative depictions: “Picture This: The Periodic Table,” by @philipcball in @PioneerWorks_.

* Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything


As we ruminate on relationships, we might spare a thought for Vladimir Vernadsky; he died on this date in 1945. A Ukrainian mineralogist and geochemist, he is considered one of the founders of geochemistry, biogeochemistry, and radiogeology. He also co-founded and served as the first President of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (now National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine).

Vernadsky is probably best remembered for his 1926 book Biosphere, in which he popularized the concepts of the biosphere and the noosphere, arguing (after Eduard Suess) that in the Earth’s development, the noosphere (cognitive life) is the third stage in the earth’s development, after the geosphere (inanimate matter) and the biosphere (biological life). Just as the emergence of life fundamentally transformed the geosphere, the emergence of human cognition will fundamentally transform the biosphere. In this theory, the principles of both life and cognition are essential features of the Earth’s evolution, and must have been implicit in the earth all along (a position Vernadsky held was complementary to Darwin’s theory of evolution). Indeed, within the last 200 years, humanity has been a powerful geologic force, moving more mass upon the earth than has the biosphere.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 6, 2023 at 1:00 am

“By temporarily disrupting the order of the brain, a new order forms. And that order may have incredible value at either the level of mental health and psychology or the level of creativity.”*…

But, Zoe Cormier warns, if the means of that constructive disruption are industrialized and turned into aggressively-marketed products, we could be in for trouble…

Welcome to the strange new world of “psychedelic capitalism,” where dozens of start-ups have already raised millions (and in some cases billions) of dollars to commercialize psilocybin (the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms), DMT (found in the Amazonian brew ayahuasca), mescaline (peyote’s active component), and LSD—despite the fact that all of these “classic psychedelics” are still ranked as Schedule I drugs under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Manufacturing any of these drugs without a license can still land you a long prison sentence. But marketing one, even though they all remain illegal and none have passed all the clinical trials required for approval? That can make you a millionaire…

The days when mind-bending psychedelics were seen as appealing only to drug dealers, nut jobs, and hippies are over. Today, serious-minded people interested in randomized controlled trials and stock valuations are leading the charge.

The “psychedelic renaissance” we’ve awaited for half a century—the promised era when acid, shrooms, and peyote would be brought back into legitimate research and legal access—is finally here. But will it turn out to be worth the wait? Or the hype?

Because it’s not like we ever stopped enjoying them: In the West, hippies, scientists, “healers,” and others have used psychedelics continuously for seven decades. And before we got our hands on them, Indigenous cultures used psychedelics for thousands of years as ritual sacraments. Now dozens of start-ups want to standardize, commercialize, alter, patent, and market these ancient compounds—and they stand to make a fortune doing so.

Will old-school profit-centered tactics bring down decades of dogged work by activists, scientists, and reformers to have these drugs reassessed for their virtues? Will we experience another nasty, research-smothering backlash?…

The profiteers have arrived; get ready for Psychedelics Inc.: “The Brave New World of Legalized Psychedelics Is Already Here,” from @zoecormier @thenation.

* Michael Pollan, in conversation with Tim Ferriss on Ferriss’ blog


As we tune in, we might spare a thought for Ellen Swallow Richards; she died on this date in 1911. The first female student admitted to MIT, she became its first female faculty member. A chemist, she did pioneering work in sanitary engineering, but is best remembered for her experimental research in domestic science, which laid the foundation for the new science of home economics, of which she is considered founder. She was one of the first ecofeminists, believing that women’s work within the home was not just vital to the economy, but also a critical aspect of our relationship to the earth.


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