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Dear Reader,

We have had a lot to think about recent regarding polyurethane, so I think it is a good idea if we discuss the chemistry which is the basis of polyurethanes. The key chemicals for making polyurethanes are the isocyanates.

Now for those of you who have never encountered the isocyanates, I can tell you that they are rather reactive electrophiles which are often strong irritants. It is normal to make then from phosgene (carbonyl chloride) and a primary amine. They are similar to both carbon dioxide and the protein synthesis reagent (DCC, N,N’-Dicyclohexylcarbodiimide). All three have a sp carbon in an allene like system.

Using extended Huckel theory we can predict that carbon dioxide will have a charge of + 0.6 on the carbon, while diphenylcarbodiimide will have a charge of + 0.37 on the central sp carbon while the phenyl isocyanate will have a charge of + 0.46 on the central sp carbon. Here is a picture of phenyl isocyanate.

phenyl isocyanate space

Nucleophiles such as water, alcohol and amines will attack this carbon to form addition products. Here is a picture of phenyl isocyanate in which I have calculated the charges on the atoms, these are projected as colours onto the solvent accessable surface of the molecule. The more red they are then the more positive they are and the more blue then the more negative they are.

phenyl isocyanate charges

What you should be able to see is that the carbon in the isocyanate group is the most positive part of the molecule. I have a line drawing for you which will explain what happens when the molecule reacts with an alcohol, which is below.

urethane formation

In this way the isocyanate group can react with an alcohol group to form a bond between the alcohol molecule and the isocyanate molecule. The synthesis of polyurethane normally uses a diisocyanate and a long molecule which has two alcohol groups at the different ends of it. This will allow the creation of bigger and bigger molecules (polymerization) which transforms the small molecules into a very large molecule (a macromolecule).

More on Grenfell cladding and fridge design

Dear Reader,

It appears that a polyurethane type material was present in the cladding at Grenfell, one newspaper is claiming that a product named “Celotex RS5000”. When I looked up this material it turned out to be a polyisocyanate type polyurethane which suggests that it is going to be a bit harder to burn than a simple polyurethane.

The daily mail did print the rather dire line “Insulation burns at sufficient temperatures and gives off hydrogen cyanide”, I would comment that we need to be careful about some words.

Flammable (inflammable) liquid means that the fumes of a substance will ignite if a flame is presented to above the liquid which is below a particular temperture. Flammable solids are a little harder to define, one good definition is a solid which is one of the following

  1. A desensitized explosive which has sufficent water, plasicizer or some other additive to prevent detonation.
  2. A self reactive material which can burn without added oxygen or air.
  3. Solids which can ignite through friction (such as matches)
  4. Pyrophoric solids and solids which can selfheat to the point of ignition.

I very much doubt if the cladding will be able to fall into one of these subclasses, what the cladding is more likely to be is “combustible”. Combustible means “possible to burn the substance if it is subject to sufficient heating”. For example a pool of JET-A fuel will not burn if it is exposed to flame, but if you were to soak a rug in the jet fuel or add a wick then it would be quite easy to start the fuel burning.

The emission of toxic fumes during burning is not a rare thing, many fuels will when burning under the “right” conditions form toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and sometimes hydrogen cyanide. I hold the view that all carbon containing fuels can form carbon monoxide when burnt. Also the generation of hydrogen cyanide during burning under air poor conditions is very common, cigarette smoke tends to contain hydrogen cyanide.

The problem is that all smoke is harmful but smoke from some materials is worse than others, for example overheating PVC and CSPE cables emit fumes which include hydrogen chloride (hydrochloric acid gas). This will make a fire which involves these materials worse than a fire which involves cables such as XLPE cables when we consider how corrosive the smoke is to objects and how harmful it is to people. On the other hand it is important to note that the very chlorine rich plastics such as PVC and CSPE are very hard to ignite. The great problem I see is that if we purge the world of things with chlorine in them like PVC then while a fire might emit less hydrogen chloride once it gets underway we might end up having more fires unless we find a decent replacement.

We need to consider both the frequency (how often) and the consequence of fires and other misadventures. If we look at the Grenfell fire, then if the cladding was the absent from the building then the consequence (how bad) of the fire which started in one flat would have been lower. Removal of the cladding will not reduce the frequency of the fridge fires but it will alter the likely consequence. If on the other hand we were to improve the design / construction of household electric equipment and thus reduce number which burst into flames each year then we could also reduce the number of deaths, injuries and monetary cost per year due to fires.

Back in 2015 the London Fire Brigade published a statement on fridges, what they want is the design and construction of fridges to be altered to reduce the consequence of a fire in a defective fridge or freezer. They want the casing of the device to be metal (to slow the development and spread of fire) or something else which will resist fire better. Sadly again I think that they are misusing the term “inflammable”.

I think that they are right for calling for the fire safety of fridges and freezers to be improved, one of the problems was that in common with PCB transformer oil the freon used in fridges was introduced as a safe non-combustable material to reduce fires. Freon was used originally in fridges as as a non toxic and non combustable alternative to the toxic and flammable gases (such as sulfur dioxide, ammonia and other horrors) which were used in the first ever fridges.

Now instead of things like freon-12 (dichlorodifluoromethane) fridges are using things like cyclopentane, propane or other similar flammable hydrocarbons. I have to ask the question of why do we have to use these compounds. I would like to know if some fluoro-iodohydrocarbon could be devised which would be non toxic, non flammable, too unstable in the lower atmosphere to pose a threat to the ozone layer and unable to cause global warming. But right now we are stuck with fridges which are using flammable gases for their working fluid.

I would like to suggest that we should consider the question of could we improve a fridge in terms of fire safety. I would like to accept the idea that we go for a metal layer covering the plastic foam insulation and we would change to a flame retardant plastic. Such as a layer of XLPE over the polystyrene foam. This would reduce the rate at which a fridge burns. But are there things we could do to stop fridges igniting in the first place.

I would like to suggest that we could change the law to reduce the chances of a fridge creating the spark which ignites leaking gas, for example I would suggest changing the thermostat for one which has all spark generating bits either sealed in a stainless steel capsule, potted in plastic or designed out. This would reduce the danger that a fridge poses if the pipes inside the fridge start to leak. I would also suggest changing to a brushless motor on the compressor to stop the fridge motor making sparks. I would also target the lamp in the fridge, I would opt for a LED lamp which would last the life of the fridge and is in a sealed module designed to prevent a spark encountering flammable gas.

Another improvement would be to add two semiconductor flammable gas alarms. One inside the fridge and one outside the fridge. The idea is that if the one inside the fridge is triggered that an alarm should start ringing and the power should be cut to the fridge. While the second should be outside the fridge at floor level as the working fluids in a fridge form gases which are more heavy than air. If this one goes off it is a more important matter. It should make the fridge scream for help and also shut down. It could also offer a warning in the event of a gas leak in the kitchen (particularly if the people use LPG to run the cooker).

One of the problems is that some words which have very precise meanings within science are used sometimes in the media in places where they should not be. For example “volatile” has two meanings within the Cambridge Dictionary. The second one is the one which is the “scientific” meaning of volatile.

  1. likely to change suddenly and unexpectedly or suddenly become violent or angry.
  2. A volatile liquid or solid substance will change easily into a gas.

But it was used when discussing fireworks, in Malta there has been a string of rather horrible firework accidents. One of the problems is that the firework industry there use pyrotechnic mixtures which are not permitted in many parts of Europe. In one newspaper report it was commented that “local firework factories use highly volatile chemical mixtures banned in many other countries“. Unless the firework makers are using some rather odd mixture such as ammonium nitrate / nitromethane or a low molecular weight organic explosive I would very much doubt if the energetic materials in the fireworks emit a large amount of vapor. Instead what they were meaning is that the firework makers in Malta are willing to use mixtures of things like chlorates and fuels which are very sensitive to static electricity, friction and impact.

It would have been better to have written “the local firework factories use excessively sensitive chemical mixtures banned in many other countries” or “the local firework factories use chemical mixtures which are easily triggered under accident conditions, some of these are banned in many other countries”. I will not go into a deep discussion of firework chemistry here but I will comment that many chlorate / fuel mixtures are unsafe. Some of them are quite rightly banned by UK law and by the laws on fireworks in many other parts of the world.

I have to ask the question of how should we choose the materials for a high rise tower block, we have two issues. The first is how easy (or how hard) is it to burn the material. While the second is how toxic can the smoke be before we decide it is too toxic. Sadly I am unable to give easy answers to these questions.

The bucket for the delta loop

Dear Reader,

Today the weather was warm so I was able to raise my delta loop, sadly in very cold weather the fibreglass tubes get stuck together by ice but today early in the morning the temperature was slightly above zero. So I had a go at using the aerial.

I spoke today to a man in Ukrane, A French man, a German, a man in Portugal and some people in Italy. So it was an OK way to spend a hour in the basement.

The fibreglass tubes went up with great ease but I had a problem. To stop the wires getting stuck in the snow I had put them all in a plastic bucket when I put the aerial away at the start of the cold snap. I found today that a big lump of ice had formed and glued all the wires together. So I had to chip the wires out of the ice block.

Now when I went to put the aerial away today I drilled four holes in the bottom of the bucket to stop water and ice building up in the bucket. Sadly I found during the drilling that the bucket shattered, I think it was below its glass temperature. I think that the bucket was polypropylene. If it was isotactic then the glass temperature is about zero degrees centigrade. Before I started to work on the bucket it had been sitting on a pile of snow. Next time I will drill the bucket while it is still warm in the basement before it goes to the garden.

More about prussian blue

Dear Reader,

Now some of my readers have become interested in Prussian blue, this is the miracle drug which removes cesium from human bodies. I was recently reading the work of Peter W. Stephens et. al., Inorganic Chemistry, 2010, 49, pages 1524 to 1534. His paper is about the crystal structures and magnetic properties of mixed oxidation state manganese versions of Prussian blue. This has allowed us to use X-ray technology to look inside a prussian blue crystal.

Here is a chance to look at the potassium version of the prussian blue, it is clear that the potassium atoms are in channels which run through the solid.


The way in which the prussian blue works is to allow out the potassium, the cesium ions then diffuse in to take the place of the potassium ions. When the potassium ions are replaced in this solid with cesium the larger cesium ions cause the solid to change slightly. Here is a picture of the cesium solid.


I checked the literature and other prussian blue like model compounds have similar structures, one early report was made by R. Rigamonti, Gazzetta Chimica Italiana, 1938, 68, 803-809. Where this italian reported a potassium salt of Co[Fe(CN)6]. I think that due to the ligand field energy effects this was a simple cubic solid which looked just like the cesium one which I showed above.

Now I am going to tell you the story about how I found out about Prussian blue, years ago in 1999 I went on an adventure to eastern europe. I joined Josef Novosad’s research group for a while. While I worked with Josef on phosphorus chemistry (we both share an affinity for this element), between making some interesting compounds which may have improved our understanding of dithioimidodiphosphinates and enjoying the delights of Brno (it is a very wonderful place) we did talk about chemistry.

One of the things which Josef told me about was what he did in his youth, he told me that he was given a job by the communists working on uranium in farmyard animals at a research centre close to Brno. But after the Chernobyl accident he was moved onto cesium in farmyard animals. What used to happen at Josef’s research site was that an animal would be given a dose of 1 MBq of Cs-137, then using additives to the animal’s feed the workers would then try to remove the cesium from the animal.

Before anyone gets worried about the effect of the cesium on the farmyard animal lets do an estimate of the dose which the animal gets. If we assume that the animal is identical to a typical human in size and that it is identical to a human then we can use the data for humans. Using the radiation protection advice from a US university we can get a thing called an ALI for oral exposure to Cs-137. The ALI is the Annual Limit of Intake which for Cs-137 in the US is 100 microcuries. As 1 Ci = 37 GBq this works out as a dose of 3.7 MBq to the animal being the limit. The US limit is worked out based on a 5 rem dose to the body. So the animal will get 1.35 rem. Now some of you might be getting a bit confused with the different radiation units. Here is a look up sheet

100 rem = 1 Sv

100 rad = 1 Gy

1 Curie = 37 GBq = 37000 MBq = 37000000 KBq = 37000000000 Bq

1 milli Curie = 37 MBq

1 microcuries = 37 kBq

So our “animal” will have got a 13.51 mSv dose, this dose is far too small to cause “radiation sickness”. If we repeat the calculation using the ALI value used in Sweden (based on a 20 mSv dose) which is 1.5 MBq then our animal gets a dose of 13.33 mSv. This is not a dose which will make the animals die of radiation sickness and if we use the accepted dose to chance of cancer conversion factor of 5 % for a 1 Sv dose then if we assume that the LNT model is right then if the animal was a human then it would have a 1 in 1500 chance of getting cancer as a result of the cesium intake. As most farmyard animals weigh more than a human the real dose to the animal would be likely to be lower.

To put it in perspective if I got a dose of 13.3 mSv at work then I know that my radiation protection officer would be very very concerned about me but I would not have gone over the yearly limit for a classified radiation worker, but if I got that dose in one month in Sweden then it would trigger an investigation into me. Such a dose is in the range where the national radiation protection authority would want to know what I was doing and how I got the dose. However if a member of the public got that dose at work then I imagine that the national radiation protection would be hopping mad to say the least ! The occupational dose for a non radiation worker is only 1 mSv per year, as a non-radaition worker is unlikely to be wearing a film or TLD badge then it might take quite a lot of extra work to work out the dose compared with the effort needed to estimate a dose for a dosemeter wearing radiation worker.

But lets get back to the prussian blue.

Josef told me that he tried almost every transition metal, I think that he did not try using nickel as nickel is toxic. He then used the batches of the “prussian blues” to try to clean the animals up. What Josef found was that no two batches of prussian blue which he made worked quite the same way in the experiments. So my advice to anyone planning on making prussian blue for medical use in Japan is that the production of the medical grade solid is not a simple matter, I have to confess that I do not know how to reliably make medical grade prussian blue.

If you want to read about Josef’s cesium work then see  H. Prochazka, J. Jandl, J. Novosad, O. Neruda, J. Hejzlar and S. Spelda, Veterinarni Medicina, 1991, 36, 341 to 348. The paper is entitled “Affection of Radiocesium Retention in Miniature Pigs”

The abstract of this paper comments that stable cesium (1 mg per kilo of body weight) is not effective as a means of removing cesium from pigs. Josef and J. Jandl published another paper in which they used a modified zeolite to treat sheep which were contaminated with cesium. This paper can be found at “In-Vivo Reduction of Radiocesium by Modified Clinoptilolite in Sheep”, Veterinarni Medicina, 1995, 40, pages 237-241.

Plastic fantastic

Dear Reader,

In recent times I have shown how a lad can have fun with the unit cells of inorganic solids, but now it is time to move onto something with carbon in it. I choose to look at the solid state structure of a polymer which is a high temperature engineering polymer.

LIMMUP in the crystallographic database is Poly((4,4′-diphenylene)pyromellitimide) which was described by Y. Obata, K. Okuyama, S. Kurihara, Y. Kitano and T. Jinda in Macromolecules, 1995, 28, 1547. This is a solid which is an endless chain of atoms covalently linked to the next. Here is a picture of the unit cell.

Unit cell of the polymer

While here is a picture of five of the polymer chains.

Polymer chains

While looking for examples of the polymer chains I noticed something else, this brings me onto another subject. I hold the view that one of the first steps to maturity is the point at which a person truly accepts that things which they are not interested in, involved in or have experience in can be truly worthwhile and valid. I have to add the warning that there is some work out there which is not worthwhile and is frankly close to worthless, but I do not want to point the finger by naming names well at least not today.

I have spent much of my life working on trying to get molecules to selectively recognise metals; I used to share an office with a man (Zhixue Zhu) who worked for Howard Colquhoun on a project where he was trying to get molecules to recognise short parts of polymer chains. While it might not have been quite the sort of thing that I have done in life, I still hold the view that the work is good work which is worthwhile.

Here what Dr Zhu did was to use a pair of pyrene groups to recognise part of a short chain model of kapton (poly(4,4′-oxydiphenylene-pyromellitimide)); his tweezers recognized the pyromellitimide part of the chain. Here is a picture of the solid which he published in Chemical Communications, 2004 page 2650 together with H.M. Colquhoun, C.J. Cardin and Yu Gan.

Dr Zhu's mini tongs which grip the polymer chain

I suspect that Christine Cardin found this solid interesting as her group have done a lot of work in the past on how things like acridines bond onto DNA through pi-pi effects.

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