How a Refinery’s neighbors became its future workforce

Born and raised into a low-income family in San Pablo, Calif., about 30 minutes east of San Francisco, Yesenia Pineda struggled to find a sustainable career after leaving high school. She lacked the money and support to complete a college degree. At the time, she didn’t think to ask whether the area’s largest employer, the Chevron Richmond Refinery, was hiring. She always thought applicants needed at least a college degree to qualify for jobs at Chevron, known to provide high wages and good benefits.



Yesenia Pineda

“I’ve known Chevron all my life,” Pineda said. “You have to be a super genius with a college background. Normal people don’t go to work there.”

Or so she thought. One day, while feeling stifled by an unfulfilling job, she was invited to an orientation for a career program.

“Where are we going?” she remembered asking her classmate.

“To attend a training program that helps people get jobs at places like Chevron,” he said.

Pineda was skeptical, but she agreed to attend – a decision that has changed her life in the same way it had changed hundreds of lives before her.

After learning about the Regional Occupational Program, a statewide vocational training program that prepares Californians for success careers in a wide variety of fields including the fuels and petrochemical industries, Pineda found out she didn’t need to be a genius, or even have college pedigree, to qualify for opportunities at Chevron. What she needed was just five months of dedication. And the best part, there was no cost for Pineda to participate.

While working the late shift full time, Pineda completed the intensive, the ROP Plant Process Operator course. It paid off – literally. Last year, she was hired into the Chevron Refinery’s Operator Trainee Program. It’s a lucrative career track, as Process Operator annual salaries in the refining industry range from $94,363 to $135,742.

And now, Pineda is enjoying a new normal.

An industry hungry for workers

The fuels and petrochemical industries are among the nation’s highest paying, in large part because the demand for skilled workers is also among the highest. Companies that comprise the fuels and petrochemical industries invest hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support workforce development and training programs that provide people with the training and skills needed for jobs in this sector.

The problem, of course, is plants such as the Richmond Refinery don’t just need workers tomorrow – they needs them today.

Established in 1978, the Chevron program is a partnership with the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE). For 18 weeks in classes offered both during the afternoons and evenings, retired and current Chevron workers provide local residents with intensive training on the skills needed for a career in the fuel and petrochemical industries. To date, nearly 900 people have graduated from the program, which boasts a strong track record for placing graduates in jobs not just at the Chevron Refinery, but also other local facilities owned by Shell, Tesoro, Valero and Phillips 66.

Jeff Brauning, who runs student programs for CCCOE,” called the public-private partnership “a wonderful example of how Industry and Education can work together to provide valuable potentially life changing skills to local community members.”

Brauning said the outcomes he sees regularly from this ROP program is “the reason we all go into education.”

“Students who graduate from this program and are hired by the local refineries truly have their lives changed,” he said. “Many of them have financial stability, retirement and benefits for themselves and their families for the first time in their lives.”

And along the way, they gain more than important technical skills. The program offers training in communication and teamwork skills, with job safety emphasized throughout.

Toward the end of the program, Chevron Refinery workers, including some ROP graduates, conduct mock interviews as part of training in the job hiring process.

Perhaps most importantly, students build confidence in the program. That can be attributed to longtime instructors Mike Joyce, who teaches the Process Plant Operator (PPO) track of the ROP program, and John Ghiringelli, who instructs the Industrial Maintenance Mechanic (IMM) program.

Both instructors, who also happen to be employees at the Chevron Refinery, are wildly popular among students, Brauning said. They, themselves, are also graduates of the program. Joyce graduated from the program just over 40 years ago.

“John and I are proof that this works – we came up through this program too,” he said.

Joyce would eventually land what he called “the best job ever” at Chevron, back when it was called Standard Oil of California. He became a trainer in order to give back.

Give it a try

Pineda said she’s finally feeling fulfilled about her career and its trajectory.

“The people [at the Chevron Refinery] have been amazing; I have a really good group, really good trainer,” Pineda said. “Being a minority and being a woman, I thought that it might be a challenge, but I came to find out everyone is really accepting. They look out for each other, have each other’s back, and want each other to succeed.”

While the work, of course, can be challenging, Pineda said “it has given me a respect for what’s being done, for all the work that goes into putting gas in your vehicle.”

Her advice for others in her community looking for jobs in the fuels and petrochemical industries: “Give it a try.”

“It difficult dedicating five months to something but it’s also a great opportunity to change your life,” Pineda said. “A lot of people from our community don’t have those options.”

To learn more about Chevron’s ROP program, click here.


Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

Simple changes to your daily routine can lead to a greener future

So you keep the tires on your car properly inflated – you’ve cleared all that extra junk out of the trunk – you drive at a steady speed, not jackrabbit starts or stops – you keep your car tuned up and your air filter clean.  Your car is a lean, mean, green machine.

That’s good.  But like a lot of us, maybe you want to do more to reduce your “carbon footprint” and fight global warming.

Well, there IS plenty each of us can do, some easy things to change, some things maybe more of a challenge.  Here are a few suggestions:

Wash your clothes in cold water.  Today’s detergents and machines are made to handle that – and it turns out that THREE-QUARTERS of the energy your washer uses, and the greenhouse gas emissions that it creates – comes just from heating the water.

Got a dishwasher?  Use it, but use it only when it’s full.  That could cut 100 pounds of CO2emissions every year (and you’ll save money too).

And speaking of water, if you turn down the temperature on your water heater from what it usually is (140 degrees Fahrenheit), to 120 degrees – you can knock off another 550 pounds of CO2, each year.

Here’s a different energy saving tip for the house – change out those old incandescent light bulbs for CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs) – the twisty bulbs.  Yes, the old CFLs were not so great – but today’s bulbs are quiet, come in almost every size and shape you could want, and the quality of the light is good (“warmer”, in the trade).  The typical CFL bulb uses just TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT of the electricity the old incandescent bulbs use – so if every household in the country made the switch, we’d cut 62.5 million tons of CO2 emissions each year.  (They last longer too, a lot longer – so you’ll save money on light bulbs as well.)

Now, if you want more of a challenge (or if you’ve already done all that), here’s something a little more demanding, for most of us.

One day every week when you would be having a burger or something else with beef – eat something with chicken instead.  Yes, it’s the cow “f__t” thing.  Cows are a serious source of methane (a greenhouse gas).  Switching one day a week, keeps the equivalent of 730 pounds of CO2 out of the atmosphere, every year.  And if all of us in the U.S., had a “no meat” day once a week – well, that’s a lot greenhouse gas that never gets into the air.

Maybe none of that seems like such a big deal when you do it, or your neighbor does it – but when everyone does – the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions adds up to a lot.  And of course, there are more changes we can make too – you may have your own list – and everything any of us does, helps.  (And while you’re doing everything else, don’t forget to take care of your car  too.)

New study unpacks the environmental impact of paper, plastic, and reusable bags.

Paper or plastic?

paper bag and plastic bag side by side

If your answer to that is, “Duh” — read on, and you might be surprised at what the New York Times found recently:

“Even though paper bags are made from trees, which are, in theory, a renewable resource, it takes significantly more energy to create pulp and manufacture a paper bag than it does to make a single-use plastic bag from oil.”

Citing a British study that looked at the A to Z of making a bag, “You’d have to reuse a paper bag at least three times before its environmental impact equaled that of a high-density polyethylene plastic bag used only once.  And if plastic bags were reused repeatedly, they looked even better.”

And bags that are designed to be reusable?  They have an even higher upfront environmental cost (like the land, energy, emissions, etc. that come from growing cotton).  “The study found that an avid shopper would have to reuse his or her cotton bag 131 times before it had a smaller global warming impact than a lightweight plastic bag used only once.”

Maybe that wasn’t the answer you were expecting.  But it’s not an answer that should make us throw up our arms in despair.  Here are our takeaways:

  1. Whatever sort of bag you use, use it again, and again and again.
  2. When you’re done using a plastic bag, think of it as raw material for making new plastic — not as trash. Recycle it instead of tossing it.  And if your community doesn’t have recycling for plastic bags — well, there’s some work waiting to be done.
  3. Sometimes the obvious answer to what’s best for the environment, turns out not to be the right answer. And in the fight against global warming, often there isn’t just one right answer anyhow.

(And if you’d like to read the original story in the Times, you’ll find that here:  Plastic Bags, or Paper?  Here’s What to Consider When You Hit the Grocery Store)

Mazda’s new SKYACTIV-X engine provides the best of gasoline and diesel

If you have a car, odds are, the engine under the hood is an internal combustion engine.  That means, among other things, that every few hundred miles or so, you pull into a gas station and fill up the car’s fuel tank with gasoline or diesel.  That’s how it’s been since the first cars hit the road.

There are other ways to power a car – and 100 years from now, who knows what will be under the hood.  But today, and for the foreseeable future, it’s the internal combustion engine that will be getting us where we need to go.

Is that a bad thing?  Nope.

Nope – because it’s a proven, reliable, affordable engine – and because the internal combustion engine keeps getting better.

Better, as in 15 percent more fuel-efficient – and from the same engine, 15 percent more oomph (or torque, if you want to get technical). And it’s the engineers at Mazda and their new SKYACTIV-X engine which gets those new numbers.  We’ve mentioned it before, but today we thought we’d do a little Engine 101, and explain (a bit) how Mazda got to their new version of a classic.

The short (really short) explanation, is that Mazda combined a diesel and a gasoline engine into one engine.

(Photo from Mazda)

Here’s the slightly longer explanation:

  • Diesel fuel and gasoline are both made from the same barrel of oil – but there are differences between the engines that use them. Both engines get their power from burning the fuel.  Both engines use pistons that push up and down inside cylinders, which turns a crankshaft, which connects to the clutch, which connects to the gears, which connects to the axle, which moves the wheels.
  • But – in a diesel engine, the power comes from compressing the fuel. The piston moves up, and squeezes the fuel into such a small space that it gets hot and explodes, pushing the piston down, which turns the crankshaft, and so on.
  • In a gasoline engine, the power comes from setting the fuel on fire. The piston moves up, but not as much – and then a spark plug ignites the fuel, which explodes, pushes the piston, and so on.
  • Now, in the SKYACTIV-X, Mazda uses the fuel-squeezing compression of a diesel engine, and the ignition by spark plug from a gasoline engine. And that, along with some other engine tweaking, and some extra clean-up of the exhaust – gets the benefits of both a diesel and a gasoline engine, in one engine.

(Visual learners – you can watch Mazda’s version of Engine 101.)

And those benefits would be:  more power (like a diesel) – better fuel-efficiency (like a gasoline engine) – smooth, quick response when you put your foot on the gas (combination of both) – and, you fill up as always, at your local gas station.

So while we’re waiting for the nuclear fusion powered cars of the future, it turns out the trusty internal combustion engine has still got plenty up its (cylinder) sleeve.  Or as Mark Twain once said: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”

New composite bodies take pole position in NASCAR

After Tyler Reddick won this year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series’ MoneyLion 300 at Talladega Superspeedway – he figured that a year ago, if he’d driven the same track, the same way, he would have lost.

That’s because last year he was driving a steel body car, and this year?  NASCAR’s new carbon fiber composite car.  So early in the race, when Reddick had a close encounter with the wall, as he told Autoweek:  “It hurt the car pretty bad.  I’m not sure if the steel body would have handled that as well as the composite.”

His crew chief was sure though.  Here’s how Randy Burnett broke it down for Autoweek:  “If it were the ol’ steel body, it would have done more damage and hurt us more. … I think the composite bodies are very durable.  Same thing when he won the championship last year.  He kept hitting the wall at Homestead and you can’t do that with a steel body.

“With the old car, that contact would have destroyed the car and gave a lot more work to do.”

The new car, which is now THE car for all of NASCAR’s XFINITY series races, looks like the old car – but instead of that old steel body riveted and welded together – this car body is assembled from 13 panels that basically snap together, and bolt onto the chassis.  As Reddick and Burnett can testify, the composite body is stronger.  It’s also lighter, and because it’s assembled in snap on/snap off panels – it’s a lot easier and faster to fix, in case you overdo your Darlington Stripe.

Ok, so now you’re wondering – what IS this composite car body all about?  For starters, we’re talking polymers (or to be old school about it, plastics).  But composite means we’ve got a mix of materials, so we bring in carbon fiber to reinforce that plastic.  And it’s not just any old plastic either.  This high-tech polymer is from a chemical family called epoxides (aka epoxy resin).  Epoxy keeps those fibers in place and produces a material that is lightweight and as strong as steel.  Then layer those sheets of carbon fiber, with the fibers of each sheet going in crisscross directions (for added strength).  Finally, you can laminate or “sandwich” those sheets between a material like fiberglass on the outside.  (And in the case of these cars, apparently there’s some Kevlar® in there too – which you know is tough, because it’s the stuff they make body armor from.)

The chemistry of all that (because that’s where the magic is) looks like this:  the carbon fiber itself is often made from polyacrylonitrile (PAN), which starts with the building block propylene.  The epoxy?  Also from the petrochemical propylene.  Fiberglass?  Glass fiber in epoxy.  And Kevlar®?  An aramid fiber, made from benzene and xylene.

And maybe that’s just right, that the new NASCAR cars are built out of materials made from petrochemicals, which come from petroleum (and natural gas).  After all, what makes NASCAR run is another petroleum product – gasoline.


Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

Ralph Lauren’s New Polo is Made Entirely from Plastic Bottles

“Something old, something new, something green or white or blue.”

What is it?  Ok, there’s probably more than one answer to that – but the answer we’re thinking of – is the new Earth Polo.

(photo from Ralph Lauren)

That’s the new shirt from Ralph Lauren – which comes in white or green or two shades of blue (baby or navy).  Your new Earth Polo shirt is made entirely from old plastic bottles(about 12 of them).  But when that plastic is turned into yarn, it makes a soft, comfortable, moisture-wicking shirt (Ralph Lauren says that even some of the Polo team couldn’t tell which was the old fabric, and which was the new, made-from-plastics).

You can even recycle the shirt, when that time has come (though since RL makes a pretty good shirt, that time shouldn’t come for some time).  The company has committed to (re)using 170 million plastic bottles for its clothing, by the year 2025.

The plastic for these shirts, incidentally, comes through the First Mile initiative, which “captures” plastic, removing it from the trash and recycling it (while ensuring that the men and women who do the work are paid a living wage).  Call it PET* to Polo.  Polo, you know – PET, is the plastic used to make water bottles – and in turn, that plastic is made from the petrochemicals ethylene and xylene (which are produced from petroleum and natural gas).

If you’re wondering about the choice of colors, by the way, Ralph Lauren says that when you look at the Earth from space, those are the four colors you can see.  And in an added touch of “green”, Earth Polo is using a process that doesn’t use any water to apply its dyes.

You can see for yourself what the finished product looks like, in a store, of course – or by clicking over to  Earth Polo.


*“PET” being polyethylene terephthalate, so you can see why they shortened it.

STEM Experiment: Make Your Own Bouncy Balls

If your kids think that the idea of a STEM experiment, learning about polymers, sounds like life before Snapchat (aka, boring!), then we’ve got a word for you:  Boing!

Yep, we’ve got a DIY bouncy ball project for you (courtesy of the scientists who work in the Fun Department at Valero).  It’s quick too, so your kids will be out of the “lab” and into bouncing their new ball off the floor, the wall, the ceiling, in no time.

Here’s what you’ll need: 

  • White school glue (for a lot of us, that’d be Elmer’s – but any white glue will work) – 1 tablespoon.
  • Food coloring (you choose).
  • Borax powder (if you don’t have any already in the house, you can find it at almost any hardware store, grocery store (in the laundry detergent aisle), or those really big stores) – 1/2 teaspoon.
  • Cornstarch – 3 tablespoons.
  • Warm water – 4 tablespoons.
  • 2 cups (for mixing in) – small ones will do.

Here’s what you’ll do:

  • Mix the cornstarch, borax and warm water in cup #1.
  • Mix the glue and food coloring in cup #2.
  • Pour cup #1 into cup #2.
  • Stir, stir, stir until a slimy glob forms in the middle of the cup (But don’t stop yet! We’re not making slime today.)
  • Take the glob out of the cup (There will be some extra liquid left in the cup. That’s fine.) and roll it in your hands into a ball (it will be stretchy and stringy at first, then it comes together).  If it’s still a little wet, dry it with a paper towel.
  • And Boing! It’s a ball.

If you’d like to watch all that being done, before trying it yourself, here you go:  DIY Bouncy Ball.

The science of all that?  

A “polymer” is something made up of long chains of big molecules – in this case, the main ingredient of the glue, polyvinyl acetate (PVAc).  Those molecule “chains” can slide past each other, so you can pour the glue out of the bottle. 

That PVAc is the result of a couple chemistry reactions that begin with the petrochemical ethylene.  The ethylene is used to make a monomer called vinyl acetate, and that vinyl acetate is converted to POLYvinyl acetate (see what we did there?).

Chemistry tip: just add “poly” to the front of the monomer name and you have the polymer name.

But add borax to the polymer glue and you get slime, a sort of liquid, sort of solid.  That’s because the borax “ties” those big molecules together (a scientist would call that “cross-linking”) so they don’t slide anymore, they squish and squash.

Now add cornstarch, and you’re entering non-Newtonian fluid territory (very sciency stuff here).  The result?  Even more solid now, and less gooey – so you can form your slime into a ball.

And that same polymer principle (long, connected chains of molecules) is behind the many plastics we use every day – from the plastic used to make milk jugs, to the polymer fiber in outdoor rugs, to the plastics in our phone casing and keyboard, to the carbon fiber-reinforced plastics that airplanes and cars and bikes are built from.

Product                        Monomer                                            Polymer                       

Milk Jug                        ethylene                                              polyethylene

Outdoor Rug               propylene                                             polypropylene

Phones                          acrylonitrile-butadiene                     poly (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene)

Carbon Fiber               acrylonitrile                                         polyacrylonitrile

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

New fabrics have the potential to replace greenhouses

Turns out that a nice set of threads isn’t just a good look for you or me – it’s pretty sharp on a cherry tree too.  And for that matter, a peach tree, an olive tree, a grape vine, a tomato plant, a head of lettuce.  All sorts of fruits and vegetables do better “dressed up.”

Granted, it’s not quite the same look.  These threads – are custom-made polymer fabrics, designed especially for all that grows down on the farm.

Take Protecta®, for instance.  That’s a fabric specially designed to protect (naturally) cherry trees, especially from rain, which can ruin the fruit.  Using a high-density polyethylene, a polymer made from the petrochemical ethylene, Protecta® is something like Gore-Tex® for trees:  it breathes, so the trees get air;  it lets through light (even Gore-Tex can’t do that) so the fruit can grow and ripen;  and, it blocks out almost all the rain (the trees DO need some water).  And the monofilament fiber is strong too (so it holds up to years of wind and rain and sun).

(Photo courtesy of Arrigoni)

…that’s what a Protecta®-protected orchard looks like from underneath.

And Arrigoni, the Italian company that turned polymers into protection for cherry trees, has a whole series of farm fabrics for various crops. They started out as a fabric company back in 1936 that specialized in weaving. Most of their fabrics, tape and netting is polyethylene and polypropylene – you guessed it, derived from the base petrochemicals ethylene and propylene. Each different type of fabric, tape or netting uses unique weave patterns to achieve the desired protection. Chemistry and plant haute couture!

They’ve got a fabric cover made from specially woven polyethylene tape that keeps the sun from scorching berry plants, like strawberries (which, incidentally account for about 70 percent of the berries grown worldwide).

(Photo courtesy of Arrigoni)

Worried about your wine grapes?  Arrigoni’s got high-density polyethylene nets that keep hail off the grapes, and protect against too much heat and sunlight.  There’s netting to protect ground crops like cabbage (from birds) and root crops like carrots (from bugs).

(Photo courtesy of Arrigoni)

It all falls under the heading of agrotextiles – which take the idea of a greenhouse, and bring it out into the fields:  polymer nets and sheeting on frames built up over trees – draped over grape vines – spread over ground crops.  Using fabrics woven from polymers (made from petrochemicals) protect plants, while allowing the necessary sunlight and water through.  And because the material is fabric, not glass – it’s possible to set up wherever crops are growing, and take down when it’s not needed, or to move elsewhere.

With more and more people to feed every year, protecting the food we grow is all the more important.  And thanks to the agrotextile industry, polymers are helping our cherry and peach and apple trees stay fruitful (and their crop counterparts on the ground too).

Dine under water with incredible views beneath the ocean surface

At the Norwegian restaurant Under, if you ask for a table by the window…

(Photo Courtesy of Under)
(Photo Courtesy of Under)

…that’s your view.  And “that” – would be the North Sea, from about 16 feet below the surface.

The “secret sauce” at Under is acrylic plastic – not on your fish (and yes, it IS a seafood restaurant) – but in that 13 foot-high window (13 by 36, by the way, so that’s a LOT of acrylic).

An American company, Reynolds Polymer Technology, built the window – using acrylic (specifically, polymethyl methacrylate, or PMMA) because it was strong enough to survive North Sea waves and weather, and clear enough to show off that incredible view.

And the “secret sauce” in PMMA – is either the petrochemical ethylene or propylene.  Refined from petroleum (or natural gas), ethylene or propylene is the starting point for a series of chemical reactions that wind up in this case, producing a 13-foot tall acrylic window.

Now you can’t point out that window at a passing crab or fish, and tell your server, “I’ll have that one.”  But you might well see crabs and lobsters, dogfish and urchins, pollack and cod, and maybe a wrasse or two, all swimming just on the other side of the window.  And what you see today, might be on someone else’s plate the next day.

If you’d like to see Under for yourself, you’ll find it in Lindesnes, which is the southern tip of Norway; here’s the link for booking a table.  Word is though, they’re full up into August.  But you know what they say about autumn in Norway…

New kayak is made completely from recycled plastic recovered from the ocean

Here’s the story of a company that is putting plastic INTO the ocean.  And – it’s a good thing.

Because the plastic that Odyssey Innovation puts into the water – is in the form of a kayak.  AND (second good thing) – that plastic used to make the kayak is recycled plastic trash that has been in the ocean.

(Courtesy of Odyssey Innovation)

So plastic trash out of the water – recycled-plastic-turned-into-kayak back in the water.  That’s nicely done.

This story started with a kayak too (the non-plastic variety).   Rob Thompson, founder of Odyssey (based in Cornwall, in the UK) was out on the water in his kayak, for a clean-up-the ocean-day.  And when he got back on shore, he thought there must be something to do with the plastics they’d brought in – instead of just tossing on land, everything they’d collected on water).

Fast forward through a couple of years spent researching, experimenting, trial and erroring – and Odyssey’s first recycled plastic kayak hit the water.  Today, they are out regularly, collecting plastic that’s wound up in the ocean and bringing it in for recycling.  Some of the plastic is polyethylene (from ethylene), which is recycled into high-density polyethylene and used to make their kayaks.  Other plastic, such as polypropylene and PET, not suitable for that purpose, gets turned into other things.

We like the way Odyssey puts it on their website:  “Plastics from the Ocean should be seen as a resource.  It’s unacceptable to remove this resource from our Oceans and bury or incinerate it if it can be recycled.”  As Rob Thompson told Forbes Magazine earlier this year:  “It’s absolutely crazy, in a society, that you end up with a resource causing an environmental problem.”

Agreed.  And taking plastic trash out of the ocean – putting that plastic back in the water as a kayak – that’s a creative (re)use of a valuable resource.

(A resource, by the way, which originally comes from petrochemicals — produced from either petroleum or natural gas.  Plastic bottles, for instance, are often made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is made from petrochemicals, ethylene and xylene.  Fishing nets, which too often end up as floating trash, those are generally made of polyethylene, the polymer made from ethylene, or nylon, a polymer that starts with the petrochemical benzene.)

Oh, if you’re interested, you can check out Odyssey’s kayaks for yourself.

3D printing techniques could revolutionize rhinoplasty

More than two hundred thousand of us last year, made a doctor’s visit for a bit of rhinoplasty – or as it’s more commonly called, a nose job.

It is a job too.  They cut, they stitch, they take out, they put in.

Here’s how the doctors at the Mayo Clinic describe it:  “Rhinoplasty may be done inside your nose or through a small external cut at the base of your nose … Your surgeon will likely readjust the bone and cartilage underneath your skin … For small changes, the surgeon may use cartilage taken from deeper inside your nose or from your ear.  For larger changes, the surgeon can use cartilage from your rib, implants or bone from other parts of your body.  After these changes are made, the surgeon places the nose’s skin and tissue back and stitches the incisions in your nose.”

Or as we’d describe that:  Ouch!

So here’s a piece of good news for your nose – we might able to say good bye to those scalpels and sutures in the future.

Scientists at two universities in Southern California (Occidental and UC Irvine) teamed up to experiment with using electricity (low dose) to “soften” the collagen in our nose (which is a fiber that gives shape to cartilage).  After a few minutes of that, on goes a 3D-printed mold (the kind generally made from petrochemical-derived polymers like polyacrylates from propylene), made to the shape of the new nose-to-be.  Turn off the current, take off the mold, give the cartilage a bit to resolidify – and, voilà.  No cutting or scraping or sewing.  Just a new nose.

So far, the new procedure is promising, but it is also still in the let’s-test-this-out-first stage – so don’t call to book your procedure just yet.

By the way, if you’re wondering why a nose job is rhinoplasty and does that have anything to do with rhinoceroses, we’ve got that for you:  “rhino”, goes back to the Greek, and of course means, nose (“plasty” is the surgery part).  And, if you looked like this…

…well, the other kids might have called you Rhino too.

Merchant Ships Ready to Set Sail with Cleaner Fuel Standards

Even though almost three-quarters of the planet is covered in water, there are a LOT of ships out there on that water.

That’s more than 53,000 merchant ships, not to mention thousands of warships and countless small boats.  But sail boats aside, just about all of those ships have engines, and most of those engines run on diesel fuel.

By one estimate, even though ship fuel accounts for about 7 percent of the total used for transportation (land, air and sea) – it also accounts for about 90 percent of the sulfur dioxide emissions from transportation.  And that – makes new rules about cleaner fuels for ships, big news for all of us.

Starting next year, big ships have to use fuel with a lower (much lower, from 3.5 to .5 percent) sulfur content – or a ship has to be equipped with scrubbers, to clean its exhaust before it hits the outside air.  The project is IMO 2020 – and this move to cleaner fuel is an agreement signed on to by more than 170 countries (“IMO” stands for International Maritime Organization).

Altogether, this affects ships that currently use about 3 million barrels of fuel every day – so that’s a lot of new and improved fuel to bring on line.

Fortunately, along with shipping companies, U.S. refineries have been preparing for IMO 2020 as well – and they are ready to meet the demand for cleaner fuel at sea (as they’ve worked to produce cleaner fuels for transportation on land and in the air as well.  In fact, the new fuel ships will be using will be more like the cleaner diesel that already runs today’s trucks).

As the Coalition for American Energy Security put it, “The U.S. refining sector is prepared to meet demand for low-sulfur fuel.  The investments made by U.S. energy producers will ensure that timely implementation of the IMO standards will provide greater energy security…These standards give the U.S. a significant advantage over foreign oil producers whose nations haven’t made necessary infrastructure investments.”

And, that ocean air will smell a little saltier, come 2020.

3D Printing Lets Manufacturers Efficiently Create Replacement Parts for Classic Cars

Maybe you’re the kind of person who knows why a ’64 Mustang is a big deal.

(That was the year Ford introduced the Mustang.)

Or the kind of person who knows what made the ’63 Chevy Corvette Sting Ray so distinctive?

(The split-window in the back.)

Or, if someone were to ask you what car Elvis bought in 1958 – you’d know the answer was a BMW 507 (which he picked up in Germany while doing his tour of duty in the Army).  This is what it looked like 5 years ago, by the way…

(Photo Courtesy of BMW)

But whatever kind of old car you like, and like to work on – we’ve got a new tool for your workshop.  A 3D printer.  Yes, a printer.

Because now, you can print parts for old cars.  In fact, when BMW was restoring Elvis’s old ride – they printed up some of those parts.  (Even BMW didn’t have parts anymore for a 507 from the ‘50s.)   And it all turned out pretty well we’d say…

(Photo Courtesy of BMW)

That’s Elvis’s car now, after the BMW mechanics (and 3D printers) worked on it.

Lots of car makers are using 3D printed parts in their new cars these days – Ford and Mercedes-Benz, Audi and GM, even Rolls Royce.  But the big deal about printing parts for older cars – is that sometimes a part just isn’t available anymore, or a replacement part would have to be custom-made ($$$).

DId you know…

If you’re curious about what materials those 3D printers are using, the answer is:  lots of different materials.  But like today’s new cars, polymers (aka plastic) are often the raw material.  That could be plastic – as in ABS, the plastic based on the petrochemicals, ethylene, propylene, butadiene and benzene – or your polypropylene gas tank made from propylene.  And that could be plastic – as in carbon-fiber composite, made from the petrochemical propylene – used to produce the body panels and structural components of a car.

We’re going to borrow a bit of the story here from the folks who cover this story regularly at 3D Printing Industry:

Talking about a Mercedes project to print replacement parts for its 1950s-era 300 SL Coupe, 3D explains:  “One of the benefits of 3D printing is that it allows manufacturing directly from CAD [Computer-Aided Design] models without the need for the task-specific toolset.

“Using old 3D designs where available or by creating new ones from old 2D drawings, Daimler Groups has manufactured the obsolete parts…”

Porsche also is using 3D printing to make spare parts for its Classic cars (meaning older cars, and older means back as far as 1948) – to avoid the cost of stockpiling extra parts for when and if they are needed, or the cost of tooling up to make a spare part long after they’ve stopped making the original car.

How far can this go?  Here’s what the motorheads at Popular Mechanic think:

“…now shops can scan entire irreplaceable cars for reference and use that information to print identical replacement parts in case of catastrophe.  This ability means that they could also choose to print all the parts to create an exact clone of a priceless gem.”


And while that’s a high-end service now, the 3D printers, the scanners, the CAD programs – it’s all out there, and it only gets less-expensive and more available.  Who knows, maybe one day, your next car buying experience will be:  “Alexa, print me a car.”

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

New Helmet Technology to Protect Our Heroes

How’s your Star Wars IQ?

Recognize this line?  “As you wish.”


How about this one:  “He’s no good to me dead.”

Ok, if THAT didn’t give it away, see if this reminds you of anyone…

(Photo from HiConsumption)

No, that isn’t “his” helmet, but this helmet reminds us of Boba Fett.  (Those lines WERE his lines though – two out of his four lines in The Empire Strikes Back.)

But while this helmet, made by DEVTAC, a Japanese company – would look at home on Boba Fett – in fact, it’s out on our planet today.

Here’s what its creators have to say about it:

  • The Kevlar® (a polymer, made from the petrochemicals benzene and xylene)-reinforced ballistic version can stop a round from a .44 Magnum.
  • You can customize the helmet with a heads-up display (with information like maps or troop locations). And there’s a ventilation system, plus fan, to keep the polycarbonate (benzene again, along with propylene through the Cumene Process) lenses from fogging up.
  • You can attach an infrared camera for night-vision capability.
  • It uses powerful magnets for quick on-off, and easy removal of detachable armor plates (to turn the full-on helmet into just a face mask, or vice versa as needed).
  • And yes, it DOES make you look like the warrior of the future.

Did You Know?

Kevlar® is made from aramid fiber, which is made from benzene and xylene, two key petrochemicals – and petrochemicals, are the chemicals produced by breaking apart or physically separating molecules found in petroleum or natural gas.  So while Kevlar® is not found in nature, it IS produced from what nature has given us.

At the moment, if you saw one of these, it’d most likely be on a SWAT team officer or maybe special operations forces – but Boba Fett-style gear does seem to be where warfare is headed (and we told you earlier this year about the “Iron Man” suit being developed by the U.S. military).

Meantime, if all this has you jonesing for more Boba Fett, you might want to check out the Boba Fett Fan Club (which is, yes, a real thing).

From Farm to Pint Glass: What Goes Into Making Your Beer

What goes into beer?  That can be as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4:

  1. Barley (or some other grain)
  2. water
  3. hops
  4. yeast.

(Ok, unless you’re the kind of person who likes your beer with “overt but not overbearing banana and clove”, or maybe “notes of muted fleshy stone fruit and subtle guava.”  And yes, those ARE descriptions of real beers.  We’ll let them go unnamed though;  it’s better for all of us that way.)

Making beer from even those simple ingredients though – that does take a little something extra.  Starting with…

This is the farm, that grew the grains (and hops), that make our beer.

From tilling, to plowing, from fertilizing and finally, harvesting the various grains and hops that go into our beer – it takes fuel to run the tractors and other equipment, and odds are, that fuel is diesel.

This is the brewery, that mashed (and lautered and hopped and fermented) the grains, that grew on the farm, that make our beer.

All those processes require a lot of heating and cooling that goes on, which takes energy, which takes fuel (like natural gas).

These are the bottles (and cans and kegs), that hold the beer, that the brewery brewed, from the grains that grew on the farm, that make our beer.

Making glass bottles, aluminum cans, steel (or plastic) kegs – that also takes plenty of energy (more natural gas).

These are trucks, that haul the bottles (and cans and kegs), that hold the beer, that the brewery brewed, from the grains that grew on the farm, that make our beer.

Now, we’ve got all those cases and cases (or kegs) of beer in cans and bottles at the brewery.  Getting that beer to us?  The trusty beer truck, running on equally trusty diesel fuel.

Now, if you’re sensing a theme here (besides beer), you’re right.  Making and moving beer, depends on fuels made from petroleum (like diesel) and natural gas (like natural gas).

And, if you want to go all nerdy about it, petrochemicals made from petroleum and natural gas, are also used to make the cool reverse osmosis membranes that are sometimes used to filter the water used for beer – made from polymers made from petrochemicals.

Did You Know?

Modern reverse osmosis membranes for purified water are composites that include a polyamide and a polyethersulfone, two high-tech engineered plastics.  The polyamide component is made from a special type of nylon that is reacted with polyethylene glycol. The nylon component begins with benzene and the polyethylene glycol with ethylene.  Polyethersulfone is a high-performance polymer that also starts with benzene (isn’t benzene versatile?) to produce the sulfone part of the molecule.  Benzene and propylene are reacted in the important Cumene Process to make phenol and acetone, which are used to make the ether part of the polyethersulfone molecule.  Thank goodness chemists can make sense of all this!

And this is you, enjoying your beer, that came on the truck, in a bottle (or can or keg), that the brewery brewed, from the grains that grew on the farm, that make our beer.

Aston Martin uses 3D-printing and aerospace tech to build their new concept car

Rotating license plates, oil slicks and smoke screens, bullet-proof screen in the back and machine guns in the front – and, an ejector seat.  Oh yeah, that’s James Bond’s classic Aston Martin.

But now Aston Martin is back with something that’s just about as cool – a 3D-printed car.  Ok, not the entire car.  But a lot of it.

And this is no ordinary car (well, being an Aston Martin, you probably figured that already).

(Photo from Aston Martin)

You can’t see it from that view, but a good bit of the inside is printed, including the center console (which is half the weight of a conventionally-made console).  The car is built around a carbon fiber structure, which cuts the weight of the car even more.  (And those lighter materials are made possible in the first place, by petrochemical-made polymers.)

Did You Know?

Carbon fiber is a simple name for a very high-tech material.  First, they take propylene and mix it with ammonia and air to convert it to acrylonitrile.  Then, they polymerize the acrylonitrile to make polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fiber – see how adding the “poly” to acrylonitrile means that it’s now a plastic?  After that, the PAN fiber is subjected to very high temperature without oxygen (so it doesn’t burn, and we’ll learn more about pyrolysis later), which creates a special new carbon fiber that when placed in an epoxy a certain way, makes a material that is as strong as steel, but a fraction of the weight.  Oh yeah, that epoxy is also made from a petrochemical called propylene.

Aston Martin hasn’t said yet (the car is still in the concept stage) how fast it will be, but when Car and Driver asked how it would stack up to 789 horsepower of the McLaren Senna – Aston Martin said, yeah, its new car’s twin-turbo V-6 (with hybrid assistance) would probably be at least as powerful.  (The new Aston Martin doesn’t make smoke screens or oil slicks, even James Bond probably wouldn’t need them, not with that kind of horsepower.)

Here’s a couple of other cool things about the new ride.  Aston Martin has borrowed some tech from the aerospace industry, to make a rear wing for the car that can “flex” without any moving parts – to whatever angle minimizes drag and turbulence.  Oh, and the new car will have Castrol’s new 90-second oil change system!

If you’re curious about what Bond’s original Aston Martin looked like, by the way, it looked like this:

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

You can’t buy that one;  it’s sitting in a Dutch museum.  And Aston Martin only plans to make 500 of the new ones, so if you’re interested, you might want to act sooner rather than later.

Just ask for “An Aston Martin.  Printed, not welded.”  Or something like that.

Merebeth Veit logs over 60,000 miles a year as a “pet mover”

What do a French bulldog, a guinea pig, an Angora rabbit, a turtle, a hamster – and a cat named Traveller – all have in common?

Merebeth Veit’s car.

Veit is a pet mover.  Let’s say a pet owner has to move across country for a new job, or sometimes a new deployment (for families in the military).  Or sometimes, a pet owner-to-be finds their new pet online, in a different city or different state.  Transactions might be virtual these days, but to get a new pet to a new owner – that takes an actual car and driver, like Merebeth Veit.

All of which adds up to about 60,000 miles a year on the road – moving about 100 pets a year from Point A to Point B.  (Her starting point is in South Carolina, but she’s covered most of the Continental United States.  At last count, only Montana, Washington and Oregon weren’t on her list.  Yet.)

Here’s an example:

“A young couple from San Francisco found a [French bulldog] online.  He was at an animal rescue center in St. Louis, so they employed Merebeth to transport him by car to their home in California. .. Together they traveled on a road trip through Colorado, Utah and northern Nevada.”

(Picture by Merebeth Veit, from BBC News.)

Of course, there is an occupational hazard to her job (ok, two hazards:  a cat bit her once).

“’I got so attached to that dog,’ says Merebeth, wistfully.  ‘I’ve got a ton of pictures of him – super sweet. … After three nights traveling together I was so in love.  It’s happened a few times.’”


But as much as she cares for the animals, she likes the travel just as much.  In fact, if there’s a place she’s never been and wants to see, she’ll just find a pet who needs to go there.  So long as the end of the journey is the end of a road, Merebeth Veit is off on a road trip.

As she told the BBC, “It’s a win-win, you see … I love animals and I love to drive. … I created my dream job: pet transporter.”

And if you’ve got a pet who needs a ride – you can find Merebeth Veit on uShip.

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

The refabricator turns plastic waste into raw material for 3D printing — in space

Have you seen “The Refabricator” yet?

We won’t tell anybody, but if you HAVE seen it – that probably makes you a science geek.  Because “The Refabricator” isn’t a science fiction series streaming on Netflix – it’s a science fact, on board the International Space Station.

In fact, The Refabricator IS a refabricator.

(Photo from NASA)

And WHAT, you ask, does a refabricator do?

It’s a combination of a plastic recycling machine and a 3D-printer:  the astronauts feed in plastic waste – the Refabricator melts that down – and turns it into “high quality” filament (this is NASA, after all, so not just any filament will do).  Then the astronauts can use that, to print something they need.

A quick note…

Almost all plastic, of any kind, used for anything – starts with petrochemicals.  In this case, plastic bags generally are made from polyethylene or polypropylene, which is made from the petrochemical, ethylene or propylene (ok, that was pretty obvious).  And foam?  Most commonly, that’s made from polystyrene, which in turn is made from the petrochemical, benzene (sorry, benzene is reacted with ethylene to make ethylbenzene, then styrene, which is then converted to polystyrene. But a direct conversion of benzene would have been too easy.  Isn’t chemistry fun?).

So, for example, the plastic bags and foam that much of their supplies come packed in?

(Photo from NASA)

You could send it back down to Earth, but at a shipping cost around $10,000 a pound – well, maybe not.  And on the other hand, when you need something, like a new spork, you don’t want to be calling Mission Control every time.

The Refabricator can turn those into a plastic syringe, a custom-made wrench, a space spork, whatever you can print on a 3D-printer.  And in theory, they can do that over and over and over again (in fact, the Refabricator is a test of that theory – to see how many times you can recycle the same plastic before it starts to degrade).

Recycling plastic is cool and responsible and important, of course – but on the International Space Station, recycling is even more all of those things.

For starters, there isn’t much space up there in space – it’s tight quarters inside the space station, so you don’t want to just store the recycling.

The Refabricator could be the solution to both problems.  Need to take out the recycling? – pop it into the Refabricator.  Need a new tool? – print one up on the Refabricator.

Important as it is on the space station, gear like the Refabricator could be an essential part of more distant space missions – like a voyage to Mars, where there might be years between one mission and the next.  And one day, we might even see Refabricators here on Earth (drop off your plastic bottles on one trip to the grocery store – and next time, you might pick them up again, as your six-pack of Aquafina).

By the way, there actually IS a Refabricator movie (ok, a short – it’s only 3-and-a-half minutes long), and on this NASA ScienceCast you can take a look for yourself.  (Maybe the tag line for this show should be:  “The Refabricator:  because there are no blue bins in outer space.”)

Click here to read more about what’s new, what’s next and what it means for you.

“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em”… (Yep, the folding phone is here.)

It was all over this year’s CES, the big Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

 Folding in this case, means a folding screen.  We’ve seen folding phones before, of course (but read down for some news about a return of the all-time classic flip phone).

Now we’re talking about a fold-up smartphone.  Like this…

…that’s the FlexPai, from Royole – and that phone, you could order right now (though we’re not saying you should).  From a more familiar name, Samsung has now introduced the Galaxy Fold – which opens from phone (that screen is on the “outside”) to phablet (this screen is on the inside, like opening a book).  Huawei has the Mate X (and like the FlexPai, the big screen is on the “outside”, like the front and back cover of a book).  There’s even talk about a foldable iPhone – one of these days.

And what makes ANYBODY’S folding phone possible?  Some really smart engineers – and some very special polymers called polyimides, produced from petrochemicals.  [Polymers are long strings of molecules and each individual molecular unit in the polymer comes from a reactive molecule called a monomer.]

What makes these special polyimides so strong AND flexible are very complex monomers based on one or more benzene rings [that’s a chemical “ring”, by the way, not a “one ring to rule them all” sort of ring], which makes them perfect for a folding screen (and which also makes them a lot more likely to survive your cool new phone falling out of your pocket onto some strong, inflexible concrete sidewalk).

And those polymers [try saying, “poly (4,4’-oxydiphenylamine pyromellitimide)” three times.  Ok, try saying it just once!] are made from petrochemicals like benzene, toluene and xylene – which in turn are made from petroleum and natural gas.

So what else can you do with those polymers.  Well, the original cool flip phone, Motorola’s Razr…

…is coming back – but this time the “cool”, isn’t a folding phone, it’ll be a folding screen.

But maybe you want to go big.  Not just a phone.  Not even a phablet.  So how about one of the big hits of this year’s CES, literally big – a 65-inch TV that rolls up like a window shade.

(In the front, that’s the TV in its box.  On the left, the partially “unfurled” TV.  And on the right, that’s 65 inches of viewing pleasure.)

So — want to watch the last season of Game of Thrones?  Pull up that big OLED screen (OLED stands for organic light emitting diode, a whole new ball game for advanced TVs).  Need to take a deep breath after the latest adventures of the Mother of Dragons?  Roll it back down and out of the way until next week (in case a big black square isn’t your idea of wall décor).  And don’t worry, you don’t do it by hand, though you can just tell it to roll up (which will make an excellent party trick, once).


[And if you think the polymer for polyamide-based FlexPai is complex, try adding an amide to your imide!  Now you have a polyamide-imide called poly(biphenyl tetracarboxylic acid dianhydride – phenylene diamine).  We won’t even ask you to say that once.  We’ll just say “thank you, chemistry majors” – for having figured it out, and figured out what to do with it.]

LG makes that roll-up TV, and you can watch it roll (though you’ll have to sit through about 40 seconds that might remind of the opening of 2001:  A Space Odyssey.  Be patient though.  It rolls.)

And since the TV screen rolls up (or down) into a box (on the scale of a big soundbar), it could be portable, so you could pick up your TV and move it to whatever room you want to watch in (while you’re saving up to buy one for each room, of course).

What makes all this cool stuff possible?  Those same petrochemicals – benzene, toluene and xylene – that let you stash a phablet in your pocket.  Not bad for a barrel of oil.  And who knows what’s down the road, or on the road?  Fold-up cars, anyone?