Hot Lava (keeps us warm at night)!

If you’ve been keeping warm with natural gas, or just firing up the stove at night to make dinner, you might want to take a moment to be thankful for – volcanoes.  Because without “Hot Lava” (and thank you, B-52s), there might be a lot less natural gas (at least in the United States).

This news comes from scientists at Rice University (with a little help from Shell), and tells a story that goes back to the time of the dinosaurs.  Or more precisely, the end of the time of the dinosaurs – the Cretaceous Period, if you remember your paleontology.

We give you a link to the deep science version of this story below, but here’s the ten second synopsis:

During the Cretaceous, there was a time of the volcanoes – hundreds of volcanoes erupting over millions of years, along what would become the West Coast of the United States.  From those volcanoes came massive amounts of ash (and lava too, of course), carried by the wind and dumped over what would become the western Midwest, from Texas to Montana.

But in those days, instead of Texas and Montana, there was ocean – since much of our continent was underwater.  And while volcanic ash is not something most of us would like to find on our plates, it’s a tasty dish (or some of the stuff in that ash is) for some microorganisms, like the phytoplankton that live in the ocean.

So the phytoplankton go on an eating binge (for millions of years), and since they are the starting point in the ocean food chain – everybody and everything underwater also eats well (for millions of years).  And when, in the way of the world, those plants and animals die, fall to the bottom, are covered in sediment, and so forth, over and over and over again – one result of all that carbon (our planet being home to carbon-based life) pressed under the surface is – vast deposits of natural gas.

Which eventually means that when the United States-to-be emerges from under the ocean and dries out – and then (millions of years later), we humans show up – an abundant supply of natural gas is waiting for us, in shale fields from Texas to Montana.  (And although this study didn’t look further east, it may be the same for that Marcellus shale gas field that runs through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio.)

It IS still a mystery as to what exactly did in the dinosaurs.  It may have been volcanoes that finished off T-rex and company.  But now it’s no mystery who many of us have to thank for a warm house in the winter or a roast chicken in the oven – volcanoes!

(And if you want to go deeper into the science, the Rice team published their report on

Drones and 3D printing AND fixing potholes?

Picture this:  a drone with cameras, featuring pothole-recognition software – spots a bit of damage on the highway.  A repair drone is sent out, equipped with a 3D asphalt printer to lay down some fresh pavement and presto, it’s smooth sailing (well, driving) once again.

How cool is that?  Very cool.  And while it isn’t road ready yet, it’s coming.

Still in the development stage, our compatriots across the pond at the University of Leeds are the ones working on this solution to a rough ride (proof that potholes respect no national boundaries, we suppose).  But they have built a test version, and its repair work is accurate to within one MILLIMETER (that’s about the thickness of a credit card) – which sounds pretty precise for street work.

So, city potholes?


Country potholes?


Car-eating potholes?

Well, maybe not.  Not yet, anyhow.

Personally though, we think a drone would look pretty good in one of those fluorescent safety vests.  The one challenge left?  A safety drone to drop (and pick up) those orange cones, to mark off the pothole while it’s being filled.

There’s more too.  The Pothole Patrol drones are part of a larger project on “self-repairing cities” – which might include robots that would “live” inside utility pipes, inspecting, reporting and even repairing leaks – drones that could drop down on a street light and replace a burned-out bulb – and probably other things we haven’t even thought of yet.  So if you’ve got an idea, now is the time to work on that drone to swoop down and pick up dog poop from the sidewalk, or….

“At a gas station, some of Reno’s best Mexican food”

So you’re on the way out of town in Reno, Nevada.  Wherever you’re going next, it’s probably a drive – so you want to fill up before you head out.

Now it could be that you’re flush, and you want to treat yourself before you hit the road.  Or it could be that you’re busted, and you need almost every penny from the change dish, from down between the seats, from your coat pocket – to cover gas money.

Either way, you can get some of the best Mexican food in town AND a full tank of gas, all in one affordable stop.  Just set your GPS for Burrito Express and Valero, on East Fourth Street.

This is a Mexican place, inside a convenience store, inside a Valero station – so, this is road trip food, to go.  But as the Reno Gazette-Journal ranks it, you’ll be going happy, if you’re leaving from Burrito Express:

“The asada is roasty from the grill, the mellower buche bedazzled with juicy pops of fat.”  (Ok, truthfully, if their reporter had stopped here, we’d be headed to the car already.  But there’s more.)

“The quesadilla?  It’s immense…Sweet, savory, caramelized pastor (with traditional pineapple chunks) spills from the quesadilla triangles;  ropes of cheese stretch between…”

“The torta, slicked by the grill, also can barely contain itself.  In fact, to get a handle on this bad boy, I have to eat some of the tender pork loin and grilled onion rounds before I take a bite.”

(Oh, and we hear the gasoline is top tier too.)

That, spells r-o-a-d t-r-i-p to us.

You can read the full review in the Reno Gazette Journal.

You can try the food for yourself, at the Valero station, 2500 E. Fourth Street, Reno.

And if you’ve got a favorite gas station/restaurant combo of your own (in Reno, or anywhere else), let us know.  One day, you might be reading about YOUR place on this page.

“Which New Car Tech Features Are Actually Good?”

That’s the question Road and Track asked in a recent story.  Where’s the line between the dashboard* display that shows how the stock market is trending instead of your speed (ok, that we made up. Well, we think.) versus something cool AND useful (and safe)?

Here’s a sampling of what made their list.  See how it compares with yours:

Number One for Road & Track is the back-up camera.  And even if that one isn’t high on your list, we’re all going to be using them eventually – because every passenger car sold in the U.S. now, is required to have one.  (And yes, that “thanks” you hear, is from your rear bumper.)

Remember cruise control?  Switch that on for a long highway drive, and you can give your right leg a break (plus the steady speed is excellent for fuel efficiency).  The addition of radar puts this on the R&T list.  Now cruise control can adjust to the car in front of you, and keep you at a set distance behind.  You’re still steering though, so all eyes on the road.

Next up, let’s take a couple of under-the-hood items:

Limited-slip differential.  Yes, we had to look that up also.  Say you hit a patch of ice, and one front wheel starts slipping.   The differential sends more power to the other front wheel that still has a grip. It’s been around since the 1930s, but what lands it on this list is the addition of electronics – which make that power shift faster and more precise.

If you’ve ever felt the road a little too much, this one is for you:  magnetic adaptive suspension. These shock absorbers use a liquid polymer (yes, we like that) – and little zaps of electricity to make that polymer thicker or thinner, to react and cushion any bump in the road – in a few milliseconds.  So by the time you know you’ve hit that pothole, your suspension has got your back.  Literally.

Finally, R&T did call out a couple of features that aren’t cool at all – in fact, they’re warm:  the heated steering wheel and the heated seat.  Readers in our northern states, you don’t need us to tell you why that matters.  (Though if you’re south of the Mason-Dixon line, that heated seat is also ventilated – cool, when your car’s been sitting parked in the summer sun.)

Not all of these are on every car, of course – but you can see all thirteen of Road & Track’s top tech for cars, and what cars have them, plus weigh in with your own favorites:  Which New Car Tech Features Are Actually Good?

*And just in case you’re wondering, like we did, WHY is it called a “dashboard”, here’s the answer:  Back in the days before the “horseless carriage” (aka, the car), the dashboard was a piece of wood or leather, put in front of you and behind the horse(s), to keep mud being “dashed” up onto your lap.  Then, in the earliest cars, it would have protected you from whatever the front wheels kicked up (those cars were more open).  Later, it separated you from the heat of the engine – and finally, it just turned out to be a good place to put car instrumentation (once that was invented) – the speedometer, gas gauge, and such.  But while its purpose changed over the years, the name never did.

Making Flip-Flops, and Making a Difference

What can you make out of polyurethane?

Bowling balls and soccer balls, surf boards and roller coasters, insulation and bandages and flip-flops.  The list of “things” you can make from polyurethane is quite long.

At a New Rochelle (just outside of New York City) company named Tidal, they make flip-flops from polyurethane – but they make something else too – they make a difference in the lives of the Army and Marine Corps vets who work there. More than 80 percent of Tidal’s factory workers are veterans.

Oh, Tidal has the full-on 21st century at work (we’ll show you what the factory floor looks like in a moment):  like pouring liquid polyurethane into molds (instead of cutting the flip-flops out) – digital UV printers for the art on your footwear – and yeah, you can find them on Instagram.

But there are some serious old-school values at work there too:  all the materials come from U.S. suppliers – if you don’t like the flip-flops, they take ‘em back, and you get your money back, period – and, their commitment to hiring ex-servicemen and women.

So let’s turn over the mic to Pat and Siul, Adam and Joe – veterans and Tidal employees, who will show you what they do – the molding, the printing, the strapping, the inspecting – and they’ll tell you a bit about who they are too.  We’ll see you back here in 90 seconds.

Our part in this story is a modest one.  But to make polyurethane, you start with petrochemical building blocks, such as propylene and benzene – so what we make, helps make possible what Tidal makes – the flip-flops, and the difference.

And with summer in the air already, and on the calendar soon, if you’re thinking about something new for your feet this season, you might take a look – and you can do that here:  Tidal New York.

Road Trip! And (Weird) side Attractions

Would you take a break on your road trip for an ice cream shop shaped like a giant owl, called “Hoot Hoot I Scream”?

Yes, of course you would!  Who wouldn’t?  That’s part of the point of a road trip – seeing something, eating something, doing something you only find – out on the road.

And yes, you could have stopped at “Hoot Hoot I Scream.”  It WAS a real place.  And also yes, we’ll show you what it looked like, in a moment.

But first, a few more stops along the road – in this case, the road through California, where a lot of the state was built around the car – so there were plenty of businesses that built themselves to catch your eye from the car.

Like the Big Donut Drive-in (You didn’t drive through the donut though – that was on the roof.  And it was a BIG donut.  32 feet worth.).

Or Tail o’ the Pup (though we admit, this one looks as much like a SpaceX turned on its side, as it does a hot dog in a bun).

And who would not be tempted by the giant coffee pot on the roof of – the “Wilshire Coffee Pot”, naturally (featuring Ben-Hur drip coffee – the perfect drink for a trip in heavy traffic)?  Or the “Bull Stops Here Barbecue”, featuring a GIANT cow?  Or, if only because “could something REALLY be that weird” (and yes, it could), the “Toed Inn” – a drive-in with a walk-up counter that was built into a giant, yes, a toad.

You can see ‘em all here, thanks to the folks at  Atlas Obscura.  And if that whets your appetite, so to speak, for more road trip treats – the source for all these is the book, California Crazy.

And while these roadside attractions are all in California, most states with a highway and road trippers had their own versions, at least at one time (but if you’ve seen the world’s largest teapot, off Highway 30 in West Virginia, you knew that already).

Some say it all began, by the way, with Lucy, a six-story wooden elephant just off the beach in Margate, New Jersey (that’s the southern part of the Jersey Shore, for you fans of the TV show – and on the same island as Atlantic City).  And if this summer finds you in South Jersey – drop by for Lucy’s 137th birthday party.

And if you’ve got a favorite roadside attraction, wherever the road has taken you – let us know, we’d like to hear about it.

The First Annual Cars and Presidents Quiz

Do you know your cars AND your American history?  Then try your hand at our Cars and Presidents quiz.

Ladies and gentlemen – start your brains (not your search engines), and good luck!

Your questions are:

And, the envelopes please:

A. Which President shared his ride with Al Capone (not at the same time, of course)?

Answer: President Roosevelt (Franklin). 

It was an armored Cadillac that had been Al Capone’s car.  This was right after Pearl Harbor, and it was a temporary measure while the official White House car was being fortified.

B. Who was the first President to ride in a car?

Answer: President McKinley. 

That, from the admittedly short list of memorable facts about President McKinley.

C. Who was the first President to ride in a car, as President (hint:  B & C are not the same president)?

Answer: President Roosevelt (Theodore). 

Theodore Roosevelt recorded a number of firsts, though to be fair, he doesn’t seem to have too fond of cars.  Of course, they’ve improved since his day.

D. Who was the first President to go to an auto show?

Answer: President Taft. 

William Howard Taft, on the other hand, DID like cars.  In fact, he officially opened “the 1913 automobile show at the Convention Hall, Washington, D.C. … by pressing a button from the White House, igniting 150,000 lights at the hall.”  Then he went over to have a look in person.

E.  When did the White House stables give way to the White House garage?

Answer: 1909

F. Which President rode in a Lincoln?

Answer: President Truman.

Though he was only the first.  His pair of Lincoln Cosmopolitans went on to serve the next three presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson).

G. Which President owned an Amphicar (it was just what it sounds like)?

Answer: President Johnson (Lyndon). 

You could have had one of these too, as the Amphicar was not an official presidential vehicle (though there were only about 3800 ever made).  Johnson kept it on his Texas ranch, and liked to scare visitors by pretending to lose control and driving into a lake (where it would float).

H. Which President said, “I am a motorist myself and know what it means to travel over rough roads.”?  (And he meant real roads, not metaphorical ones.)

Answer: President Taft. (again)

I. Who was the first President to give up the traditional horse and carriage, and ride in a car to his inauguration?

Answer: President Harding. 

Looking sharp in a Packard Twin-Six.  Looking less sharp later in his administration when the Teapot Dome scandal broke.

J. And who once called out his 1950 ‘Olds in a speech?

Answer: President Nixon. 

Ok, this was a trick question.  Nixon was only Vice-President when he mentioned his Oldsmobile, as part of a description of his modest life (the “Checkers” speech).

Thanks for playing!

Leaving…on a jet plane

Planning to fly somewhere this summer?

That wouldn’t be unusual, since almost half of us got on a plane at some point last year.  (Here’s what that would look like, by the way, if you could see the whole country from high above.  Not all small planes are included):

That animation was produced by the folks at NASA, by the way.

And you know what makes all that flying possible?  The same thing that lets you drive to the supermarket for the week’s groceries.  Fuel – made from petroleum.  The same barrel of oil that’s used to produce gasoline, also produces jet fuel.

Lucky for us, since this country of ours is a big place to travel.  East to West, New York to San Francisco for instance?  About 2,900 miles. And North-South?  Almost 2,400 miles from Maine to Miami.

And while sometimes it IS all about the journey – a lot of the time, you just want to get “there” – you just want to see your mom, or your parents just want to see your kids – your daughter just wants to get to her dorm and unpack, or everybody just wants to unroll their towels on the beach.  Maybe you can’t wait to row out on that lake, or for the curtain to rise on an opera you’ve never seen before.

There are a lot of reasons we travel.  But when you want the miles in between here and there to go by as quickly as possible, say 500 miles an hour – for that, you want a plane.  And a plane, wants fuel.

For example, a Boeing 787, the new Dreamliner, takes more than 33,000 gallons of jet fuel to fill up.  Even for the newest, fuel-saving planes (and the Dreamliner is one of those),  it’s still a big job to get a few hundred people (and their luggage) 35,000 feet up in the air and across the country.

(So maybe it’s just as well that supermarkets don’t have points programs for jet fuel.  Somebody would have to eat a LOT of kale to fill one of those planes up.)

The key ingredient in that jet fuel though, is something that’s been around a long time:  kerosene.  Jet fuel is a more purified version, and there are some other things in it, like anti-freeze (it’s COLD up there at 35,000 feet).  But in principle, it’s the same kerosene that our parents’ parents’ parents’ parents might have used in a lamp, for light.

Wondering which came first, jets or jet fuel?  Jet fuel wins that race, or at least kerosene does.  In the modern era, kerosene was being distilled from petroleum by the time of the Civil War.  The first jet doesn’t take off till the 1930s.

So if you are flying on a plane somewhere this summer, enjoy your trip.  And remember, every flight starts with the jet fuel made from a barrel of oil, and the security line at the airport.

Honky Tonk Polymers: Making Music with Plastics, Part 2

Recently we told you the story of the Res-o-Glas guitar – that plastic guitar from the ‘60s with the shimmery sound, played by a long list of rock gods, from Bob Dylan to Jack White.

Plastic, Fantastic…Guitars: Making Music with Plastics, Part 1

But that’s just Chapter 1 of the plastics and music story.  You could put together an entire band, or orchestra, using instruments built with polymers (“polymer” you’ll recall, is the fancy name for plastic).

Take jazz, for instance, and the saxophone.  Among his instruments, the great Charlie Parker played an acrylic saxophone made by Grafton, and on occasion, so did Rudy Vallee (when he wasn’t singing).  And it wasn’t a Grafton, but David Bowie’s first musical instrument (he was 10 or 11 at the time) was – a plastic saxophone.

There’s a plastic trombone too – the pBone.  (And yes, there’s a pTrumpet too.)  If you’re curious about the chemistry of that music, the pBone is made from ABS plastic, made possible by petrochemicals (in this case, you take a little acrylonitrile, a little styrene, a little butadiene…and a few chemical reactions later, you’ve got a trombone).

So that brass section – “76 polymer pBones led the big parade”?  Well, maybe it works better for the music than the lyrics…

Oh, and if you know your marching band, you know the Sousaphone (named for JP, of course).  Fiberglass has been the material of choice for many of the Sousaphones serenading high school football games from coast to coast, since the 1960s.

Now, if you want some rhythm to back up those horns?  Mylar© might be more familiar as the stuff shiny balloons are made of – but for years now, it’s also been used on the snares, traps and the rest of the drum kit.  Other polymers, like Kevlar©, make an appearance on the skins, (though Kevlar is probably more familiar to most of us as body armor.  And more on THAT side of Kevlar in a future story).

Crossing over to the woodwinds – yeah, a lot of today’s clarinets, piccolos and oboes (recorders too, if you like that elementary school sound) might fairly be called polymerwinds (alright, that sounds terrible).  And if you have a budding flute player in the house – he or she might well be starting out on a jFlute (thanks, ABS).

Should you be one of our readers with a few years behind you, the name Arthur Godfrey might ring a bell.  Or more properly, might pluck a string – since he was famous for his ukulele (And famous he was.  At his peak in the early ‘50s, he had a Monday night TV show, a Tuesday night TV show and a radio talk show).  When he endorsed the Islander ukulele, made from Styron© (a Dow Chemical polystyrene), 9 million of them sold over the next 20 years.

And because these ukes were plastic, you could play ‘em in the shower, or drop them in the sink, and they’d be just fine.

Now if you like your stringed instruments a bit more in the Mozartian vein, you’ll find polymers there too.  The instrument makers Luis and Clark, for instance, make a full line of carbon fiber classical strings – from violins and violas, up to a string bass.  (And Yo-Yo Ma really likes their cello, so they must be onto something).

Plastic, Fantastic…Guitars: Making Music with Plastics, Part 1

What’s red and white and far-out all over?

A Res-O-Glas guitar, of course.

Ask Jack White or the Cure’s Robert Smith – John Fogerty or Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys –  Bob Dylan, even Eugene Strobe (we’ll get to him in a minute).  They’ve all taken the stage with Res-O-Glas at one time or another.

“Every guitar has a personality…sometimes they feedback more – sometimes they have this kind of, almost kind of toy-sound quality to them…they really have a unique sound…”

And that’s what Eugene Strobe is talking about, describing the sound he gets from HIS Res-O-Glas today.  You can HEAR what he’s talking about, in this intro to AM/FM (his band is Cosmic Light Shapes).

That sound, comes from the “Glas” in Res-O-Glas.  These guitars were made out of fiberglass, which is plastic reinforced with glass fiber.  That made them lightweight, and gave them that distinctive sound.

The original Res-O-Glas guitars go back to the early Sixties, when guitars were expensive.  Res-O-Glas wasn’t, then.  (They are, now – because they aren’t made anymore.)  And back in their day, the place you could buy these guitars, made by Valco (a long-gone American guitar maker) was – Montgomery Ward (yes, we’ll pause for a moment, while younger readers Google that name.

Back now?  We continue then.).

As groovy as Res-O-Glas guitars were, and are – it isn’t the guitar for everyone.  Oh, it’s true, for instance, that Jimi Hendrix started with one.  Then he gave it up (maybe when he discovered that fiberglass is inflammable).

Or, if you’re the DIY-type, Guitar Kits USA has what you need to build your own, and you can put the money you save toward a bass or drum kit.  Just sayin.

In Making Music with Plastics, Part 2 – if you thought plastic guitars were outta sight, we’ve got a piano for you.  A whole symphony, in fact.

Looking To Make A Little Money? Look Here.

“Most companies that pay six figures to the majority of their workers aren’t big banks or money managers, but ___________________.”

Yes, we ARE going to fill in the blank from that Wall Street Journal story.  But before we do, try and guess what comes next.  There are three industries after that “but”, and one of them might surprise you.

Ok, time’s up.  And now, here’s all of that sentence:

“Most companies that pay six figures to the majority of their workers aren’t big banks or money managers, but biotech firms that rely on medical researchers, and energy and technology companies with a large number of engineers and technical staff.”

Which is to say, as the Journal said, “More than 100 companies in the S&P 500 routinely awarded employees $100,000 or more in 2017 … Nearly half of those were in the energy industry…”

We’ve written about this before (

Petroleum engineers, of course you’d expect to find them in the petrochemical industry – but there are also chemical and electrical and mechanical engineers, structural and facilities and power solutions engineers.  Engineers of all types (ok, maybe not train engineers).  And it isn’t just engineers.  Artificial intelligence, programming, 3D-printing, drones – the petrochemical industry is putting all those tools to work as well – so if tech is your field, there IS a place for you.

These are pretty cool jobs (in case you’re young enough to be thinking about your own career, or mid-career enough to be thinking about a change).  You might be working with one of the world’s fastest supercomputers.  You might be using sound waves to map the world underground.

You might be doing your work out at sea – in the mountains – the desert – a downtown high-rise – or all of the above (just not at the same time).

And, as this week’s news tells us, you’re rewarded for doing what you what love anyhow (which makes it even better).

Got a company you’d like to know more about (maybe the one where you work now)?  You can look up the median pay here, “How Does Your Pay Stack Up?

Mo(w) better

The calendar turning to June means a lot of things:  the end of the school year, the start of summer vacations, and for a lot of us – mowing the lawn (and mowing the lawn again, and again).

We don’t have any new ideas about how to keep the kids busy, and you’ve probably already got your list of places to visit – but in case you haven’t been keeping up on the latest in lawn mowers – about that, we DO have some news for you.  And it’s good news too.

Want a lawn mower that doesn’t take up half the garage?  That would be a lawn mower that folds (the handle folds down, that is) so you can store it upright (it takes about the space of a wheeled suitcase)…with no gas or oil leaking.  (Toro makes that one.)

Tired of changing the oil in your mower (you ARE changing the oil, aren’t you?)?  How about a lawn mower engine that NEVER needs an oil change?  (Just a top-off now and then.)  Briggs and Stratton, and Kohler, both make lawn mower engines which fit that bill.

If the words “primer bulb” mean anything to you, you might be happy to know there are lawnmowers now that don’t need that anymore.  No priming, and no choke required.  Just pull, and mow.

Just like your car, your mower does best with fresh gas – but since you probably drive the car more frequently than you mow the lawn, it’s easy to run afoul there.  So here’s something new – a fuel stabilizer insert in the gas cap.  It drips a slow but steady concentrate into the mower’s tank (a fuel stabilizer helps keep your fuel fresh, and protects your engine), and when it’s empty, you just pop in a new insert.  The “Snapper” is a lawn mower with that feature.

And, this one doesn’t have anything to do with oil or gas, but – Briggs & Stratton says lawn mower engines with its Quiet Power Technology© are up to 50 percent quieter.  (But you might want to give it a listen in the store first, before you take it to the lawn some Sunday morning.)

Making gas engines work more efficiently, more effectively, even more quietly – that’s an ongoing project, from innovations in cars and trucks and planes, all the way down to the smallest engines and fuel tanks, like the ones in our lawn mowers.

Boy Scouts create magical STEM bus

No, this isn’t Pete Townshend’s “Magic Bus” (but if that put you in the mood for a little vintage Who, we’ve got you covered:  Magic Bus).

This bus has REAL magic going on though – it’s a STEM Scouts Mobile Lab.  (“STEM” being Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.  “Scouts” being the Boy Scouts.)

(Photo from STEM Scouts)

Boys AND girls, from elementary school to high school seniors, can find magic to create on this bus, which is a project of the Samoset Council Scouts, covering a chunk of north central Wisconsin (around Wausau, if you know the state).  And this bus has a name:  Vortex.

On the bus?  Kids can work on 3-D printing or genetics – build and program a robot or build a bridge (no programming for those) – electric circuitry or “the world of goo” – learn about launch angles, with a catapult – make a paper helicopter – design (and build) a hydraulic arm that can pick up and move things – there’s even Play-Doh (as in, the chemistry of).

The STEM Scouts program is a mix of activities – hands-on science, field trips, work with STEM professionals, and in the Samoset program, a lab that comes to the kids.  Students meet weekly, and take on subjects in modules of 4 to 6 weeks.  Over the course of each module, the students rotate through the different roles on their team:  Principal Investigator, Co-PI, Project Manager and Technician—so each student, boy and girl, gets the full range of experience.  And if you’re wondering, yes, STEM Scouts DO have merit badges – they’re just electronic badges.

By the way, if you think YOUR kids might like the lab-coat-and-goggles-look, Wisconsin is just one of 23 states where STEM Scouts operates.  You can check to see if your state/city is on their list here:

(Photo from STEM Scouts)

What got this STEM bus going, was a contribution from the Paul and Ruth Schultz Foundation, in Wausau.

What gets this lab on wheels to the next generation of scientists and engineers, wherever they may be today—that’s the contribution fuels make.

HORSE power?

Why, when the only horses most of us see are on old TV shows – why do we still measure the power of their replacements in horsepower?  Even in the newest, computerized, teched-out cars – horsepower is the measure of engine power.  In fact, some of our boss-est cars, iconic muscle cars like the Ford Mustang or Dodge Charger – are NAMED after the horse.

Ok, maybe we’re just old-school that way.  But you’re curious now, right?  What IS horsepower?  Is it REALLY how many horses equal a particular car/engine?

And, actually, yeah – kind of, it is.

Originally, horsepower was invented to have a standard measure of how much work a horse could do.  Back in the late 1600s – after some thought, and some rigging up a pulley and weights – a group of French scientists found that a horse could lift 165 pounds, a little more than 3 feet in the air, in one second.  And since that was a job that took seven men to do – one horsepower equaled seven men.

About hundred years later, James Watt (the Scottish engineer, and yes, THAT “watt”) used horsepower to measure how much work the new steam engine could do.  And that use of horsepower to measure engine power, has stuck ever since.

So today, if you were choosing between, say the 2018 Mustang, or horses – by that standard you’d need a pretty big garage (ok, technically, a stable) if you go the four-legged route, because the Mustang checks in at 460 hp.

Not to mention that even if you’re not driving a Mustang, the cost of filling up your car is a lot less than your annual bill for hay would be.  Oh, and cleaning up after your ride?  That’s definitely a plus for driving a car.

So let’s say a thank you to James Watt, for letting us use horsepower to measure the work our internal combustion engine-powered car is doing.  And let’s save the real horsepower for a night of old Westerns – or watching Sherlock Holmes  clatter through the streets of London in a horse-drawn cab.

A Big Bright Plastic Shot, for Kids with Diabetes

Can a plastic really make medicine more fun for kids?

Yes, it can (with a little help from temporary tattoos). Here’s how.

Many of us, grown-up though we may be, get a little queasy at the sight of a needle. But for kids with diabetes, who have to give themselves insulin injections (and have to do it, and do it right), it’s way harder.

Renata Souza Luque saw that firsthand, watching her 6-year-old nephew, Thomás, struggle with his injections, with holding the needle, with having to remember where he’d injected himself last time. So she made a better way: “Thomy”.

Photo from the James Dyson Award (Thomy was National Runner Up, 2017)

Thomy is made especially  for kids.  It comes in a bright orange plastic case – the needle (an insulin pen) is hidden inside a bright blue plastic holder, with a big handle sized for a kid’s hand (instead of the same syringe that even we don’t like to see) – it’s got a plastic dial that changes color when it’s time to take the needle out (instead of having to count to ten, a kid keeps his hand on it, and when the color changes, he’s done!).

Watch:  A day with THOMY

Oh, and the tattoos?  Thomy comes with temporary tattoos that a kid can put on herself – that tell her where to inject the insulin, and remind her where she injected before (each tattoo has a pattern that covers about three days of injections, then it washes off – and you put on a new one).

Nothing high tech.  No plugs or batteries.  A kid-friendly solution to a medical condition that isn’t so easy for kids (and there are 193,000 kids in the U.S., meaning under age 20, diagnosed with diabetes).

All made possible by plastics made from petrochemicals – inexpensive, durable, easy to make, easy to make colorful, and (with a little thermochromic plastic) easy to make change color as the temperature changes.  Well, made possible by plastics, and tattoos.

Why Are My Glasses Made Of…

Why do we drive on a parkway and park in a driveway?

Why do inflammable and flammable mean the same thing?

And why are eyeglasses made of – plastic?

Ok, we have an answer for that last one.  And some history too.

The history starts with the Second World War.  Natural materials, like metal and rubber, were in short supply – so the search for substitutes was a high priority.

One of those “searches”, was in the labs of the Columbia Southern Chemical Company, and on their 39th try, the chemists there created a plastic resin – strong, easy to shape and simple to combine with other reinforcing materials.  They called it CR-39 and it was made from a reaction of three chemicals derived from ethylene and propylene, two fundamental petrochemical building blocks.

During the war, CR-39 was reinforced with glass fibers to make fuel tanks for bombers.  That made the planes lighter, which meant they could fly longer and farther.  And they used CR-39 to replace glass fuel lines on those planes (safer, since when the glass lines got hit, they shattered, and leaked fuel.)

But when the war ended, the company had a rail car filled with 38,000 pounds of expensive CR-39 – but no need now for new bombers and fuel tanks.  So, it was back to the lab – and eventually the discovery that some of the same qualities that made CR-39 a good choice for fuel tanks – made it a good choice for eyeglass lenses.

Like those glass fuel lines, if your glass lenses shattered – that was dangerous for your eyes.  Plastic lenses were safer – and definitely lighter and thinner.  (There’s a reason they used to call them “Coke-bottle glasses”, back in the day.)

Today, plastic lenses today are made from a variety of materials (like polycarbonate made from propylene and benzene) not just CR-39 – though 50 years later, that’s still in use too.

Oh, and If you’re wearing contacts instead of glasses, those are plastic lenses too now (in fact, there wouldn’t even be soft contacts without plastic).

And happily for all of us who wear contacts or glasses – plastic lenses make excellent lenses – so we can have our cake and see it too.

Life in the Bubble (Hotel)

Like the outdoors – but the bugs and dirt, not so much?  Maybe you’re a “glamper”.*  Or maybe you like rolling out a sleeping bag under a tree and calling it a night.

Either way – this is a glamping experience anybody might like:  a BUBBLE hotel.

Your “hotel room” is a plastic bubble – set outdoors in some scenic spot – and at night you are in your room, looking out like an astronaut at the night sky.

(And with the telescope in your bubble, you might see all that.)

Your “room” really is a clear plastic bubble, sometimes with an opaque bubble attached (if you’re getting an in-bubble bathroom, say).  A fan (quietly) keeps the bubble inflated and the air fresh.  Your bubble is waterproof.  You can have lights in it.  You can put a heater in it.  And it fits a bed, a real bed (of course, you can bunk down in a sleeping bag next to the bed, if that’s more your style).

You can even glamp up your own camping experience by getting your own bubble tent.  They are, apparently, not difficult to bring along and set up (so you never have to leave your bubble!).  You can even take certain models to the beach (just remember to check for the high-water mark before you set up camp).

Plastic, as it turns out, makes for an excellent window into the world, the terrestrial world and the world up above.  And the plastic which makes that excellent window, is PVC, transparent polyvinyl chloride—which in turn, is made from the petrochemical ethylene (the starting point for that, is petroleum or natural gas).

If you’d like to see what the bubbles are all about, here’s a quick bubble tour around the world.

*Glamping:  glamorous, or luxury, camping.

Have you heard the one about our decaying infrastructure? Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Want to empty the room at a party?  Start talking about “our nation’s infrastructure.”

So don’t do it that way – do it this way:

Ask your friends if they’ve heard the one about the big chunks of concrete falling from a bridge onto commuter rail tracks in Boston.

Or about those 100+ bridges finally closed now in Mississippi, because they haven’t been safe for years.

Or that bridge in Minnesota that wasn’t just in need of repair, it collapsed, and 13 people died.

Then tell them that they might have driven over a bridge, just like those bridges, just this morning – because those “infrastructure” problems show up in every one of the 50 states.  And it isn’t just bridges.  Infrastructure also includes roads and tunnels, trains and airports, the schools our kids go to, our energy grid and more.  And none of it is in good shape.

The American Society of Civil Engineers writes up a report card on the condition of the country’s infrastructure (and they are the ones who work on these things, so they should know).   Our grade last year?   D+.

(You can read it here.  You can also look up the condition of bridges, roads, and all the rest in your own state.  Just brace yourself first.)

And this is a good time to do it, because this week is National Infrastructure Week.

Now why have we got something to say about this?

Well, we ARE part of the solution.  From petroleum, comes asphalt – and from asphalt comes roads that get us where we want to go, instead of roads that beat up our cars.

More than that though, infrastructure might seem invisible day to day – but it’s the glue that holds everything together, for all of us.  And like glue, when it doesn’t work – the consequences sure aren’t invisible, to all of us.

To make that asphalt, and get it where it needs to go – to make gasoline and diesel and jet fuel – to make the petrochemicals that go into the plastics that go into every aspect of our everyday lives – that also depends on roads and bridges, train tracks and airports, and most of the rest of that infrastructure.  All those things we all depend on, depend on infrastructure.

So take a moment during National Infrastructure Week, to think about the state of our infrastructure.  Serious?  Yes.  Fixable?  Also yes.  In fact, one section of that Civil Engineers’ report card is all about solutions.  And you can find that good news here.

“Shields up!” (but maybe not much longer)

Parents!  Have you heard the news about fluorinated polyurethane (FP for short)?

Ok, no, of course you haven’t – unless your day job is in a chemistry lab.  But this news IS big news – because “FP” is an essential part of a new coating that is spill-proof and stain-proof. Which is to say, it’s kid-proof!

Scientists at University of Michigan (a team led by a scientist who is also a parent), have developed a clear, smooth coating that can protect walls and windows, countertops and tables (computer and tablet and cellphone screens too) from smears and schmears.

So let’s say one of the kids knocks over a glass of juice on the counter – or writes her name in jam on the window – or maybe you’re in the midst of a slice of bacon when you reach over to check your phone.  Oil, water, alcohol – doesn’t matter.  Things just don’t stick to it.

(True, you can’t spray your kids with it – but whatever sticks to your kids, or you, won’t stick to anything coated in “it”.)

In this case, “it” is a mix of fluorinated polyurethane (and if you are a regular reader, you will recognize polyurethane as a common, and inexpensive product made using either benzene or toluene as the petrochemical building block), and F-POSS (if you want the full moniker, it’s fluorodecyl polyhedral oligomeric silsesquioxane – and now maybe, you’re sorry you asked). The fluorinated polyurethane forms the base for the coating (because it is one of the few substances that will partially mix with the F-POSS), and keeps the F-POSS from wandering off, while F-POSS does the work of repelling – well, everything.

So how soon would be too soon for that?  Hmmm, how about now – would now work?  Well, as it turns out, no, it wouldn’t.  But the Michigan team does think we could see this on the shelves (and our tables and countertops and screens) in a couple of years.

Meantime, you’ll have to keep those sponges and wipes handy.  Sorry.

That’s a Wrap!

All of us have probably left something in the fridge a little too long.  Ok, maybe a lot too long.  But you might be surprised to know just how much food we throw out.

Add up what we throw at home, with what restaurants and grocery stores chuck, and – ready? about FORTY PERCENT of everything we are supposed to be eating, we wind up throwing out instead.

Picture it this way, you bring home two bags of groceries from the store – and you take one of those bags and dump most of it straight into the trash (or the compost bin if you’re a Californian).  That much.

“We” by the way – is those of us here in the U.S., but we have plenty of company.  Worldwide, wasted food runs to about a third of everything.

And that – makes food waste a BIG problem.  Now there’s no one solution for it – but a little plastic wouldn’t hurt.  That’s plastic as in, plastic wrap.  Here’s a little science on the subject:

“Ultrathin plastic film helps block transmission of oxygen, increasing shelf life of fresh meats to 21 days or more, and plastic vacuum packaging prevents discoloration of meats and extends shelf life 10 times longer than store-wrapped meat, resulting in 75 percent less food waste.”1

Or, if you like to see for yourself (and see something a little gross) – the folks at ExxonMobil (taking a break from their 9 to 5 jobs), posted a time-lapse video of two weeks in the life of a cucumber in the refrigerator – half of it wrapped in plastic, and the other half just sitting on a plate.  Spoiler alert:  one of the two pieces – really does spoil.

Conclusion?  Plastic wrap (made in a process that starts with petrochemicals) keeps food fresher, and makes food last longer – in our home refrigerators and in the grocery store too.  Cue some wrap music.

And bonus use:  if you’re using a dry rub to prep something before cooking, put the marinatee (yeah, we made that up) – double wrap the thing you’re marinating in plastic wrap.  The marinade gets absorbed faster that way.  (Want extra credit?  Why is it “marinade” but “marinating”?)


Saving a Sea Turtle

When this young sea turtle was rescued on the New Jersey coast, she weighed under 75 pounds.  Now that might not sound bad, but when you’re supposed to end up around 250 pounds as a grown-up, that’s not good.

Also not good – her rear flippers were paralyzed, she had curvature of the spine, and her shell was broken, cracked with one piece missing altogether.  That not only left her vulnerable out in the wild, but meant that as she grew, her shell would become deformed, which could eventually be just as dangerous.

So when this juvenile (the technical term) Loggerhead Sea Turtle (the technical name) ended up at the Birch Aquarium in San Diego – she needed a lot of TLC.  And with that care, she thrived – growing (almost tripling her weight), swimming, eating, doing all the things sea turtles do (well, ok, maybe swimming and eating is just about all sea turtles do).

But as she grew, and her shell grew – that broken shell needed more than just TLC.

The solution?  Not unlike a lot of growing teenagers, it turned out she needed braces.  Well, actually, just a brace. For her shell.

And when the aquatic experts at the aquarium got together with the digital media experts (yes, that makes sense.  Stick with us a moment) at UC San Diego – a brace for a turtle turned out to be a job for 3D printing (that’s how the digital media folks got involved).

The brace itself is a piece of hard plastic.  Not much to look at, but precisely printed to fit the gap in her shell.  There are some other parts to help hold the brace in place (more plastic, and synthetic rubber), in turn held in place with a special epoxy for use in water.  (And all of those, are materials using petrochemicals.)

Now her shell is solid and complete again (though as she keeps growing, at some point she will need another, bigger brace) which has made for a happy, active turtle.  And as Jennifer Frohlich, a UC San Diego vet, told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “Loggerheads are very charismatic, very friendly … They’re the Labrador dog of sea turtles.  She…knows when people are in front of the tank, and she hams it up.”

If you’re in San Diego, you can get a taste of Loggerhead charisma for yourself, in the Hall of Fishes at Birch Aquarium.  No need to rush though—loggerheads usually live at least 50 years, so the Birch’s sea turtle should have another 40 or more years ahead of her.

And if you can’t get to San Diego, here’s a peek.

We do have one improvement to suggest though.  How about a name, something a bit more personal than “Loggerhead Sea Turtle”?  Like “Shelley”!  Think you could do better?  Send us your suggestions.

This plastic stethoscope isn’t playing around

If you’re of a certain age, you might remember little plastic doctor’s bags for kids (and they’re still around today).

And inside the plastic bag, would be a plastic stethoscope.

– which was about as useful as the container of candy pills that also came inside.

But now, there is a polymer (aka plastic) stethoscope, that probably costs less than the whole doctor’s bag for kids and – this one actually works.

And if anything does happen to it, you can just make another – because these plastic stethoscopes are made on a 3D printer.  The cost?  Less than 3 bucks (compared to $100, $200 and more for a traditional one).

That may make medical students happy – one less pricey item to buy.  But in many parts of the world, a $200 stethoscope isn’t a strain on the budget, it’s just unaffordable or unavailable, period.  So an extremely inexpensive, model – that can be printed as needed (and potentially customized as well) – that could be truly life-saving.

Because two hundred years after its invention, stethoscopes are still a simple, useful way to take a quick look inside us – to hear our breathing and blood flow and more.  Not to mention, that wearing one around the neck, is as basic to the look of a doctor or nurse as a set of hospital scrubs.

The “Gila model” as it’s called, was developed by a group led by a Canadian doctor.  The key ingredient is ABS plastic – inexpensive, easy to work with – though it IS hard to spell out.  ABS stands for “acrylonitrile butadiene styrene”.

So just call it another plastic made from petrochemicals.  And we can also call it just another way petrochemicals make everyday life (a visit to the doctor, in this case) possible.

Calling All Geniuses!

Maybe you are an unrecognized genius.  Your friends don’t believe you, but you know – you see things no one else does (good things, of course, not hallucinations).

Now. Here is your moment. As Gizmodo put it, “Someone Go Find a Practical Use for This [a colloquial expression we can’t reprint] Conductive Plastic.” And that “someone” could be you!

We’ll get you started here.  This new plastic is transparent, it conducts electricity and it bends. It also has a really long name: poly(4-glycidyloxy-2,2,6,6-tetramethylpiperidine-1-oxyl).  A touchscreen (that doesn’t break so easily) is one obvious use.  But you are probably already thinking about a half-dozen other possibilities (because you’ve got that kind of mind)!

But we know, you are also the kind of person who likes a challenge – and there IS a challenge with this plastic.  At the moment, it only conducts electricity over VERY small distances – so you’ll have to tackle that.

But imagine the possibilities (made possible by polymers produced through petrochemicals, in this case propylene, and you).  In addition to a more durable screen for smartphones, Gizmodo suggests batteries and medical gear might be landing spots for this new material.

If you’d like to go straight to the science, you can go straight to Science, where the original research was published (though if you are not already a subscriber, you will have to buy the article).  And, good luck.  Let us know what you come up with.

Teaching a robot cat to walk – like a cat!

If you’ve ever watched a robot walk – it’s a little creepy.  It looks a little like us, and yet, it clearly isn’t a human being walking.

And that, is because it doesn’t walk the way we walk.  A robot takes a step, recalculates, takes another step, recalculates, takes another step, and on, and on, and on.   Robot programming turns walking into a series of steps, in order to take steps.

We don’t walk like that.  No living creature moves like that.  And one day, that got some scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) thinking.  What about making a robot, a robot cat to be specific, that walks the way a cat walks?

And what that meant – was instead of making code, you make a spinal cord.  And your building blocks – are artificial neurons, instead of algorithms.

So that’s what they did.  Or, started to do.  Meet Kleo the Robot Cat.

It’s fair to say that at the moment, Kleo is not making any traditional robots quake in their metallic boots.  (You can see Kleo in action here.)  But Kleo is learning to walk, by walking.  Over time, its artificial neurons, its spinal cord – figure out that if this neuron connects to that neuron, and that neuron to this other neuron and so forth – Kleo moves.  The learning is slow, and the walking is slow – but it does learn, by doing – and the walking is in the same way that a cat walks, eventually.

Of course, Nature provides cats and other animals with a spinal cord.  Kleo’s network of neurons is a series of circuit boards, and where you find circuit boards, you find polymers derived from petrochemicals.

Now, will it work in the end?  Too early to tell for that.  But since animals with very tiny brains get around quite well – it may turn out that building a big robot brain, is not the only, or even the best way, to make a walking machine.  A robot that learns how to walk by walking, and learning what works – might be a lot simpler to make than a robot that has to be stuffed full of code to move.

And however they move, it will be awhile before robots look like the real thing – any real thing.  So in the meantime, if you’d like to have a laugh at the expense of our future overlords, take a look at “A Compilation of Robots Falling Down at the DARPA Robotics Challenge.”   Ouch!

Award-Winning New Technology Could Help Reduce C02 Emissions and Increase Fuel Economy

There are more cars on the road than ever before, but CO2 emissions in the U.S. have been steadily declining over the past decade, with 2016 energy-related CO2 emissions 14% below 2005 levels. Although this may seem contradictory, there is a very real reason for this decline in emissions — fuel efficiency technologies.

In 2016, fuel economy rose to an all-time high of 24.8 miles per gallon average and has resulted in the prevention of 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions—equivalent to a year’s worth of electricity use for 20 million homes.

These improvements are thanks in part, to engineers redesigning vehicles with such fuel-efficiency innovations as gasoline direct injection engines paired with turbocharging, which results in smaller engines that burn less gas while retaining power. Transmissions with more gears (as many as 10) and continuously variable transmissions help the vehicles operate more efficiently. Lighter materials, such as aluminum and high-strength steel, cut down on fuel use as well. Smaller technical improvements also help make a difference, including better tires and air-conditioning systems, glazed windows to keep out heat, and idle stop-start systems that turn the engine off when a vehicle is standing still.

Honeywell and Volkswagen are leading the pack in these technologies and have partnered to create a new technology that can improve fuel economy by up to 15%.

Honeywell received a 2017 Automotive News Premier Automotive Suppliers’ Contribution to Excellence (PACE) “Innovation Partnership Award” with VW for the unique level of collaboration demonstrated in developing their Variable Nozzle Turbine (VNT) turbocharger for gasoline engines, that helps VW achieve best-in-class fuel economy in a cost-effective manner suited for high-volume production vehicles.

The first launch for this new generation of fuel efficient gasoline engines took place in 2016 with many more set to follow in the next three years.

A greener cup of joe – thanks to a truly recyclable paper cup

Ever get a cup of coffee to go?

You’ve got plenty of company if your answer was yes.

So much company in fact, that here in the U.S., we go through more than 50 BILLION paper cups every year – which makes for a very big pile.

Not all of those cups are for coffee, but since Americans drink more than 400 million cups of coffee a day – a lot of them were holding coffee before they hit the trash bin.

That’s not because nobody cares about recycling – it’s because today’s paper coffee cup is pretty tough to recycle.  If it were only paper, recycling wouldn’t be a problem – but holding your coffee in your hand would be.  Paper and hot coffee are not a good combination.  So the paper cup of today has a lining that keeps the coffee out of your lap – but that lining also keeps the cup out of the recycling in most places.

But now, from the chemistry lab at BASF, comes an answer:  a new lining for the old paper cup – made from a water-based polymer.  This polymer (a fancy word for plastic) keeps the coffee in the cup, same as always.  But where today’s lining clogs up the filters used in recycling paper – when you’ve finished this new cup of joe, that new polymer makes for smooth sailing through the recycling plant’s filters.

So keep an eye for that new cup at your favorite coffee shop.  Oh, and when you’re done, don’t forget to recycle it.

By the way, if you’re wondering how the chemists did it, here’s the short answer:  the secret is a polyacrylate coating – and that’s made, after a few chemical reactions, from propylene, one of the basic petrochemicals.

Clean air, merci beaucoup

Four hundred million catalytic converters is a lot of clean air.

That’s because a catalytic converter cleans your car or truck’s exhaust as you drive (and these days, just about everything on the road has one).

Now these particular 400 million converters were turned out by BASF, the chemicals company – and their plant in Huntsville, Alabama is where they make more of them than any other BASF location in North America.  So naturally, they had a bit of a celebration.

To mark a production milestone, yes, but also to take note of the jobs created in Huntsville (more than 650), taxes paid (more than $1.6 million a year), and the fact that the plant is an officially certified Virtually Zero Waste Facility (which means, yep, they don’t waste much).

And, should you be wondering, the catalytic converter first hit the road in 1975.  But the original concept goes back to the 1950s – the work of a French war hero (WWI), engineer, and naturalized American citizen, Eugene Houdry.  Thanks Eugene, and thanks BASF.

What’s black and black and paved all over?

We’ve got more than 2.7 million miles of paved roads in the U.S. More than 90 percent of those roads, are paved with asphalt.

And here are two things about that asphalt, you might not know:

Asphalt is made from oil.  Not a lot of it, but the bitumen made from oil is the essential ingredient that holds all the other ingredients together (those other ingredients being mostly sand and stone and gravel).

And, asphalt is recyclable.  Very recyclable.  When a street needs repaving, you grind off the old asphalt pavement, and you can use all of the old, to make new asphalt pavement (and almost all of it is reused).

Alright, since those were short – here’s a bonus fact about asphalt:  It’s been around a long time.  The asphaltologists at the National Asphalt Pavement Association, report it was first used to build roads in Babylon.  Ancient Babylon – around 2600 hundred years ago.

(And if you’re hunting through a college catalog looking for the Asphaltology Department – ok, we just invented that.)

Various twists, turns and 2500 years or so later – and we have our paved roads of today.  That history, by the way, includes the legacy of John McAdam, who came pretty close to the making of the modern road, and gave his name to “macadam”, which had the rocks and the gravel, but not the asphalt, and which was the top-of-the-line in the early 1800s.

Our asphalt roads date back to the 1920s, though hopefully your roads have been resurfaced since then.

And the same oil that makes those asphalt roads possible, also probably makes it possible for your car to drive on them.  Kinda cool.


Think of it as an artificial iceberg.  When an oil tanker is fully loaded, three-quarters of it is invisible, underwater.

So when the supertanker TAQAH was headed for the Port of Long Beach, there was a problem.  Fully loaded, the bottom of the TAQAH would be less than 10 feet from the bottom – and when you’re talking about a ship that is more than 1,000 feet long, carrying more than 300,000 tons – being a few feet from running aground is a little close for comfort.

That is, it WAS too close for comfort.

Then Andeavor and the Port of Long Beach put technology on the job.  Instead of the traditional method of matching ship to harbor:  a close look at the waves, the charts and having to leave a large guesstimated margin for error – they used PROTIDE and the “Octopus”.

PROTIDE is software that uses wave and weather data, combined with the particular characteristics of each individual ship (like its potential “pitch and roll”).  PROTIDE makes predictions; the Octopus is motion detection gear and software that looks at what is actually happening as a ship is coming into harbor and compares those results to the predicted ones.

As a ship approaches port, PROTIDE is run a few days in advance.  When the harbor pilot who brings the ship into port, boards the ship, he or she brings the Octopus along, and that’s hooked up on board to provide real time information.  That means less guessing – and a much more exact match between the water depth in a specific port, and the depth of a specific ship, with a specific cargo.

And – that marriage of high tech and high seas has been a very happy marriage indeed.  Having tested (and tested and tested) PROTIDE and the Octopus on smaller tankers coming into Long Beach – this year, all 300,000-plus tons of the TAQAH sailed successfully into the Port of Long Beach, with seven precisely- and safely-measured feet to spare.

That was the first time, by the way, in the 107-year history of the Port of Long Beach that a VLCC (“very large crude carrier”) sailed in, as deep in the water as the shipping channel actually goes – instead of having to bring in the big ships more lightly loaded to allow for that guesstimated margin of error.  And that’s not just a remarkable technological feat.  Each extra foot of draft (meaning how much deeper the ship sits in the water) for an oil tanker, means it can safely and efficiently carry more cargo, as much as 40,000 barrels of oil per each extra foot.

Being able to use the maximum capacity of the harbor – means less need for dredging (which is expensive and sometimes complicated) – and less need to unload some cargo offshore to lighten a ship before entry (which is definitely complicated and time-consuming).

As PROTIDE is refined, Andeavor and Long Beach are planning to make this SOP, Standard Operating Procedure.  And ports around the country are keeping a close eye on Long Beach, with a view toward potentially bringing this new technology to harbors nationwide.

The OTHER March Madness

It’s nearly the end of March Madness for 2018, and you’ve been steeped in college hoops for a month.  So let’s see if you know the answer to THIS basketball question:

What team was national champion six years in a row, and 11 times altogether?

Nope, we’re not thinking of the Celtics, or the Lakers, or the Bulls.  The answer – is the Sixers.  But not the Seventy-Sixers – the Sixty-Sixers!  The Phillips 66ers.

And yes, that’s “Phillips”, as in Phillips 66, the global energy company.  This story begins back before the NBA, when the next stop after college ball was the AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union.

Phillips wasn’t the only business to field a basketball team.  The 66ers matched up with teams like the Peoria Caterpillars, Denver-Chicago Trucking and the Buchan Bakers.  But at their best, there was nobody like the 66ers.  During those six years they were national champions (1943-48), the team record was 241-24.  Not even the Golden State Warriors can match that.

The game was a little different in the ‘40s and ‘50s than it is today.  No three balls, for instance.  But watch a little 66er video, and you’ll see some slick ball movement and sweet mid-range jumpers.

To watch the video, click here.

And it wasn’t all old school.  Bob Kurland, the first player to dunk, back in 1944 when he played for Oklahoma State; Kurland went on to play for – the Phillips 66ers.  And Hank Luisetti, who the San Francisco Chronicle described this way, “Imagine a basketball player from 80 years ago who compares to … Stephen Curry. … He dribbled behind his back, fired no-look passes and drove the lane with either hand” – Luisetti also logged a year as a 66er, in the ’41-42 season.

Of course, the 66ers weren’t just basketball players.  They were working for the Phillips Petroleum Company (as it was known back then).  As Bill Martin told the Oklahoma City News, “I got $125 a month, worked all day and played basketball at night.”  Burdie Haldorson (who also played on the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in 1956) explained, “Phillips offered me the chance to continue playing basketball, as well as a good job. … we reported to work every day and practiced after work.”

The first 66ers hit the court in 1921, and with a couple of stops and starts, Phillips fielded a team through to 1968.  And as it turned out, the 66ers were a pretty successful bunch off the court too.  Over the years, the 66ers roster included four company presidents: Boot Adams (President, 1934-39), Paul Endacott (President, 1951-67 and Naismith National Hall of Fame Inductee in 1972), Bill Martin (President, 1971-74) and Pete Silas (President, 1982-94).

Petrochemicals Are an Astronaut’s Best Friend

When you think of space travel you probably think of high-tech rocket launchers, moon walks and billions of dollars in NASA research. But did you know that space travel wouldn’t be possible without fuels and petrochemicals? And I’m not just referring to the rocket fuel used to propel the rockets into outer space. Without petrochemicals, astronauts wouldn’t be able to survive the harsh environment of space. Here’s a quick look at some of the ways petrochemicals make space travel possible:

  • Stronger Helmets and Visors: The helmets and visors that astronauts wear in space are made from polycarbonate, which is a high-tech polymer (that is, plastic) used in bullet-proof glass. Because of these plastics, astronauts are able to see their surroundings clearly without losing oxygen and they are protected from potentially dangerous and fast-moving space debris.
  • High Tech Space Suits: Orbiting around the Earth, conditions can be as cold as minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and as hot as 250 degrees in sunlight. Spacesuits protect astronauts from those extreme temperatures, while also supplying them with oxygen to breath and, like their helmets, protecting them from flying debris. Modern space suits are composed of 14 different layers of synthetic materials, most of which use petrochemicals as the primary building blocks. These layers do everything from allowing the suit to be fire resistant, to protecting from harmful radiation, to enhancing mobility and comfort.
  • Space Shuttle Seating: The seats in a spaceship are for more than just lounging around. A space shuttle’s main landing gear touches down on the runway at about 214 to 226 MPH so you better hope those seats are soft. To counteract these hard landings, NASA developed temper foam (also used in your Memory Foam mattress!) to help blunt the impact of landings. This open-cell polyurethane-silicon plastic makes it easier for astronauts to travel into space, and back again without getting injured (and in relative comfort).

The Spacecraft itself: Aluminum was always the primary material in the construction of spacecraft during the early days of the space program. However, aluminum does not adequately protect the spacecraft from dangerous cosmic radiation, which would make longer space travel and habitation impossible. However, studies found that plastics provide effective shielding against radiation hazards and could help reduce risks to astronauts while exploring the next frontiers of space.  So keep an eye out for the next generation of plastics in the next generation of spacecraft.

3 innovations set to make your car’s engine cleaner, more efficient

The internal combustion engine (aka, the thing under the hood of most cars) started taking shape in the 1700s, so it’s been around for a while.  But that doesn’t mean it’s been standing still the entire time.

Engines have gotten bigger – like the V-12 in your Ferrari or Lamborghini.  Engines have gotten smaller – like the wee two-cylinder powering up a lawn mower.  Engines have gotten cooler – like the V-8 in a Corvette or a Mustang.  And engines have gotten weirder – like the Lancia Delta S4 (which really, looks like a droid more than an engine).

Engines have also gotten more efficient and cleaner over the years – and another round of those improvements is on the way.  Which is good news, because that means the cars most of us drive today – and the cars most of us are going to be driving tomorrow – are going to use less gas, and produce fewer emissions.

First, Mazda announced a “new compression ignition engine…20 percent to 30 percent more fuel efficient than the…automaker’s current engines,” according to Reuters.  Like a diesel engine, it uses compression to ignite the fuel, rather than spark plugs.  Unlike diesel, the new engine runs cleaner and adds the spark plugs back in, for use when they are more effective, like driving in low temperatures.

Second, Rolls Royce announced a new turbocharger, with an electric boost.  Electrically-assisted turbocharging makes for an engine that responds more quickly and uses fuel more efficiently – which is a pretty ideal combination for anything powered by an engine (and this engine can be used on land, in a boat, and in emergency generators).

And last, a team of researchers from around the country, led by the University of Houston, announced that it’s working to develop a new catalytic converter (aka, the thing under the car that turns engine exhaust into nitrogen and oxygen, water and carbon dioxide).  That’s a good thing twice over:  a better catalytic converter means cleaner air, but it turns out that some next-generation engine technologies may require a next-generation converter too.

Now, you can’t walk into a showroom and find any of this yet.  But these are all based on real-world technologies – and long before you’ll be asking Scotty to beam you up, you’ll be out in your new ride.

The wheels on the bus make the world go round

25 million kids get to school each day (and home again) on a school bus.

And how do those school buses get to school?  Almost every one of them is fueled by diesel.

Yep, without the diesel fueling these buses, a lot of parents would be scrambling to get their kids to and from school about 180 days a year (your average school year).

That’s a lot to be thankful for right there (especially for the kids that don’t really have a Plan B for getting to school otherwise).

But it turns out there’s other good news about school buses.

Like this (don’t take it personally): “Students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a school bus instead of traveling by car,”* according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And did you know about the “school bus effect?”  It turns out that school buses not only help kids get to school, they help kids STAY in school.  From EdSource, “Students who ride the school bus in the critical first year — kindergarten – are absent less often and have lower odds of being chronically absent, a key indicator of future academic success…”**

Not bad for a big yellow bus.

It could be that one day, very far in the future, kids will get to skip over the bus stop by strapping on their jet packs and flying off to school. And no, they will probably never step into the transporter room at home and get beamed to school (although that would make life a lot easier when they forget their homework or their lunch. Just beam over a couple of PB&Js.)

But the future – tomorrow, and as a practical matter, for years to come– is probably going to look pretty much like today.  Which is to say, if your kids ride a bus to school, chances are, it’ll be running on diesel fuel.  And it’ll be yellow.

Say goodbye to the plaster cast

It started with the story of a baby girl who was born with a hip problem (“hip dysplasia,”). Her “treatment,” which began at three months, involved being hung upside down so that her leg would pull out of its wrong position – something so painful, she had to be given morphine.

Next in this six month regimen, her legs were put into plaster casts, with a wooden bar from left foot to right foot, to keep her from moving.  As she grew, every six weeks she went back into the hospital to have the old casts cut off, and to have new casts and a bar put on.

In the end, the outcome was successful. But not surprisingly, her dad wondered if there was something better.

Now, Ron Taylor and his colleagues at Torc2 (Coventry, England) have come up with that something better: a novel blend of petroleum-based wax and thermoplastic for casts, splints, even the connectors for prosthetic limbs.

They started with thermoplastic, because it softens when heated, but becomes solid when cool.  This particular thermoplastic blend can be warmed on a person’s body, in just the spot where a cast is needed, for example.  Then while it is soft, the doctor can shape it to a perfect fit.  And when it cools down, that plastic cast is solid and sturdy and ready to protect that broken arm or leg.

And why the wax?  Because heating thermoplastic on a person’s arm or leg might burn the skin.  Blending in that wax, means the plastic can be warmed and softened at a lower temperature that is safe for patients, while still allowing it to be molded precisely to where it is needed.

These high-tech thermoplastic blends can be heated, shaped and cooled to solid, over and over again – so adjustments as a baby girl grows, for example, don’t require returning over and over again to an operating room.  And reshaping, instead of replacing casts, will not only be simpler to do, it will be much less expensive for patients as well.

Thermoplastic blends make the new treatments possible, and what makes thermoplastic blends possible, are petroleum and natural.

If George Jetson had been a farmer…

Driverless vehicles are headed off road.

Not for recreation though.  This is all about work, because these driverless vehicles are farm tractors.

Yes, the driverless tractor is coming to a furrow near you.  Mahindra is bringing the first version to market next year – starting in India, and then available worldwide.

Like the driverless car, in the beginning the farmer will be the “driver”, but not driving.  Next stage will be the remote-operated tractor; and in the end, the tractor will be programmed to head out on its own in the morning, and come back when the day’s work is done.

There is plenty of work on a farm that requires a farmer’s touch.  But driving a tractor back and forth across a field, and another field, and another – doesn’t have to be in that category.  The driverless tractor just frees up the farmer for all the other work that nobody but she, or he, can do.

As you’d expect with any driverless vehicle, Mahindra’s tractor uses GPS to steer itself – but being a tractor, it faces some challenges you don’t see much on your typical street.  So this tractor can reach the end of a crop row, turn, and head precisely back down the next row – row after row after row.  And when it makes each turn, this tractor can lift the plow or harrow or whatever tool it is using, make the turn and drop it back down in the next row.

And, if you’re envisioning a rogue tractor, something out of a Stephen King novel – not to worry.  These tractors feature a geofence lock, so they can’t go beyond the boundaries of the farm, and a remote off switch, so a farmer can stop the engine and the tractor, should there be an emergency.

Fill ‘er up, Siri

You can get groceries delivered right to your door – you can get a cooked dinner delivered – you can get books and shirts and shoes delivered.  And maybe one of these days – those toilet-paper-delivering drones will finally be airborne.

But – how about gas for your car?  Yes, that’s happening now too.  Not here yet – but Shell is testing out the idea in the Netherlands, in the city of Rotterdam.

How easy is it?  This easy: “It’s three clicks.  You set the time, set the location and then it’s done.”  That’s a Dutch customer explaining how it works on his smartphone, and yeah, that sounded like just two clicks to us also (but we think that third click is the “send” button).

The service is called Shell TapUp, and using their app on your phone (if you were in Rotterdam), you can order up a delivery of gas or diesel, to your car or truck, at home or at work, wherever your ride may be parked, when you need it.  A digital fill-up.

This pilot program is to test out the tech, and also to see how people like it.  The tech testing?  That’s still ongoing.  But the people test?  It’s a hit.

And if you’re wondering, since this is the Netherlands – yes, Rotterdam has canals, but no, Shell doesn’t send the gas boat to your car.  It’s a truck.

So get ready for one day and, “Siri, the car needs gas.”

Pretty Fly (for a shoe)

It’s tough.  It’s light.  It’s sustainably made.  It’s… “a little like baking a cake”!

And…it’s a shoe.  Yep.  Nike’s line of shoes made from Flyleather.

Flyleather is made from leather, but leather plus.  WIRED Magazine laid out the Nike formula: “…[Flyleather] combines leather scraps and polyester blend fibers.  While traditional leather-makers discard parts of the hide that are blemished or too soft and stretchy, Nike takes those pieces and grinds them into a fine dust before combining it with polyester fabric and water.  ‘It’s a little like baking a cake’ says Tony Bignell, VP of Nike’s footwear innovation.” (So yes, we are serious about that.)

If you’re a tennis player, you can pick up some Flyleather right now at the Nike shop online.  And what you get – is a shoe that Nike believes looks exactly like leather but:

  • Is 40 percent lighter
  • Is 5 times more durable
  • Uses 50 percent recycled leather
  • Uses 90 percent less water to make.
  • And looks like this.

In leather manufacturing, typically as much as a third of each cow hide can be tossed out.  Combining that scrap leather with polyester (which in turn is made using petrochemicals) – makes a smart, sustainable combination that couldn’t exist with just one or the other.  Welcome, Flyleather.

Make Mine Plastic: Plastic Wine Bottles

Here in March, it’s hard to imagine summer, well, period – let alone a day when we can spread a blanket out on the grass, open up a picnic basket and worry about ants instead of ice.

(And thanks Punxatawney Phil, for giving us six more weeks of winter!)

So here’s a jump start for your imagination, and a soon-to-come addition to those picnics – the plastic wine bottle.

The folks at Amcor make it (Amcor is a plastics company in Michigan).  The folks at Naked Winery fill it (a winery in Oregon).

And why might you want it?  First, no more “oops”.  No more “after a long hike in to your lovely picnic spot, nicely shaded under a big old tree, and as your (sweaty) hands reach for the wine bottle that you’ve packed in all that way, oops.”  No wine, and a mess of broken glass to clean up.  That, and, a plastic bottle weighs a lot less – so your hike in (and out) to your picnic spot is a lot more comfortable.

Your new bottle keeps your wine fine for at least a year, comes with the modern post-cork topper (a metal screw top), and is made from PET plastic.

Right now, Naked Winery is filling those bottles with a rose, a couple of whites and a Cabernet/Merlot blend.  But stay tuned, because we think other wineries will be following suit.


(Oh, and if you’re the kind of person who wonders about this kind of thing, “PET” stands for polyethylene terephthalate.  But you could call it just another way that petrochemicals make life, and picnics, better.)

There’s an app for that (getting gas delivered to your car)

“Two orders of dumplings, spicy beef with eggplant, sweet and sour soup, rice – oh, and ten gallons of gas.”

Yep, that could happen.  And in fact, if you just want the gas delivered – it can happen right now.

You can get a weekly fill-up, gas when you need it, air for your tires (and our readers know how important that is for good gas mileage), an oil change, a car wash – wherever your car is parked, whether or not you are there – and you arrange it all, on an app, on your phone.

So you can skip the drive to the gas station or the car wash, and have your car taken care of, while you are taking care of something else.

Now you can’t do this everywhere – yet.  But if you’re in or around Minneapolis-St. Paul, you can now.  Cleveland or St. Louis?  Also available for you now.  And if you live in Austin or Atlanta, Nashville or Tampa or Chicago, LA or the San Francisco Bay Area – you could already be signed up.

Never heard of this?  Yoshi is the name of this service (the fuels partner is ExxonMobil).  You can find their app wherever you usually find your apps, or you can check them out online:  Yoshi.

Why “Yoshi”?  Well, that we don’t know, so you’ll have to ask ‘em.

And maybe one day – you WILL be able to get that pizza delivered, along with that tank of gas – so everyone (and everything) can get a fill-up at the same time.

Mirai Nagasu and “the tale of the tape” (the petrochemical-based tape)

Maybe you watched Mirai Nagasu land a triple axel Sunday night (Monday night, if you were there in South Korea) – the first-ever American woman to do it at the Olympics.

And maybe, when you got over that — you were one of many people who wondered – what was that “thing” on her thigh?

Tattoo?  No.  Bruise?  No.  Turns out – it was “USA” – printed on the KT Tape she was wearing under her tights.

And KT Tape turns out to be the Official Kinesiology Tape Licensee for the U.S. Olympic team (Admit it, THAT’s a category you’d never heard of before.  We hadn’t either.).

What’s that all about?  Petrochemicals, of course.

Now that’s not why our Olympians wear it.  They like it because – well, let’s have KT Tape tell the “tale of their tape”: “an elastic sports tape designed to relieve pain while supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments – helps reduce pressure to the tissue – without restricting comfort and range of motion.”  And some athletes in outdoor events, skiers for instance, are even wearing the tape on their faces – to keep their skin from freezing.

But what makes that possible is the petrochemical touch.  In particular (for you chemists), it’s all about the polyacrylate, a polymer resin made from propylene (which is one of your basic petrochemicals).  It’s the petrochemical touch which makes a tape that can fit precisely to your muscles, and stay flexible enough to expand and contract with them.  That “touch” also repels water and wicks moisture away, so Olympic (and weekend) athletes can concentrate on their performance.

In a way though, this petrochemical connection is no big deal.  No big deal – because it might be harder to find a sport without some polymer-based material, without some synthetic fiber, in short, without a petrochemical connection.

Last week, we did a little Sports Petrochemical 101 on the Games – how petrochemicals are used in making skis and skates and sleds – helmets and pads – jackets and pants and brooms (the ones for curling).   Petrochemicals can even be used to help make the snow and the ice!

So, like most of us, you might be likely to make a triple bogey than a triple axel – but if you play a sport at any level, your game is probably better thanks to – petrochemicals.

Plastic Makes Perfect (Figs!)

There’s no time like mid-winter for thinking about something completely different – the fruits of mid-summer.

In this case, we’re thinking about fresh figs.  And while (other than idle daydreaming) would a news page about petroleum and petrochemicals be thinking about figs?  We’ve got an answer for that.  Or actually, Matthew Naitove, at Plastics Technology magazine has an answer:

“If you’re a fan of fresh figs (as I am), then you may have resigned yourself (as I have) to the fact that when you buy figs in a plastic mesh-style box, the fruit on the top may look great, but the figs on the bottom will be mashed, mis-shapen, and quite possibly moldy as a result.

“Well, I am resigned to such disappointment no longer, thanks to a more imaginative use of plastics [and there’s your connection!].  For the first time since I have been living in New York City … I found a supermarket that stocks fresh figs in thermoformed PET clamshells, where each piece of fruit (six to eight) is held snugly in its own separate pocket.  No bouncing around, no mashing, no squishing, no leaking of juice to promote mold growth.”

It’s clear, it’s strong, it’s lightweight – you heat it, mold it, turn it into the perfect carrying case for figs.  It’s recyclable when you’re done.  And it’s only made possible by the petrochemicals needed to make that modern plastic.  Not bad, even if the closest you come to a fig, is a Fig Newton.

Putter – Driver – Sand Wedge – Oil?

What do Jordan Spieth and Kyle Busch have in common?

Success?  Yes.  Cool heads under pressure?  That too.  But neither of them could do their job without something else they have in common – a barrel of oil.

Now Busch is obvious, since a race car without gasoline is no race car at all.

But Spieth?  Yep, Jordan isn’t powered by oil, but he couldn’t hit a golf ball without it – because there wouldn’t be any modern golf balls without oil.

In the beginning, all you needed was a tree, since both clubs and balls were wood.  Then came feathers (that was the inside) in a leather cover.  It’s said the featherie was a fine ball, but since even an expert could make only a handful a day, many of us would be out of balls long before we hit the back nine.  That was followed by gutta percha and rubber (back to trees again, although you could make these balls and still leave the trees standing).

Finally, we get to the modern golf ball, and oil.

Of course, it isn’t oil anymore by the time Titleist or Callaway enter the picture.  They are using petrochemical products at that stage, which is to say, chemical building blocks made from oil.

Making a typical ball – means mashing, stretching, chopping and molding synthetic rubber with other ingredients to form a core, and then a cover (urethane or Surlyn®) is molded around that.  And those petrochemical building blocks (for the chemists among us) – most often are ethylene for the cover, and butadiene for the core of the ball.

You can tweak that mix for durability, for distance, for drop and stop on the greens.  Oh, and price too.  And given that by one estimate, there are 300 million golf balls lost each year, just in the United States –  that’s a mighty good thing.

Skin in the game – if you’re a robot

Imagine meeting a robot one day.  A friendly robot.  It whirs and beeps and blinks a bit, and then sticks out a robotic hand.  “Hello, human.  It is a pleasure to meet you.”  Very cool.

Global Business Handshake

And then.  “Ouch!”  That’s you, as your new robotic friend gives you a vice-like, mechanical squeeze/hand shake.  Not so cool.

Now though, there may be a fix for that:  e-skin.

The latest version of e- (for “electronic”) skin, is being developed at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  It’s made of very thin, very supple, polymer called polyimine – reinforced with silver nanoparticles for strength – with sensors for pressure, humidity, temperature (so the “skin” knows what it is doing).

And while shaking hands with a robot would be cool, there is much more this skin could do.  It could, for example, allow robots to perform a wide range of delicate tasks, even perhaps, checking a child’s forehead for fever (because it could sense the heat if there was a temperature, and could touch gently so the child would be safe).  The same skin could be used on a prosthetic limb, to give a human user all the same benefits of a finer touch.

E-skin won’t feel like our skin – but to a remarkable degree, e-skin will be able to function like our skin – sending the same messages to an e-brain or our brain:  this is hot, this is cold, hold this tighter, hold this gently.

This latest e-skin even has the ability to heal itself (with a little chemical help), so if it does get a cut, you won’t have to worry about your robot rummaging around under the sink for a bandage.

Since it is an artificial skin, it can also be recycled – which might sound a little weird, but makes this more environmentally-friendly, and less expensive to produce.

And, do we need to mention it?  The polymer (the cool word for “plastic”) is made possible by the petrochemical para-xylene. (which in turn is made from oil).

So someday soon, if you run into C3PO on the street, you’ll be able to high five him.  Safely.

Doctor, Soldier, Farmer – Oil Company? Yes.

What do a doctor, a soldier, a farmer, a homeowner – each have in common with a big oil company?

They use some of the same tools every day.

The same ultrasound that doctors use to check that all is well with a baby-to-be?  British Petroleum (BP) uses to check for early warning signs of corrosion in storage tanks.

The military uses thermal imaging cameras to see inside buildings, and BP uses those cameras to see through pipes and catch leaks.

Farmers use drones to look over their fields, to see quickly and efficiently, what plants might need water or fertilizer.  BP uses drones to look over its operations out in the field to quickly and efficiently look over its far-flung operations.

And you might put a security camera out by the front door, to wirelessly keep an eye on things – in the same way that BP uses wireless sensors in its refineries to keep an e-eye on those miles and miles of pipes, tubes and pumps.

Which is how a big oil company puts high tech tools in the service of the highest level of safety.

The Oscars: Lights! Camera! Petrochemicals?

Oscar night!  The winners.  The losers.  The mixed-up envelopes.  And – the “what were they wearing” (sometimes accompanied by “what were they thinking!”)?

If you’re an Oscar watcher, you’ve probably got your own list of best- and worst-ever looks.  But to jog your memory, we’ve borrowed a few from each category from Cosmopolitan’s list of “The most memorable Oscar dresses”:

On the “ooh” side of the ledger, you’ll find Audrey Hepburn in white Givenchy (1954); Anne Hathaway in Armani Prive, 2009; and Halle Berry, 2002 in Elie Saab.

Then over on the “urk” side, how about Gwyneth Paltrow, in the see-through top, 2002; or maybe you remember Bjork in 2001, complete with swan; or, umm, Cher, in well, whatever that thing was.  1988 Oscar for Moonstruck, yes.  1988 outfit for the Oscars – no.

But we digress.  Because the point of this story, is that the oohs and the urks (and the in-betweens) on Oscar night, often owe something to petrochemicals.

Synthetic fibers (made using petrochemicals), like polyester and nylon, are used in making all sorts of fabrics – from satin and chiffon, to lace and velvet – and used in dresses that you might find on the rack, on the runway, or on stage at the Oscars.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the folks who produce petrochemicals are responsible for the actual looks that end up at the Academy Awards.  So if you’re thinking back to 1995 for example, and the “famous” dress made from American Express Gold Cards – that was strictly Lizzy Gardiner’s idea (the Oscar-winning costume designer who made and wore that costume.  Even if it’s true that credit cards are also made with – yep, plastic made from petrochemicals).

Dresses aside though — maybe there wouldn’t be any Oscars at all without petrochemicals.  That’s because much of today’s film is made with polyester – and without film, no movies; and without movies, well, no Oscar.

Now if you keep up with the industry, you know that the movies have gone digital.  In fact, in most theaters, you won’t even find film projectors anymore.  But – petrochemicals are at the heart of everything digital too.  That’s a story for another time though.

Keeping it Clean

When you think of a “clean room” – maybe you think of workers in helmets and gloves and big white suits, airlocks, bright lights, and of course, shiny spotless surfaces.  You might think of finding clean rooms in places like NASA, as scientists work on a space telescope or a probe to another planet.  And you’d be right.  But you’d also be right if you thought about plastics manufacturers (at least when those plastics are being used in the world of medical care).

That’s a good thing too, because these are plastics you want to be really, really clean.  Clean, as in beyond sparkling.  Clean, as in sterile.

That’d be plastics that go into us, as in pacemakers and stents, artificial hearts and artificial limbs.  And sometimes medical products like plastic bags and tubes for blood and other IV infusions, and plastic syringes, are also manufactured in a clean room.

So a clean room is a good thing.  But those advanced medical plastics (and most plastics, period) require something else too – petroleum and natural gas – because that’s where the petrochemical building blocks (like ethylene and propylene), that are essential for making those plastics, come from.