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Fun with Acronyms

June 16, 2008

One of my company's favorite things to do is provide a safe working environment for its employees. You might think that a bit peculiar, unless you remember that--despite all the talk about publishing books--I am a chemist. Sometimes things in the lab can go boom, or better, issue forth red clouds of toxic vapor, especially if they're not monitored correctly.

Right now, we're having a bit of training about the dangers of handling hydrogen, because for all intents and purposes, hydrogenations are one of the most dangerous reactions we organic chemists do regularly. The problem with hydrogenations (bear with me, fellow organikers...the meat of the post is yet to come) is that hydrogen gas (H2) is extremely flammable. It's actually more flammable than gasoline (once it hits the right concentration in air) and it burns fast. I don't know if you any of you ever had to do the reaction in high school chemistry lab where you chuck a piece of zinc into hydrochloric acid and collect the H2 gas given off by the reaction in bottles. I did this in both college and high school, and both times had way too much fun listening to that keen little fwoop! sound that hydrogen made when you got the match near it. Ah, good times, good times.
Anyway, the flammability of hydrogen is just part of the problem. Hydrogen is small, so it leaks from pretty much any "sealed vessel. Hydrogen also travels pretty quickly, as it's so small. There's a whole other problem, too, with the hydrogenation reaction, and that is that it's not spontaneous. In other words, you need a catalyst. Think of a catalyst as something that makes it easier to do a process that would otherwise not go; if you need further allegory, think of a catalyst as acting like a half-dozen rum and cokes and the reaction being the clothes of the cute girl in the corner of the party. The clothes aren't coming off without the booze; the hydrogen's not going onto the molecule without the catalyst.Problem is, most of the catalysts are metals, but not just your regular metals, but activated metals. Think of the rum and cokes as suddenly changing to shots of vodka (now can we see why I don't teach chemistry?). Not only are the metals more reactive toward the hydrogen (and the molecule is question), but they're also more reactive toward oxygen in the air. The true joy is that, when these catalysts are exposed to air, they react with oxygen. As they react, they get hot. If they get too hot, they mingle with hydrogen and make fwooping noises. Or they flat out detonate, depending on how much hydrogen there is, how much solvent, all that good stuff.
As you can see, this can be a problem.

Thus, we have our little safety talk. It may be boring to sit through, but at the same time, it's something that we all need to think about, especially if we plan on continuing to do both hydrogenations and living at the same time.

Now, there's something else that organikers just love, and that's acronyms. I mean, seriously, we love them. Acronyms are like porn to chemists, but especially organic chemists. Seriously. We make acronyms out of our clubs (ACS) and our journals (JACS, JOC). We have such creative ones, too, like DEAD. And DIAD. And DIPEA/DIEA and TEA and DMF and DCM and if those don't tickle our fancy near enough, we start working abbreviations into the mix and create MeOH, AcOH, EtOH, EtCO2CH2CO2Et. Oh, my lips are tingling with the spiciness of this conversation!!!

So, it's no coincidence that the speaker today trotted out a brand new acronym that I had never heard of, called the Organic Reactions Catalysis Society.

That's right. ORCS.

I guess the really cool thing about ORCS is it's not just synthetic organic chemists, but it's a society that spans all walks of chemistry life. At the conference, you can listen to talks from people in food sciences, materials, organometallics, synthesis...all talking about the best ways to do things and any little hints and tricks that might help make life in the lab easier and, more importantly, safer.

And at the end of every conference, everyone gets together and beats the shit out of the Elves.


Jidai said...

Well... do the Orcs like man flesh and shiny pieces of armor?

Ψ*Ψ said...

Yay, rum and coke! <3
I remember being completely terrified before setting up my first hydrogenation. Then I actually weighed out the catalyst...and realized I was working on a pretty tiny scale. "what? that's NOTHING! i can't blow anything up with that!"

Chemgeek said...

"now can we see why I don't teach chemistry?"

Actually, about 90% of my student may benefit from your analogies.

BTW, I've lost the hair on my hand twice while adding more catalyst to a reaction saturated with H2.

yeah, I'm an idiot...

Lisa-tastrophies said...

WOW! I wish someone had explained chemistry that way to me when I was taking it. I might have passed it before the 400th try. The MD20/20 picture was especially helpful. I wish I could get you to come explain it to my science classes... but I think they would frown on teaching 7th & 8th graders about booze and girls. (No wait, they already know.)

Frank said...

That hydrogen-burning experiment was my favourite when I was in high school. I nearly failed the rest of the class, however, since I'm kinda dumb.

McGone said...

Oddly enough, I used to beat the shit out of elves whenever I drank Mad Dog 20/20. And I rode back to the dorm room on my pet unicorn.

minijonb said...

i'm not a chemist, so in the corporate world the joke i would make is, "We have CEOs, CIOs, COOs and EIEIOs."

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

The Orcs aren't Gollum, jidai.

My very first hydrogenation overhydrogenated my stuff and I turned some lovely cross-metathesized vinylcyclopropanes into alkanes. Whee!!!

As for the teaching, you should also remember that I likened kinases and ATP to a drunk girl riding the train at a frat party once. I should never be allowed to alter the minds of youth in this country...or any other.

Did the Unicorn ask you to rub his horn?

Don't forget the CFOs, minijonb, else the paycheck might end up short.

minijonb said...

oh, i forgot to mention, i'm a member of W.H.A.T. = We Hate Acronyms, Totally

= : - )