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Polymers Are Not Chemicals, CNN says

That’s right folks, you heard it here first: Polymers are not chemicals. Polymer scientists, all those years of chemistry classes you took are worthless. I’m sorry.

I was informed of this factoid this morning while I was eating my breakfast and watching CNN’s coverage of the oil spill in the Gulf. Reynolds Wolf (no relation, thank goodness), a meteorologist and CNN correspondent, was reporting from Louisiana on another chemical being used to help in the clean-up efforts: C.I. Agent.

We’ve already reported about the dispersants being employed down there, but I hadn’t heard of this substance until this morning. It seems clean-up crews are now also going to be using C.I. Agent, a petroleum-based blend of polymers that encapsulates oil (or any hydrocarbon, really), turning the whole complex into a rubberlike substance that can be scooped out of the water. This polymeric powder compound comes from Louisville, Ky.-based C.I. Agent Solutions, which says that the solidified oil-polymer product ”can be used as a fuel or sold to companies … as a filler to add strength and flexibility to their products.”

This is not exactly what Reynolds Wolf told me this morning. He stressed that the C.I. Agent is “a polymer, not a chemical” and that the final solid is “biodegradable.” I can’t find a video clip of this, so you’ll have to take my word for it, but I nearly choked on my cereal bar when I heard it. I’m guessing that what you were supposed to get out of all of this is something like: Chemicals are bad, but this polymer thing is good because it’s eco-friendly and helpful.

I talked all of this over with colleague Melody Voith, who authors the “Cleantech Chemistry” blog for C&EN. She’s already reported about other efforts to clean up the Gulf, such as stockings filled with hair, and looked further into this C.I. Agent here. 

I leave you with a video of C.I. Agent in action. It reminds me of one of those OxiClean commercials.

6 Comments

  • May 13th 201017:05
    by clumma

    Hi Lauren!

    Also, the “connect with facebook” option here is throwing an error.

    -Carl

  • May 13th 201021:05
    by spicyrobot

    The folks at mop environmental have an earth-friendly product that could very easily be used in place of the polypropylene chemicals. They’ve been certified by the EPA already, but they’re having difficulty getting attention in the Gulf coast from the people in charge of the disaster remediation

    http://mopnewsfeed.blogspot.com/2010/05/case-for-mop-in-gulf-thumbnail-sketch.html

  • May 14th 201012:05
    by jaspevacek

    Dang it. I just took part in the meme that is going around – 10 Things I Love about Polymer Chemistry. I guess that means I have to take it down, retract it, disavow any existence, and erase any memory of it using one of those thingies that the Men in Black have.

  • May 14th 201013:05
    by gxf57

    Are these things really biodegradable? Same claim is made of some grocery store plastic bags, but they just photodegrade into smaller & smaller polymer particles. It’s unusual for anything to be able to actually digest a polymer.

  • May 14th 201017:05
    by Lauren Wolf

    @gxf57: No I’m pretty sure these things aren’t biodegradable, but as the company points out, they can be burned for fuel, so they’re at least reuseable in a way. I’m not sure about all plastic store bags, but I think for the most part they aren’t biodegradable either. Your mention, however, does bring to mind this story from a few years ago: http://news.therecord.com/article/354044

    @clumma: I’ll check into the problem. Thanks.

  • Jul 9th 201009:07
    by emcsq

    Okay, I might agree there is a difference between base chemicals and the resulting polymer.

    From the American Heritage Science Dictionary we see a chemical is “a substance having a specific molecular composition, obtained by or used in a chemical process.” It sounds like a polymer is on the edge of chemical, it is obtained by a chemical process, but is typically not used in a chemical process. Polymers certainly have a specific molecular composition for each type of polymer. It sounds like, looks like and smells like a chemical.

    Polymers are formed by chemical reactions that cause distinct chains of monomers. Each variance in a chain is the underlying difference in the polymers used in industry. Sure sounds like chemistry.

    But a polymer is typically considered a synthetic, typically an end product used in molding/shaping consumer goods. True colorants and other products like fiberglass are added to some polymers during manufacturing, but the inherit property of the polymer stays the same. It is not chemically altered simply heated, molded and cooled. For more insite on how polymers are molded see http://pmestl.com/magazine.

    Yes, polymers are derived from chemical processes and are certainly made up of chemicals. Indeed by definition it can still be classified as a chemical. But in application here, there may be a distinct difference. Some chemicals, as we know, can rapidly disolve in water where an elasto-polymer will not; although over time it could leach chemicals into the water. The polymer will also float (while some chemicals will sink) an added bonus in cleanup. Some polymers do absorb a certain amount of moisture, but in this instance not measurable. The oil should stick to the polymer which could be an advantage in clean up an obvious reason for using it along with it being very light.

    Burning many polymers creates toxic fumes. Polymers like rubber can be used to clean the burning of coal and are used in many electric producing companies to lower measured emissions. The emissions that are being tracked! The ground up rubber increases the temperature of the coal which means less coal burned to create the same level of energy and a lower toxic foot print for per ton of coal burned. Again, that is for the toxins being measured. Remember we did not want the toxic fumes of burning rubber in our waste sites.

    Can the sludge of oil and polymers be burned safely. My best guess is, sure they can… as long as it is not in my neighborhood. Now all we have to worry about is the true long range impact of this mess.

    Clean up is only the sludge we can see, it is not the chemical shift in the water that could leave a desert floor to the gulf barren of food for the habitat still alive. I guess on the good side we will not have to oil the skillet before frying fish from this area a new product just waiting to hit the market.

    Remember floride the waste from aluminum production plants is a chemical that has no demonstratable proof to prevent cavaties, yet we drink it and can’t get enough in our mouth. Too much and it can, will and does cause cancer. I am sure they will have a spin for the latest toxic spill.

    A good site to learn more about chemicals in the food chain and how to avoid them is http://healthylife.rmtrain.com

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