Going green and saving money

This blog is nothing more than the very occasional rant but it has, it seems, attracted a little attention. Enough anyway that my friends at Chemistry World have just featured our Department and our collaborators at eeCO2 Energy in an article about how to start thinking about saving money while also achieving reductions in environmental impact in labs. The article focuses almost exclusively on electricity and water which are an important start but are just the beginning. The connexions between health and safety practice and our long term environmental impact are something I keep highlighting when I talk about gloves. But chemical inventories will lead us to using chemicals more efficiently.

The important thing that I think all of us should be asking ourselves as we go about our daily business is: “Are the energy, water, chemicals suppliers and the waste disposal companies our charity?” No? Well then let’s be a bit more frugal and spend our money on giving our students more time, more resources, and keeping our equipment in tip top shape.

And then we’ll take a look at academic travel. Those emissions will be interesting…

Thanks to Philip Broadwith for giving me so much rant time.


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More reasons for not wearing disposable gloves in the lab!

Readers of this very occasional blog will remember that I have discussed at some length the reasons why the wearing of gloves in the lab may, counter-intuitively, put us, our students, and our fellow lab workers at greater risk than riding their flasks bearback.

[A photograph of a cardboard box]

A box containing many boxes of a hundred blue or purple disposable nitrile gloves. Look closely at the pictograms at the bottom.

Our Safety Officer, Ian Watts drew my attention today to a symbol that appears on the boxes of gloves  (as opposed to “gloveboxes” which means something very different). Have a look here at right.

[A pictogram indicating chemical resistance]

A pictogram referring to the chemical permeability of the glove.

Notice that there is a small icon on the bottom right which shows a shield containing a beaker that has a liquid in it. A closeup is shown at right.

The icon is very important. EN374-3: 2003 refers to the European Norm governing the performance of chemically resistant gloves (UKIP and Conservative Party readers please note that the EU does more than regulate the shape of bananas!)

It is defined here in the EU Guide “The Right Glove”. This is what it means:

The ‘Low Chemical resistant’ or ‘Waterproof ’ glove pictogram is to be used for those gloves that do not achieve a breakthrough time of at least 30 minutes against at least three chemicals from the defined list, but which comply with the Penetration test.

In other words these gloves are not designed to protect you against solvents or other “chemicals” that you are likely to encounter in the lab – yes they protect you from aqueous solutions, but not much more than that.

If you wear them when doing chemistry involving organic solvents then you are lulling yourself into an illusion of safety, while at the same time looking very “professional” and competent.

Wake up! Safety is a much bigger issue than simply slipping on a lab coat, some specs and some gloves while keeping your brain switched off.

You can take the gloves off for most operations, making sure that if you spill stuff you wash your hands very thoroughly with soap and water. Above all, by feeling like you’re doing something a little bit dangerous you will probably behave much more carefully.

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Ten Rules to stay safer on a bicycle in London.

With yet another cyclist killed this morning you may be thinking that cycling is London is too dangerous. Not so. Cycling pits your short term risk of falling off/being injured against your long term cardiovascular health as well as your wealth. By cycling you incorporate into your everyday routine low impact aerobic exercise that will be very much to your advantage by the time you get to my age. Yes, there are lots of things that TfL can or should do for us, but it’s critical that we follow these ten rules to stay safer on the roads.

1. Get out there and cycle. The more cyclists we have, the more others aware are of us. Think of it as herd immunity. I’ve cycled in London for 25 years and it’s a totally different, safer world out there.
2. Obey the rules of the road. This isn’t an issue of safety. It’s a question of respect. You cannot expect people to be treat you with respect if you behave like an idiot. Rules work both ways. If we transgress, we can expect to be treated accordingly. Upbraid (!) cyclists who ride on the pavement and go through red lights. It’s your reputation they’re ruining.
3. Make sure your bike is fit. Get it checked out at UCLU’s wonderful Pop Up Bike Workshop in the Quad on a Tuesday. Both your brakes should work and your gears should shift smoothly. Pump up your tyres properly. There’s a great bike pump behind the reception desk.
4. Give large vehicles a wide berth. 4 of the 6 people killed in the last few days were crushed by trucks or buses turning left. It’s the fashionable way to die. Just assume they can’t see you when you’re near them. Stay away. There monsters be!
5. Be seen. Wear bright colours and get lights and reflectors. We cyclists should look like the Christmas version of Dunsinane Wood.
6. It’s not a race. Remember that cycling at a normal pace you will get from A to B in London faster than by almost any other mode of transport. And a lot cheaper too. So don’t sneak through narrow gaps unless you’re dead sure (!) that the vehicles won’t move.
7. Plan ahead. Learn to look behind without wobbling. Watch other road users’ body language. Make eye contact with pedestrians, drivers and other cyclists. Position yourself so you don’t need to cut across lanes when turning.
8. Signal early and clearly. Be theatrical. Your arms should be stretched perpendicular to your body for several seconds. Don’t wobble.
9. Be assertive. You have as much right to be in the middle of a lane as a truck does. Don’t let them squeeze you. But equally, be courteous, and let vehicles past when there’s more space.
10. Ring your bell and smile. Cycling is fun and takes us back to the happy freedom of our childhood. Chill out, pedal, and spread the love.

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Classic Kit Number Seventy Something: Lichtenberg’s Figures

I have to tell you that I’ve been thinking about printers of late. I know. This risks being one of the most boring posts of all time, but humour me and read on.

I’ve been thinking of printers in part because I sit on UCL’s Environmental Sustainability Steering Group. But also because I’m puzzled by the psychology of the printer. Why DO people have printers on their desks? To print documents, of course, you will answer. But if you ask people how much they print a day many report that they print only a dozen pages at most. So while it’s convenient there has to be more to it than that.

Habit plays a large role. When you start as an academic you are often given some basic office stuff to get you going – a computer, a screen and a printer. But that doesn’t explain why, in our General Office, where our support staff and the Head of Department, Deputy Head etc. live, there are eleven printers of nine different models. It occurred to me that owning your own printer has nothing to do with convenience and everything to do with status. Putting a printer on someone’s desk allows them to say “I am Master of my own Destiny”. “Look! I don’t even have to stand up to produce an object that would make Gutenberg drool”. It’s a bit like buying yourself a Mercedes. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t get you anywhere faster than the clapped out Trabant next to it. Nor that fact that it spends 95% of its life sitting by the kerbside gathering dust and bird poo. It says “I’ve made it”! And that’s enough. Same with printers.
This made me wonder how many printers there were round the Department, and what kind of energy and support load they impose on us. It turns out we have at least 108 printers spread across five stories, we use about 1 millions sheets of paper a year, and need to keep 35 different models of printer cartridges in our stores. Take a look at the panorama below. As far as I can make out we stock more printer supplies than we stock chemicals. Whoever thought Chemistry was our core business?


It’s madness.  And just in time comes UCL’s Print@UCL scheme for pull printing. We hand over our individual printers and in return get strategically located printers operated on a centrally managed service contract that we don’t have to worry about. If we site them “a la Google” in strategic locations to act as condensation points where people will meet and chat, perhaps ideas will flow. Maybe pairing the printers with a cheap coffee machine would help too. Above all, I expect that thousands of pounds of savings will result from the change. I can say that confidently because that is what has been seen elsewhere in the College. And friends who work in “the private sector” are rather astonished that we even allow individual printers.

The project which is now underway with the first shared printer due for delivery in a couple of weeks time. Will that create a stink? Probably. I fully expect opposition. But I’d be surprised if I don’t win the argument within six months.

But it made me ask the question what is the most important piece of shared equipment in a chemistry lab. It’s nothing to do with science. What all of our scientific tools share is a printer to record our results. Photocopiers and printers – at least those for high volume work – use electrostatics to distribute the toner and the history of electrostatic printing is quite fascinating.

I happened to be on set last summer during the recording of BBC Science Club for which I was Mark Miodownik’s understudy. One of the things they recorded was truly astonishing. I”ll probably get into trouble for uploading this video but until they force me to pull it down here is the snippet:

It is a piece of perspex which has been bombarded with electrons. The stored charge is then discharged using an earthed nail. It’s a spectacular demo and the video barely does it justice. In fact, not only do I dream of being able to do the demo for myself, I want one of those trees (in fact you can buy them on eBay). You’ll find lots of information on the Captured Lightning page (thanks to Andres Tretiakov for the link).

The discoverer of this phenomenon, albeit in a somewhat tamer form was Georg Christof Lichtenberg one of those incredibly romantic polymaths of yesteryear. I only wish my German were better so I could make more of his writings.

So in the latest episode of Classic Kit, I give you Lichtenberg’s Figures.

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The Places of Chemistry – another way of thinking about Chemistry

Several years ago I started playing with Google Maps, tinkering around with how to display, for example, the places that our Department had visited as part of outreach or public engagement events. This led me to start building a Classic Kit map, documenting who had made what and where. Very quickly it turned into a map of chemically significant places, like the postbox that William Ramsay posted the paper on the discovery of argon, where ferrocene was first isolated, and where Joseph Priestley was buried. It seemed like a fun project and I tried to crowdsource interest and failed totally. A couple of people added a spot or two, a few people emailed me, but that was about it. It slowly fizzled out, and then it just sat there. Until I had chat with the RSC’s wonderful Chiara Ceci (@chiara_ceci). We had a cup of tea in Gordon Square one afternoon and as I described what I’d done, good historian of science and enthusiast that she is, the lights came on big time.

The result – and the hard work and persistence in pushing this through is all hers, not mine – is the Places of Chemistry App that you can get on iTunes or for Android devices. Have a play. We really need to fill in more places, not just round London but across the UK, across Europe and everywhere else. It’s kind of fun to see the world through history of chemistry eyes and I hope that one day I’ll be able to find Guyton de Morveau’s grave, or the remains Dr Bender’s school where poor old Ernst Büchner was so unhappy. 

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The Year of Revolution

Classic Kit has turned into something of an obsession – this is shown by the fact that this month is the 75th column in the series. Looking back at the early ones, I wish I could rewrite them and correct some of the omissions. This month gives me the opportunity to do just that as I finally decided to write about Robert Kirchoff and his spectroscope. It’s an opportunity to do slightly more justice to Robert Bunsen, whom I rather demeaned when I wrote, rather lazily in retrospect, about the Bunsen burner.

What I failed to do was to draw proper attention to Bunsen’s incredible contributions to chemistry, from his battery to his role in the development of spectroscopy and in the characterization of the rare earth elements (which you can find in my Terra Rara lecture from the Royal Institution).

[Picture of a prism spectroscope]

The “old fashioned” spectroscope that our undergraduates use in the physical chemistry laboratory. The cover over the prism has been removed to show it in its full glory.

We have an old but solid spectroscope in our teaching lab – slit, prism, collimator lens etc that our students use. Although some look at it and think “relic” and ask why on earth we use something so old fashioned, the point is that it’s not a black box, unlike a typical UV/Vis spectrometer. You can see all the bits and follow the path of the light as it travels through the device and you get to actually see for yourself that the sodium D line is a doublet.

The device was not completely Kirchoff’s, of course, similar devices had been built before him. I’ve had to condense that part of the story down to just a list of names. But what is important is that it was Kirchoff, with the aid of Bunsen, who joined the dots and realized the true importance and utility of the device. In doing so, the two of them changed our world.

I give you Kirchoff’s spectroscope.

[I should mention that we also have an undergraduate experiment in which students construct a spectroscope from a cardboard box and a diffraction grating, using a helium spectrum to calibrate their scale and then use the device to measure Ryderberg’s constant for hydrogen. It’s a lovely, simple experiment and again it’s a way of deconstructing scientific ideas by getting students to use almost improvised methods.]

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Anschütz’s manometer

Several years ago Alfred Bader, the founder of the Aldrich Chemical Company, who is also known for his interest in Dutch painting introduced me to the name of Richard Anschütz, a late 19th century organic chemist who was August Kékulé’s protégé and eventually succeeded him as Professor of Chemistry in Bonn.

Bader, then well into his 1970’s would visit chemistry departments and gave talks about the untold story of four coordinate carbon and the structure of benzene. The villain in the story was Kékulé, by all accounts an insecure egomaniac who may, perhaps, have got some of his best ideas from others. Bader’s disdain for Kekulé was palpable and infectious.

A hero in the tale was Richard Anschütz who spent many years trying to piece together the stories of Archibald Scott Couper and Johann Josef Loschmidt. Anschütz gathered much of the evidence that they had both preceded Kékulé in their proposals, but never got the credit they deserved.

So this month’s Classic Kit is a tribute both to Anschütz – whose little book “Die Destillation unter vermindertem Druck in Laboratorium” I have drawn on previously (see Claisen’s Flask and Perkin’s Triangle) – and to Alfred Bader, a great benefactor of British chemistry teaching. He is now too elderly and frail to travel any more, and who will probably never read this. He is widely remembered across the UK.

Anyway, here is Anschütz’s manometer. If you’re a chemist, you’ve used it.

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