Monday, 20 January 2014

09:03 – Costco run and dinner with Mary and Paul yesterday. They were telling us about their experiences judging elementary school science fair projects. Ordinarily, they’re volunteer judges for middle- and high-school science fair projects, but this time their schedules didn’t allow that so they ended up judging the elementary school projects. They said the projects ran the usual gamut. Some were good science but mediocre presentation, some the reverse and a couple were both good science and good presentation. They and the other judges had to rank the top five projects, which will go on to the next level. Apparently, the top three or four were pretty easy to rank, with numbers four and five less so. Of course, all the kids got a certificate for participating.

While I was making up the Kastle-Meyer reagent over the weekend, I thought about Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Einstein was obviously a physicist, not a chemist.

Any working chemist who does the same thing over and over expects different results, at least occasionally. You might do the same synthesis nine times in a row with perfect results each time, high yield and a nice pure product. Then, the tenth time you do the synthesis—nothing different, you understand; the same chemicals, the same equipment, the same working environment, the same everything—you might get a pathetic yield or a tarry mess in the reaction vessel. Or both.

In fact, there’s an entire discipline devoted to dealing with this problem. It’s called chemical engineering. Getting unexpected results in a lab-scale synthesis is one thing. You’ve wasted some time and (usually) anything from a few dollars’ to a few hundred dollars’ worth of chemicals. But when you scale things up from 1-liter flasks to 100,000-liter reaction vessels in a factory, you can’t afford surprises. Ultimately, that’s what chemical engineering is about. Scaling things up while making sure that things work predictably and properly.


21 thoughts on “Monday, 20 January 2014”

  1. “You might do the same synthesis nine times in a row with perfect results each time, high yield and a nice pure product. Then, the tenth time you do the synthesis—nothing different, you understand; the same chemicals, the same equipment, the same working environment, the same everything—you might get a pathetic yield or a tarry mess in the reaction vessel.”

    If every event has a cause then shouldn’t the same ingredients and methods always produce the same results?

  2. Sure they should. But it’s a mistake to assume that one controls all the inputs. For example, I wrote some time ago about using iron salts as catalysts in organic syntheses. Chemists have been doing that for 150 years. Then one day a chemist happened to use a very pure iron salt. The synthesis failed miserably. As it turns out, iron salts aren’t really catalysts, at least for many of the specific syntheses they’d been used for in the past. The catalytic activity was from copper inpurities in the iron salts. The copper salts were the actual catalyst, even when they were present only at the parts-per-billion level. Iron salts without any copper impurities just didn’t work.

  3. But when you scale things up from 1-liter flasks to 100,000-liter reaction vessels in a factory, you can’t afford surprises. Ultimately, that’s what chemical engineering is about. Scaling things up while making sure that things work predictably and properly.

    We call those the black box boys. Something goes in at a special temperature and pressure and something else comes out. Usually you can sell it to someone else for lots of money.

  4. Son#1 is a junior in Chemical Engineering. Son#2 is in his “undifferentiated engineering freshman year”, leaning toward Electrical Engineering. I’ve advised them to get work experience before going for a master’s. (Son#1’s mother, in particular, is pushing him to go straight through to PhD before worrying about getting a job. I find that advice to be somewhat questionable. Fortunately, both sons are listening to me more than to their mothers, quite likely because I’ve gone to engineering school, have worked in engineering environments, and haven’t been a government employee most of my career, unlike both mothers.)

    What do any of the scientists and engineers reading this think about PE certification, especially for ChemE? I never got it, because software PEs were barely even being discussed back when I was interested. I’ve worked with a number of PEs, mostly good and a few not worth the match to burn their certificates, but don’t have a good feel for whether it’s worth the effort of obtaining.

  5. “What do any of the scientists and engineers reading this think about PE certification, especially for ChemE?”

    I never bothered. Two weeks after graduating with BSChE, I started with Douglas Aircraft as engineer in their environmental, cabin A/C and pressurization design group. Then many years as launch vehicle design analysis engineer. PE was totally meaningless there. Neither commercial nor governmental customers made it any consideration whatsoever.

  6. Just in general, the people I have known with PhD’s have had LOTS more options open to them as they get older. I think this state of affairs will be even more the case as time goes on, as foreigners who value degrees more than Americans do, buy up our businesses and promote those with degrees, as they do in their own countries.

    In my case, I did not get anything more than a BS and a little less than a dozen hours to an MS. When I was in university, classes were taught by people with only an undergraduate degree, who either had worked for most of their lives in the industry, or by those who were currently working at day jobs in the industry, and moonlighting by teaching night classes. I had always imagined that, at the end of my career, I would give back what I could of my acquired knowledge by teaching. But the whole shape of education has changed. These days, colleges and universities want ONLY people with PhD’s, interested primarily in publishing. My first university has a department full of advanced degrees—absolutely NONE of whom have ever worked in broadcasting in any form, outside of the university envrionment. Courses there are now touchy-feely subjects, such as ‘Women’s Role in Broadcasting’, ‘Responsibility in News Writing’,—ick! I can’t go on. A friend who taught an amazing film class for a couple decades there, was replaced recently, and his examination of ‘techniques of the classics’ is now ‘Gender Differences and Race Relations in US Film HIstory’.

    Anyway. Times have changed, but the degree is far more important in education these days than it was, and that is not likely to change. What kids learn in school these days baffles me, but in broadcasting, it is not much. We have had interns at the radio project who graduated with degrees in “Recording Arts’, who could not even get sound from a microphone, through to a recording on the hard drive, let alone mix or edit the results once I showed them how to record sound. Not much practical practice, as there was in my day, just classroom lectures.

    I suppose the monetary aspect has also changed, but my parents got several advanced degrees—my mom 2 Master’s in different areas, and my dad a Master’s and JD, while both were working fulltime and raising my brother and me. I know it is still possible to get MBA’s while working, but outside of that, I am not sure anymore. I have urged both my kids to get advanced degrees, but both have wasted (IMO) a lot of time taking more undergraduate courses in a different area than their degrees, rather than focusing on advanced degrees in other areas. I listened to my parents, but did not always follow their advice, and have been happy with my life’s outcome (except for not being able to give back what I have learned), so I suppose I should not be bothered by my kids ignoring me and doing what they want.

  7. Speaking of processes deviating from expected results, I had one yesterday. We got our first microwave just months after Amana put them on the consumer market. Since then I have always used a stack of paper plates as lids to protect from spattering. Yesterday, I was melting some butter in a Pyrex measuring cup for a recipe, with a paper plate over the top to stop the splattering from making a mess. But the paper plate—for the first time ever—caught on fire. In over 30 years of putting both paper plates and paper towels in the microwave, I have never had that happen before. But apparently it is not uncommon. The paper itself has never felt warm—aside from the places where the splatters are, so this sure is a baffling incident. DIL says she has had paper catch on fire in the microwave more than once.

  8. I don’t know why SteveF’s sons are even thinking about PhDs, or what a PhD actually adds. If a PhD takes three years then that’s three years of fees and living expenses and low income. Get the PhD later if you need it.

  9. Thanks, Stu and Chuck. I’ll pass your thoughts along to Da Boyz.

    Miles_Teg, I mostly agree. Note that I don’t have a PhD myself. I don’t want to teach in a classroom and I’m not interested in the kind of research where you need a PhD to get the grants, so there was no need. It’s mostly Son#1’s mother pushing the PhD idea — she’s Chinese and many of her friends have STEM PhDs and work in universities or GE Corporate Research or wherever, so of course our babies are going to get PhDs. I’m not opposed in general, I simply think it’s a good idea to get some work experience, figure out for sure what you’re interested in, and see if you can get your employer to pay for it.

    That said, Chuck has a point about promotions within big companies. I’m not sure how important that’ll be, especially if you have a STEM PhD but no particular contacts with the foreign or Ivy League dealmakers, but it’s worth considering.

  10. I have the impression from engineering forums that the PE is essential for civil engineers, but not especially useful for other fields. As for PhDs… I think that, unless you want to do academic research, it’s probably a waste of money*. This said, I’m hopefully starting a PhD myself next year, because the kind of research I love tends to be in academic environments. I think you can better serve the goal of corporate advancement by getting an MBA a few years down the line.

    * I don’t know how it is in the US, but in the UK it’s the case that *nobody* should do a STEM PhD and pay for it. If you’re not getting funded, then you’re almost certainly not good enough to make the PhD worthwhile. Still, even when fully funded, there’s the associated opportunity cost of not taking a better-paid corporate job for those ~3-5 years.

  11. I’ve had a Professional Engineers license in the Great State of Texas since 1989. I have a bachelors of science in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M University in 1982. I wanted to go to grad school at TAMU, was accepted, but had a wife and did not have the money. I am now glad that I did not go to grad school as my career experience has been better for me.

    I started my career as a power plant engineer for Texas Electric Service Company in Colorado City, Texas. Worked there for three years and promoted once. Moved to the main office in 1985 after the five company merger into TU Electric (now TXU energy) as a test and simulation engineer. Did that for two years and promoted once. Jumped to the reliability group for three years and was promoted to Senior Engineer before I left. Youngest senior engineer (27 years old) in the 16,000 person company.

    Went back to work with my Dad in a Chemical Engineering simulation software company, ChemShare, due to my first love of software development. We did a do-over in 1995 as WinSim Inc. and I became President and CEO at tender age of 35. For eight people. Currently have 10 people but have been as high as 13 people over the years.

    I would go for the PE license any day of the week. You need it to get anywhere in the body shops XXXXXXXX Engineering and Construction companies. Or if you want to hang out your shingle and work directly for the public. I filed my PE application and got four vice presidents (all engineers) to sign it whom I had been mentored by over the years.

    Advanced degrees, I just do not know. I have hired several PhD Chemical Engineers over the years. They have an incredible amount of debt (approaching $100K) and are basically slaves for some prof for 6 to 7 years while getting their PhD. That said, they are very very very bright and understand new things rapidly. And they also code like the world is on fire when they figure our archaic software package (after three years or so).

    The world is very different now. My Dad got his Chemical Engineering PhD from Princeton in three years and was 100% sponsored by Shell. They do not do that anymore as the Profs expect you to teach their classes, grade the students homework and tests and do their basic experiments. And write their papers for inclusion in various journals. Publish or Perish is very much a mantra of today for academics. And even tenure is going away here in Texas.

  12. I’ve got a MEE degree (and a BA in Astronomy). I worked for most of my career in Aerospace, including a stint in management and finishing as a “Master Chief/Chief of the Boat” troubleshooter for a department manager, with pay equivalent to a department manager.

    PE license is not needed in Aerospace. A requirement if you deal with the general public. Very much needed in Civil for doing everything from roads, bridges, foundations, etc. Needed in Mechanical if you are doing HVAC systems. (Old Aerospace joke: MechEs design weapons systems, CivEs design targets.)

    As for a PhD, that depends on the job description. LockMart had PhDs spread out in R&D type positions, but the vast majority of the engineers had BA/BS or Master’s degrees. In most engineering schools you can get a professional master’s in one year right after your BA/BS. IIRC, when we hired engineers with a Master’s, it counted as one year of experience in the salary computation as well as for the degree and added a couple of thousand a year in salary right off the bat. In some companies, a master’s is pretty much required to get in the door. (I have heard this is particularly true in ChemE.)

    A PhD can take 6-10 years to get, depending on the field. So you are forgoing 6 years or more of a pretty good salary. Here is a starting salary breakdown for ChemEs for 2011:
    – BS, $65,000
    – MS, $77,000
    – PhD, $92,800
    So, it would take 5.5 years to catch up on getting a master’s vs. a BA, and 14 years on a 6 year PhD program vs. a BA.

    One thing to consider: There is no shortage of STEM graduates, except for few areas. In fact, a huge chunk of people with STEM degrees work in non-STEM areas. (The best indication that there is no shortage of STEM graduates is that there has been a stagnation of salaries for STEM grads.)

    I’d suggest that anyone doing STEM look into doing work-study with a company in the field, or at least summer work. We used it as a way to screen recruits, as do most companies.

  13. 6-7 years for a PhD? I thought they took three years max.

    Here in the USA, only if you are taking courses and dissertation. Most, if not all, PhDs work for a prof. Teaching classes, grading papers, grading test, doing experimentation, writing papers for your prof takes a lot of time. I had a PhD candidate interning for me who was taking 30,000 psia three phase data on the weekends for his sponsoring prof running a study for Exxon. I had no idea until I noticed that he was running ragged. He was having to rebuild his apparatus all the due to leaks and the project was not going well.

  14. Science PhDs take less time (4-8 years) than humanities (6-10 years). Your MS+thesis can take 2 years if on the PhD track – 24 hours of classes plus a thesis, along with teaching, etc. Then you start classes+dissertation+teaching work for a few years.

    Or you can do what a genius in my class did: get a BA in physics, a BA in math, and an MS in math in 4 years. After starting college at 16. Then get PhD at Oxford in 3 years. (His name was not Sheldon Cooper, BTW.)

  15. People I’ve known doing PhDs usually complete in 3-4 years, I think that’s as long as their stipend lasts. Many do tutoring on the side but I don’t think it’s that onerous. Some do a masters before their PhD but most seem to do one or the other. My Year 10 science teacher was a MSc in chemistry.

  16. Guy who owned that railroad retired and closed it at the end of last season. He tried to sell it, but no takers. I cannot recall if he had railroading in his background or just his blood. It never made money. Not sure where he got his, but it ran every summer and fall for something like 25 years.

  17. Guy who owned that railroad retired and closed it at the end of last season. He tried to sell it, but no takers. I cannot recall if he had railroading in his background or just his blood. It never made money. Not sure where he got his, but it ran every summer and fall for something like 25 years.

    I noticed there was no 2014 schedule on the Internet, but I didn’t know whether it was because they just hadn’t updated their schedule yet or what.

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