20 November 2007

Three Notions About Modern Chemistry

One interesting development in physical chemistry, reported on in the December issue of Popular Science, is that some bloke searching for a cancer treatment appears to have come across a way to perform electrolysis with radio waves that is catalyzed by simple salt in water. Obviously, this doesn't generate energy. But, if it sounds like it could be rather efficient as electrolysis goes, if for no reason other than that radio waves generators wouldn't become tarnished and require replacement electrodes in the way that conventional electrolysis set ups do. While potable water is scarce, briny water is absurdly abundant, so the fact that salt water might actually be better than pure water for electrolysis is encouraging. While the hydrogen produced is really more of an energy battery than an energy source, at point of use hydrogen is a nearly ideal fuel, because the byproduct of its combustion is non-polluting steam. Purified oxygen is useful for medicinal and industrial purposes, and it also is something of an anti-pollutant if released into the atmosphere as a byproduct rather than saved.

My other two notions involve how we could used exotic short lived isotopes in chemistry, as opposed to simply making them for our own amusement in particle accelerators.

One possibility, particularly for longer lived synthetic isotopes, with half lives of hours or days or weeks or years, is in nanotechnology. This is the only area of chemistry, it seems to me, where the quantities of synthetic isotopes that could be practically produced could be large enough to be useful. It wouldn't even matter if the synthetic isotope had no special properties. This is because one of the perennial fears of nanotechnology is that the products will become dispersed in places where they don't belong. A short lived isotope would solve that problem by effectively placing a self-destruct sequence into each product.

A second possibility is what I think of as "ephemeral chemistry." This would also have to involve some kind of nanotechnology, but unlike the self-destruct applications described above, the special properties of synthetic isotopes would matter. The idea is that if you could generate a steady stream of a very short lived isotope, minutes or less of half life, for example, that these could serve as a catalyst or other intermediate product of a chain of chemical reactions that would make possible new kinds of chemical reactions. It would presumably be dreadfully expensive business. But, it might be useful for some niche applications. For example, perhaps an atom with a particularly large nucleus could coax organic chemicals into creating stable rings larger than the stereotypical carbon benzene ring, which would in turn have biochemical applications.

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