Guest post by Jen Dougan
Of all the components of a cooked breakfast, a perfectly fried egg is arguably the most important. It’s for that reason, despite the myriad of other factors to consider – size/weight/colour/celebrity chef endorsement – that a frying pan’s non-stick credentials are key.
Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the ‘big daddy’ of non-stick, was discovered by accident in 1938. While attempting to make a new CFC refrigerant, American industrial research chemist Roy J. Plunkett noticed that a cylinder of tetrafluoroethylene had stopped flowing but its weight suggested something still inside. In his own words, ‘more out of curiosity… than anything else,’ Plunkett and his assistant cut open the cylinder to discover it was packed at the bottom and sides with a white, waxy solid. Analysis showed that the material was chemically inert, thermally and electrically resistant, and had very low surface friction.
What they had discovered was PTFE, a linear fluoropolymer prepared by the free-radical polymerisation of tetrafluorethylene. The carbon–fluorine bond is the strongest single bond in organic chemistry and the fluorine substituents shield the carbon skeleton from attack, making it chemically inert. Because of its useful material properties (and far from thoughts of fried eggs) PTFE was branded as Teflon and found uses in the Manhattan project, aerospace industries and even gecko research (it is the only known material to which a gecko’s feet cannot stick). But how did Teflon make its way from nuclear research into our kitchens?
By the 1950s Teflon was being used in fishing lines and a French woman asked her husband, an engineer, to coat her aluminium cooking pans with the material. PTFE-coated non-stick cookware was created, and launched as TefAl (from Teflon Aluminium). By the 1960s PTFE–coated cookware was being used in kitchens on both sides of the Atlantic.
However, on searching recently for a new frying pan I found many instances of implied safety issues with PTFE, mostly from ‘eco pan’ manufacturers and advocates. Two main themes recurred in accusations against PTFE cookware: concerns over perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a surfactant used in its production, and ‘polymer fume fever’ – symptoms caused by inhaling polymer decomposition products.
PFOA is an environmentally persistent chemical and, in the mid-2000s, was classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as ‘likely to be carcinogenic to humans’. DuPont, a major user and producer of PFOA, settled with the EPA in 2005 over its failure to report possible health risks associated with PFOA. While PFOA is not present in PTFE cookware itself (it is destroyed during the manufacturing process), it was an environmental concern and after EPA stewardship, PFOA is no longer manufactured nor used by the major global fluoropolymer manufacturers, including DuPont.
Aside from PFOA concerns, PTFE coatings do begin to degrade at 260 °C. The decomposition of the polymer coating produces fumes, which, if inhaled, can cause ‘polymer fume fever’ – temporary symptoms much like the flu virus (see Shusterman DJ, Occup Med. 1993 8(3) 519). But just how likely is this to occur? It is possible to rapidly heat a pan to >260 °C, but if you follow the manufacturer’s instructions and don’t heat an empty pan,you would likely avoid any instances. The most common fats used in cooking have a smoke point well below 260 °C, which should act as a sufficient indicator of pan temperature and kitchen safety. Obviously, heating the pan without fat as a temperature gauge is riskier and should be avoided.
Still not keen on PTFE? There are alternatives. Used for cookware since the Han Dynasty in China (206 BC – AD 260) and still popular with cooks today, cast iron pans have unquestionably stood the test of time. Cast iron frying pans come bare or with an enamelled coating. Bare cast iron pans are porous and to achieve a non-stick finish worthy of a fried egg, oil is polymerised to form a hydrophobic layer across the pan surface. This process, known as ‘seasoning,’ can be repeated as required (depending on treatment of the pan), though is usually recommended yearly.
I’m satisfied that with normal use, PTFE pans will produce perfectly fried eggs without adverse health effects (apart from a risk of increased cholesterol). The only remaining question is whether to have them over-easy or sunny side up?
My name is Jen Dougan and I am a Field Applications Scientist with an SME, developing diagnostic tools for clinical analysis. My job involves working with our R&D teams and customers in the field to drive and support product and applications development.
I recently moved into this position after a PhD and two post-docs (and a brief stint in science policy) in bio-nano-analytical chemistry. What I’ve loved about the transition into this role is the chance to ask questions and provide answers in a fast-paced, rigorous environment. It’s been fantastic to see some of the techniques used through my PhD and post-docs in action in a clinical setting.
Real world applications of chemical research are a central theme of this blog. I’ll be contributing regular posts here, to explore the chemistry in our every day lives. From the clothes we wear to the goods we use, it really is a chemical world.
Guest post by JessTheChemist
‘Scientists have a responsibility, or at least I feel I have a responsibility, to ensure that what I do is for the benefit of the human race’ – Harry Kroto
Thank you for your nominations for this month’s blog post. It was great to see so many of you getting involved in this series, highlighting interesting Nobel laureates for me to cover. However, I could only pick one winner, so I decided to write about Harry Kroto, inspired by this tweet from Bolton School:
— BoltonSchoolChem (@Chem_BoltonSch) August 20, 2014
Harry Kroto has a formidable CV. Not only is he a highly distinguished and talented chemist, but he does a great deal to improve the teaching of chemistry to future generations. This has included setting up the not-for-profit Vega Science Trust, which helps scientists communicate with the public at large, and even returning to his childhood school to build Buckyballs with students.
Kroto began his career at the University of Sheffield where he gained his PhD in high resolution electronic spectra of radicals. After time spent in Canada and the USA, he returned to the UK – to the University of Sussex – to begin his independent research career. His research concentrated on the identification of carbon chains in the interstellar medium, which included work at Rice University, where Kroto and colleagues, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl, discovered the existence of C60 or Buckminsterfullerene. The discovery itself has become a well known scientific story, recently retold by Rowena Fletcher-Wood here on the Chemistry World blog. After numerous publications on the subject, Curl, Kroto and Smalley were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996 ‘for their discovery of fullerenes’. As with many other Nobel laureates, there’s a detailed biography of Kroto published by the Nobel foundation here.
Kroto is related to a number of influential scientists. He is distantly related to Roger Kornberg, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2006 for his work on the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription. Kornberg was lucky enough to work for the Nobel prize winner, Francis Crick, who famously contributed to the proposal that DNA had a double helical structure, along with James Watson.
Kroto’s academic partners and fellow Nobel prize winners, Curl and Smalley also have impressive scientific pedigree. Curl’s academic father was E. Bright Wilson, a pioneer in spectroscopy, and grandfather was Linus Pauling, who won both the Nobel prize in chemistry and the Nobel peace prize. Curl is also academic brother to Dudley Herschbach, winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1986 for contributions towards the molecular dynamics of elementary chemical processes. Hershbach shared the prize with the Hungarian-Canadian chemist John Polanyi and Yuan T. Lee, the first person from Taiwan to be awarded a Nobel prize. Smalley is academically descended from William Lipscomb, who took the 1976 Nobel prize in chemistry for his contributions to borane chemistry. Not shown in our family tree are Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath, who both went on to win Nobel prizes after time spent in Lipscomb’s lab. Lipscomb also demonstrated his sense of humour by regularly presenting at the Ig Nobel awards. Curl is also connected to Peter Atkins, author of undergraduate students’ favourite physical chemistry textbook!
As you can see, Kroto has an eclectic lineage, and rich academic family history, from chemical biologists to physical chemists. Do you want to know what your academic genealogy is? If so, head to academictree.org, where you can add yourself to the website and start creating your very own tree.
‘As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant, which also goes by the name of aconite.’ – Severus Snape, Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone by J. K. Rowling
In Harry Potter’s very first potions lesson he learnt about the magical properties of aconite. Muggle chemists, it seems, are only one step behind the magical world.
Aconitine – spelt slightly differently by scientists – has a highly complex structure that has never before been synthesised in the lab. But now, Duncan Gill from the University of Huddersfield, UK, has been awarded a £133,481 grant to develop a synthetic route to obtain this illusive molecule.
Attempts to make aconitine began after Czech chemist Karel Wiesner revealed its chemical structure in 1959. Weisner went on to publish several papers on the synthesis of alkaloids and terpenoids, an important initial step towards making the molecule. However, it wasn’t until last year that a major milestone was reached, when a team of researchers from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Institute, New York, announced the total synthesis of the related compound, neofinaconitine. Building on the work of his predecessors, Gill will have to develop new chemical methods to reach his target molecule.
If successful, Gill, who has previously worked as a process chemist at AstraZeneca, will need to be particularly careful when handling this compound. Aconitine is a potent neurotoxin and has been dubbed the ‘Queen of poisons’. One of the most notable references to aconitine comes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: it is the main ingredient in the toxic potion drunk by Romeo with fatal consequences.
The grant has been provided by the Leverhulme Trust and will be enough to employ a full-time post-doctoral advisor. Only time will tell if they can bring this fictional favourite to life in a laboratory setting.
Guest post by Heather Cassell
Sometimes it happens when I’m reading a research paper, sometimes when I’m doing an experiment, analysing data or learning a new technique; or more often when I’m reading Twitter. It’s that moment when you discover something new and interesting, or re-discover a fact that you used to know, and it makes you pause and think ‘ooh, that’s interesting’. For me the discovery usually leads to a massive detour into reading things other than those I was meant to be reading or working on, but I always learn something from it and sometimes it’s actually relevant to my work. Whether it directly affects research or not, the ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ moment is at the heart of scientific investigation.
It can be great when it happens during an experiment, but it can also be deeply frustrating. An unexpected result forces you to seriously consider what is happening and to plan more experiments to further examine the anomaly. This encourages you to combine techniques, make use of all of the resources at your disposal or even seek out new collaborators. If the anomalous result is reliably proved correct and reproducible, then you will need to do more research to explain it. At its best, this is a very exciting time as you will get to learn new skills, create new knowledge and develop partnerships. At its worst, it can shatter your previous assumptions or even show that your idea or product is not as good as you think.
Personally, I really enjoy the flurry of activity associated with learning something new, especially a new experimental technique. I was recently involved with some experiments using atomic force microscopy (AFM) – I had a vague idea of what it was but I had never used this technique before. The analysis produced some amazing pictures but I had no idea what they meant, so I spent an enjoyable afternoon learning all about how AFM works and comparing the results we produced with results already published. The next time we used the machine I could analyse the images as they were formed, which was really helpful for determining if it was showing what we wanted or not. The ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ moment had provided the push I needed to learn a new skill.
Outside the lab, I really love spending time on Twitter. With so many scientists (and non-scientists) from different fields providing links to articles and blogs, there’s always more than enough to read. Just 10 minutes reading tweets can leave me with countless browser tabs open and new favourites to read. It’s now easier than ever to share your ‘ooh, that’s interesting’ moments with the world, meaning a tweet from a researcher half way across the globe can inspire new ways to think about my own research.
It is this process of discovery and continuous learning that is one of the main things I love about science. Now, back to Twitter…
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