Curious About Chemicals

Curious About Chemicals

By Diane Calabrese / Published April 2024

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Curiosity—cats aside—is a good thing. It drives exploration and development.

And well it should. Curiosity is a distillate of the desire to learn or know. The word’s Latin root, curious, embodies careful and diligent, and it is allied with the word “cure.”

What a tidy way to sum up the world of chemicals—the efforts to extract the best from them (and their combinations), use them in prudent ways, and in some instances tap them as therapeutics.

Being curious about chemicals leads to many good things.

The path to ever better—the very best—practices begins with asking questions. Curiosity by another name.

“I feel most contractors are not curious enough when it comes to the chemicals they use or when they go to choose a new chemical,” says Linda Chambers, brand and sales manager, GCE/Soap Warehouse Brand in Norcross, GA. “Many just follow the herd and go along with or try whatever has the biggest buzz at the moment.”

The way to assist customers is to talk with them. “At our company we try to get contractors, especially the new ones, interested and educated on their chemical options,” says Chambers. Among those options are “what and why a certain chemical will do a particular job” the contractor confronts.

In fact, Chambers’ company goes the extra step of providing structured instruction. “Our most popular and most attended contractor class throughout the year is my ABCs of Chemicals.”

In the class Chambers explains how chemicals work for particular tasks as well as how formulations are developed for optimal performance (as opposed to a single raw chemical ingredient). To be sure, safety is also part of the instruction.

“Safety is a very often overlooked factor when using and choosing chemicals,” says Chambers. “Many do not give bleach the caution it should be given as a hazardous chemical.”

Chambers reminds readers that many contractors suffer injuries each year when using bleach without using proper PPE [personal protective equipment]. Injuries include eye, lung, and skin damage.

Bleach must not be brought in contact with an acid; but unfortunately, through misapplication or cross-contamination in containers, it sometimes is, says Chambers. “We put an emphasis on SDSs [safety data sheets] and making sure customers get and have them for any new product they purchase.” That emphasis includes tips on binder organization and readiness for OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] queries.

“With distributors, I think many try to stay with the ‘in crowd’ of what new products are coming out rather than what has worked in the past,” says Chambers. And she cautions that many “new” products “are just remakes or with small improvements” that are typically linked to higher prices.

By knowing more about the formulation of the products they use, contractors can make informed decisions on where there are and are not differences correlated with price. “Very few new products really have anything completely new to bring to the table,” says Chambers. “But new products can be an improvement.”

Still, everyone is interested in doing more with less chemical and the least environmentally detrimental chemical composition possible. “Manufacturers have been spending a lot of time the last few years assessing products and needs and tweaking old products and introducing new ones,” says Chambers.

Manufacturers also adhere to the expectations of regulators and change products to meet new requirements. “Some ingredients have been or are being banned or deemed unfit for the environment, so a revised version of a cleaner must be found,” says Chambers.

How can we do it better? That question embodies curiosity.

And such curiosity brings good outcomes, such as soft washing. The introduction of soft washing itself brought more curiosity-driven improvements.

Among them are “products with more foam or thickening ingredients to increase dwell time,” explains Chambers. Products were also “developed to break down bleach to help stop equipment corrosion and plant damage.”

Mendeleev And More

From hydrogen (atomic number 1) to Oganesson (atomic number 118, synthetic), the periodic table of elements has been quite firmly in place for some time. The credit given to Dmitri Mendeleev for producing the first version in 1869 no doubt deserves to be shared with many others, but the stability of the table is the main feature.

Yes, there are hypothesized elements. Some will certainly be found. But the basics are in place.

It’s easier than ever to understand elements in relation to one another thanks to chemical societies and medical research groups that illustrate the periodic table at their websites. Better still, the tables are bolstered with information about each element that’s available with a click on the element.

Anyone in our industry who wants a quick refresher about the table of elements, or a specific element, can choose from excellent sources. We like the offering at the Royal Society of Chemistry for vivid colors and ease of navigation (https://www.rsc.org/periodic-table).

Claudia Hirschochs, president of Vector Chemicals in Youngstown, OH, explains that thinking about the future and chemicals sparks her imagination. “What does the future hold for curiosity in chemistry?” she says.

In short, more ways to enrich society. “As we have seen in the past few years, there is still a lot of curiosity in chemical development,” says Hirschochs. “Electric car batteries, nanotechnology, medicines, solar cells, and more, to name a few. Perhaps in the near future we will have fusion energy that will completely revolutionize the planet. These are exciting times in chemistry.”

But let’s just back up and think about the present. Today.

“As a manufacturer of cleaning compounds and products we’re always interested in the latest chemicals that are being developed,” says Hirschochs. “We are always on the lookout for new chemicals with superior cleaning properties.”

Hirschochs’s company is fully committed to the process of continuous improvement. “We do extensive research and testing on possible new products we’d like to incorporate into our product line. It’s a very exciting time in the chemical industry as so many products are being developed, especially plant-based ones that allow for more eco-friendly products.”

With a keen interest in chemistry, Hirschochs takes note of breakthroughs across all sectors. One that particularly captures her attention factors into ensuring that the entire world can be fed adequately.

“The biggest curiosity about a chemical, which led to an innovation, had to be the development of nitrogen as a fertilizer,” says Hirschochs. “It revolutionized global food production. Without this development food production would not be enough to feed the global population.”

Between the foundation set by Mendeleev and the future (possibly fusion?) imagined by the chemistry-minded like Hirschochs, there are big things going on in the world of regulations. And everyone should be curious about them because they present opportunities in addition to constraints.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promotes green chemistry. The 12 principles of green chemistry focus on doing the most with the least. Principle one is to “prevent waste.” Principle two is to “maximize atom economy”—atoms in and atoms out are equal. (See https://www.epa.gov/greenchemistry .)

Expect innovation in chemistry, including innovation in our industry, to align more and more closely with green chemistry because it tackles pollution on the front end. In other words, find ways to eliminate processes that leave behind pollutants or toxic residues.

There’s a tremendous amount of serendipity in chemical research. That has resulted in some amazing products.

“I remember 3M found the adhesive for sticky notes while chasing down a different consumer product,” says Mike Gruver, general manager at Hydrus Detergents in Estherville, IA. That’s the sort of happy outcome that happens often.

“While working at a former employer, our field R&D applications team was working on a cooling tower product,” says Gruver. Although the product failed, it “led down a redevelopment path towards a nonhazardous chemical-based odor control program for wet air scrubbers that’s commonly used in the food industry.”

Curious people do not see failures. They see the need for another approach.

And that results in fascinating and useful outcomes.

Could there be more curiosity among members of our industry? Perhaps.

“My observation is that it’s up to the personality of the person,” says Gruver. “It’s amazing how many people use something every day that would cause serious harm to themselves if they were grossly negligent.” He adds that applies to household products, too.

“Those people who are curious by nature or detail oriented typically ask for application information, safety details, or other information that helps them be more informed,” says Gruver. (We should all follow our curiosity to stay current.)

Optimism All Around

Joseph Daniel is CEO of ITD Inc. in Tucker, GA, and shares in the robust optimism about the present and the future of all good things chemical based. “We have found that contractors and distributors have a thirst for knowledge about the chemicals they are using or should be using,” he says.

“So, yes, I believe there is sufficient curiosity about chemicals,” explains Daniel. “However, I believe there is a dearth of knowledgeable support available from the manufacturers in the industry, so many of those questions go unanswered.”

A company ought to be educating as well as making or distributing, explains Daniel. “Our company has made a name for itself in part due to our investment in knowledgeable and responsive support staff, to ensure our customers understand their chemical programs and have the support needed to grow those programs.”

Interacting regularly with end users instigates the sort of improvements that benefit both the industry and green chemistry objectives. “Those at the leading edge of the industry follow their curiosity because they want to innovate,” says Daniel.

“Curiosity about alternatives to bleach has led to innovation in products that can serve as a substitute in mold and mildew removal,” says Daniel. “Our new product, Bio Bomber, is an example of this innovation.”

Improvement comes in many ways. “Thoughts regarding freight efficiency have led to dehydrated and super concentrated kit products, which arrive and are hydrated on site,” says Daniel.

“Innovation has occurred in bringing high-quality detergent additives to combine with cheap, locally bought bleach—products such as Green Machine, which can reduce bleach consumption and improve cleaning efficiency,” explains Daniel.

“Of course, two-step truck washing was an innovation that came from a curiosity about washing fleets without touching truck surfaces, leading to product sets such as Power Series and

Polished Series two-step chemical systems,” says Daniel. “The best formulators and manufacturers are always listening to the market and developing products to innovate in a particular niche.”

The excellent news is that those who seek to innovate with a deep attachment to the doing-more-with-less philosophy that girds green chemistry can find funding opportunities. The EPA funds research by small businesses in addition to funding academic research.

EPA funding for small businesses is made through the agency’s Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program. Other agencies also offer SBIR funding for green chemistry technologies.

The funding is a natural fit for our industry and should be explored. Reviewing the 12 principles of green chemistry reminds us that while entities may be working from different starting points, they often converge.

Our industry wants to prevent waste, use the least hazardous chemical processes, ensure the safest chemical products are found and deployed, increase energy efficiency, rely on biodegradables whenever possible, and keep mishaps of any kind to the absolute minimum. The EPA’s green chemistry approach wants to achieve the very same things.

For our industry, such an approach is good for the bottom line (and that bottom line includes keeping workers safe). The EPA embraces the approach because it puts less stress on the environment (and it keeps workers safe).

The green chemistry initiative derives from the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990. That 34-year-old act made it official federal policy to identify ways to avoid producing pollutants. If pollutants do not get produced, they do not require removal.

More than three decades on, much still must be done to keep industry thriving and the environment healthy. But the convergence of business interests and environmental outcomes stands as a plus for all.

Too much curiosity? Never. Especially not about chemistry

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