August 1, 2012

## The Chemistry of Economics

In order to understand economics, you must first understand chemistry.  That’s my story at least, and I’m sticking to it.  I’m neither an economist nor a chemist (not a real one anyway), but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to understand economics in chemical terms.

In a previous post I discussed autocatalysis, the mechanism by which a bunch of different molecules can react with each other in such a way that they end up producing more of themselves, at the cost of using something else up.  The ideas in that post don’t only apply to chemistry – you can use them to think about just about any kind of physical process.  In this post I’ll talk about how to think about the economy as a whole in autocatalytic terms. But let’s start with something on a smaller scale, the process of baking bread:

December 12, 2011

## The Primordial Haze?

Here’s an interesting fact: apparently, chemical self-reproduction is easier to achieve in gases than in liquids.  This leads me to an interesting idea: maybe the very first steps in the origins of life took place not in the oceans  but in the atmosphere.  The mechanisms by which molecules can produce more of themselves are interesting, and in this post I’ll explore a bit about how such molecular reproduction (or, to use the technical term, autocatalysis) works.

September 14, 2011

## Carbon rejuvination not capture

Carbon capture has been widely purported to be an easy solution to one of the many global crises (the carbon dioxide one in this case). It essentially revolves around the principle that $CO_2$ in the atmosphere is bad so we should take it out of the atmosphere and put it somewhere else (tankers, the sea, secret underground lairs etc.) and for the most part the concept is correct. It is also a little retarded though as any $CO_2$ caught will eventually escape and add to the issues of a future generation (not to mention all the hassle of catching it in the first place). Fortunately help is at hand!

I recently went to a conference on electrochemistry, the last talk of the conference was by a guy called Andrew Bocarsly and was by far the most interesting talk of the conference (and I enjoy electrochemistry so the rest of them weren’t exactly boring).  His (as it turned out serendipitously discovered) solution to the issue of $CO_2$ storage was ingeneous- $CO_2$ has carbon in and fuel has carbon in so just convert the $CO_2$ into fuel again! The caveat is of course that this must be done whilst expending less energy (or $CO_2$) than getting rid of it would.

August 1, 2011

## The transmutation of wine by Camembert

Today, like many days, I bought some Camembert, but today I bought some wine too. Cheese and red wine. Excellent.

Having already had a little bit of cheese and wine and returned the cheese to the fridge, my house mate – also a fan of cheese – returned. “Look what I got” producing the partially eaten round from the fridge.

Opening and inspecting it I noticed what appeared to be blue mold: This pissed me off. But after fuming about my local shop for a bit I remembered that earlier, in my eagerness for booze, I had splashed wine all over the table and partially over the cheese. There was no sign of the red wine, perhaps the blue-grey, moldy looking stain was what became of it.

Adding a drip of wine to the cheese confirmed it. The red blob turned blue, almost fast enough to see with the naked eye. This was pretty surprising (though it doesn’t seem so now I know why).

Recently, a friend of mine has been encouraging me to take the attitude of experimenting whenever possible, I expect he might say something like: “Even if you know the answer, or exactly where to look up the answer, this doesn’t matter. What matters is actually doing things and testing ideas for yourself.” Lead by example…

Time for some kitchen science!!!

First Experiment

July 10, 2011

## Soap (and some other things one cannot easily make explosives out of)

Following in the footsteps of the first post on this blog, I though I would point out another popular misconception: You cannot make explosives out of soap – despite this process being crucial to the plot of “The Legend of Zoro”. I’ve heard this myth in various forms over the past year, usually it is soap, but I have also heard that one can make explosives from biofuel. It is essentially the same issue in both cases. I guess this myth irks me in particular because it is a misunderstanding of one of the most simple and widespread chemical reactions there is.

So, making soap is pretty easy, it is the same principle as an acid/base reaction. Just mix some fat and some inorganic base (say sodium or potassium hydroxide) and the metal ions displace the glycerol in the fat giving soap and glycerol (glycerin).

How to make soap. From Wikipedia: Saponification - Fat (left), Base (on arrow), Soap (inner right), Glycerol (far right)

Some more detail…