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Catalysis

Spring 2017

Paths that grew crystal clear

Crystals reflect the best of nature’s handiwork. With their atoms aligned in repeating 3D patterns, crystals can be as momentary as a snowflake or as common as the sodium chloride in table salt. They can sparkle on a finger, scatter rainbows across the room, or be grown on your kitchen table with a few ingredients from the hobby shop.

Some also possess unusual properties, such as quartz crystal’s ability to generate a tiny electrical current when pressure is applied. Known as the piezoelectric effect, this useful phenomenon helped inspire the rise of a global, multibillion dollar crystal growth industry.

Today, manmade crystals power an astonishing … » More …

Winter 2016

Standing up for lignins

There’s a lot of carbon in a tree. And it’s carbon already circulating through the biosphere, so moving it from tree to degradable product, and then back into the soil as it decomposes results in a zero sum carbon game. Compare that with petroleum, where “nodding donkeys” are constantly bringing anciently sequestered carbon back into circulation, and trees win, hands down.

Except for one hitch. A lot of that carbon is bound up in lignins. Chemists speak sternly of lignin, as if talking about a willful child. Lignin, they say, is a recalcitrant molecule. It’s really tough—and takes a lot of external activation energy—to liberate … » More …

First Words
Winter 2016

Renewal

When the leaves disappear from the hardwoods and the last fruits of fall shrivel away in the cold, I’m tempted to call the winter a despondent time. Yet, when it seems like all color has drained away under the snow, a second, more hopeful thought occurs that winter quietly renews the plants. Irish poet and novelist Edna O’Brien summed it up nicely: “In a way Winter is the real Spring—the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature.”

So, too, do our communities face their winters, times when they struggle in the face of economic uncertainty. Like the towns around Grays Harbor, dependent … » More …

Winter 2016

Wood Takes Wing

The most complex chemistry lab on the planet is growing in your neighborhood. There might be a tree in your own backyard, cranking out chemicals as it converts sunlight to food, wards off pests, and circulates water and nutrients through it roots, branches, and leaves.

So diverse is the chemical compendium produced by trees that we get aspirin (willow bark is a natural source of salicylic acid and has been used to treat pain since ancient times), the ink Leonardo used in his notebooks (from leaf galls produced by wasp larvae), and natural antibacterials (the fiber in cedar chips is used to make hospital gowns).

» More …

Sweet solution to toxic waste
Spring 2016

Sweet solution to toxic waste

A jar of foul-smelling clay sits on the cluttered workbench. “I’d better not open it,” says environmental engineer Richard Watts. He grabs a smaller jar filled with liquid the color of a dirty mud puddle. “These are soil and groundwater samples from an industrial waste site in North Carolina.”

The repugnant samples arrived in comparatively pristine Pullman to be analyzed by Watts, who then advises the best ways to remedy the mess. In a twist, one of those methods involves the use of sugar.

Watts, a pioneer in oxidizing systems for the detoxification of polluted soil and groundwater and a professor of civil and environmental … » More …