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Do you know anything about car bumper production in China? Do you have any reason to believe that this industry will ever have an impact on your life?
Analytical chemistry laboratories use a chemical called acetonitrile to perform liquid chromatography. Analytical chemistry is a discipline devoted to determining how much of a given chemical is in a sample, and liquid and gas chromatography are two of the methods used to perform this delicate and invaluable aspect of laboratory research.
Acetonitrile has up until recently been, most of the time anyway, cheap and certainly plentiful enough for all the labs in the world. Only a tiny amount is needed for each run. However, analytical labs have been of late thrown into a panic due to a world-wide acetonitrile shortage.
Several factors contributed to the shortage. The Olympic games in China cause the Chinese government to shut down all the factories that made acetonitrile during the games; a fire destroyed another plant. Perhaps the most alarming factor, though, is that acetonitrile is a byproduct of the production of polyacrilonitrile, one of the plastics used in car bumpers. The massive slump in auto sales has caused an equally massive slump in polyacrilonitrile, and therefore acetonitrile, production.
“So what?” you may be thinking. What is analytical chemistry anyhow and who cares if it goes away? Analytical chemistry is a vital building block of laboratory science — any lab that researches how to make any kind of chemical uses analytical chemistry, and many of them use acetonitrile in their processes. Pharmaceuticals, biotech, alternative fuels — these are just a few of the industries potentially affected by the shortage.
It’s hard for me, a lay person, to understand the vastness and interconnectedness of the world economy. How could I predict that the slowdown of the US economy, particularly auto sales, would have an impact on pharmaceutical R&D? But it’s an inescapable fact that the US economy drives the whole world’s finances, and petroleum is, with little argument, the single most important commodity in the US economy. No other commodity’s prices come near the influence of petroleum, and what’s more, it’s not just the effect on the stock market that can be disastrous. The dearness or rarity of petroleum results in unavailability and skyrocketing costs of thousands of other products and compounds — many of which the average consumer has never even heard of.
As someone who cares for the environment, at times there is a bit of schadenfreude involved when I hear news that petroleum is running out. The unwanted byproducts of petroleum drilling, refining, and use have permanently altered the natural environment, so I think somewhere in the psyche of many environmentalists is a longing for the day when it disappears forever.
But what we all have to understand is that it’s not just Hummers and bottled water that will go away. Every sector of the economy will be affected, some disastrously so, if we do not find a replacement for petroleum before it runs out. If petroleum disappeared today, people would starve, freeze to death, die of disease.
Of course, petroleum resources will dwindle gradually rather than suddenly evaporating, but nevertheless we must find replacements for the many, many compounds currently made of petroleum. Sure, companies are working on alternative fuels, but fuel, while accounting for the majority of petroleum used, is not chemically similar to many of the other compounds. Will these alternative fuel companies also be able to produce high-grade plastics such as the ones used in car bumpers, for example? Will they be able to recreate the hydrocarbons in cosmetics? Will corn-based plastics such as those used in food packaging be worthy substitutes for the types of plastics used in child safety car seats?
I have not seen much in the way of research on these complex problems. I’m sure someone much smarter than myself is working on a solution for each compound, as everyone is aware of the increasing expense and difficulty of petroleum production. My concern is that the solutions will not materialize until after petroleum is so rare that the economy has collapsed under the weight of our massive dependence.
Most likely the economy will pick up a bit in a few months; people will start buying cars again; there will again be plentiful acetonitrile. After that? I for one hope all those pharmaceutical and biotech labs figure out new avenues of research to address the problems ahead..