Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On Ethanol

So, I've been thinking about ethanol recently. Not really so much as an alternative fuel (because it pretty much sucks at that) or as a beverage. No, I've been thinking of it a little differently recently.

My interactions with ethanol start pretty much at the beginning of the day. Before I touch anything at work, I sanitize my hands with a little foamy spray of 70% ethanol. Normally, I don't particularly mind this and actually kind of enjoy it since I like the smell. Recently, I managed to cut up my hands a little bit, while swimming in the ocean (which means they're probably somewhere between slightly and very infected). So, now my day starts with a stinging, searing pain as I sanitize my cuts (bandages are for wimps). On the average day, I sanitize my hands around 5 times (I didn't used to keep count).

My other primary interaction with ethanol is when we're cleaning.

Let's use our imaginations a little bit. First, imagine a stainless steel tank. Now make it 500 liters. Now fill it with ethanol. Pure ethanol. Imagine it mixing really fast. Imagine you're monitoring it, or possibly adding some agent to it or are otherwise exposed to the vapors. Let's set the ventilation at okay. Imagine trying to concentrate on whatever you're doing. How about, imagine just trying to think clearly enough to breathe?

Yeah, ethanol is fun stuff. My brother describes drinking hard alcohol as convincing you're body to swallow poison. Breathing it in as I described, yeah, there's no convincing involved since your body doesn't have a prayer of controlling anything at that point.

Completely unrelated, I'm worried I'm not actually a good chemical engineer. Apparently, all the cool chemical engineers brew their own beer in the garages. Relatively early on, my coworkers asked me if I brewed beer and talked about borrowing decommissioned stainless steel tanks for this specific purpose. They seemed disappointed I was interested.

On the other hand, I might be an okay chemist. So, my coworkers were talking about brewing beer and apparently one of them was making something they referred to as an IPA. Now, I hear IPA and I think of isopropyl alcohol. Personally, I really like IPA. I like it's smell more than ethanol and think it's just better all around. But, I had never really considered drinking it.

So, my coworkers are talking, and I'm off in my little world trying to think how one would even go about brewing isopropyl alcohol based beer. I mean, I don't know of any bacteria that preferentially produce that as an end product when breaking down glucose in oxygen-free environments instead of ethanol. I'm busy imagining all sorts of weird alternate metabolic pathways that might split so that pyruvate magically has it's carboxy group reduced (and thus producing isopropyl alcohol). I'm starting to think to myself, wow it would be so cool to be able to make isopropyl alcohol in your garage.

Eventually, they finish talking and I ask one of them, "So, I'm just checking, but IPA doesn't stand for isopropyl alcohol, right?"

He laughs and informs me that no, it does not stand for isopropyl alcohol. It stands for India Pale Ale or something like that. Whatever, now I'm all curious about how to make an isopropyl alcohol based beer.

Anyways, those would be my random thoughts on ethanol. I'll let you know why I missed my Monday post sometime, I swear.

That is all.


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