In class, we recently discussed the thalidomide incident and how it represented a pivotal shift in the way drugs were developed—particularly in providing an insight into the way drugs taken by a pregnant mother affect her baby. I was reminded of this while reading the news yesterday, as I came across this article discussing a case that could lead to the criminalization of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. (Gander, 2014)

Case: A six-year old girl suffered brain damage because of her mother’s alcohol consumption while carrying her—and it is now being argued that she is the victim of a crime / criminal offense committed by her mother.

This article deeply intrigued me, as I thought about all the implications that a law like this, if passed, could have. As we have (in our Medicines & Drugs unit) studied the effects that alcohol has on the body, I decided to investigate the chemistry of alcohol as it affects her mother and baby to answer the following question: to what extent does alcohol consumption by a mother negatively impact her baby?

I found that, once consumed, most substances are broken down in an intermediate step by enzymes (biological catalysts) to “metabolites”: other compounds that can be easily processed by the body. However, the alcohol we consume (ethanol– CH3CH2OH), is broken down by the body to the toxic and carcinogenic Ethanal (also called ‘Acetaldehyde’: CH3CHO). (Alcohol Metabolism: An Update, 2007)

The breakdown of Ethanol

Figure 1. The breakdown of Ethanol by the body.
(Alcohol Metabolism: An Update, 2007)

Note: ADH (Alcohol Degenerase) and ALDH (Aldehyde Degenerase) are the enzymes that catalyze the reactions.

As we can see from the above equation, in normal (non-pregnant) individuals the Ethanal is usually short-lived as it serves as an intermediate to when it is further broken down to Ethanoic Acid (also called ‘EthylAcetate’: CH3COOH), and then to carbon dioxide and water, after which it is eliminated from the body. (Alcohol Metabolism: An Update, 2007)

Ethanal itself is an aldehyde, and contains 2 carbons, a methyl group and its characteristic aldehyde functional group (C=O double bond).

Structure of Ethanal

Figure 2. Structure of Ethanal
(Environmental Chemistry: Lecture 21, n.d)

In pregnant women, this compound does pose a risk for their babies. A meta-analysis of 14 studies found that while 43% of pregnant alcoholics had high levels of acetaldehyde in their blood, 34% of them gave birth to a baby with ABRD (Alcohol Related Birth Defect). The researchers concluded that acetaldehyde “may play a major role in the cause of ARBD”. (Hard, Einarson, & Koren, 2001)

The precise mechanism as to how acetaldehyde impacts a fetus is not yet known, but alcohol in general has also been found to increase risk of foetal damage, and the risk of miscarriage. (Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, n.d;  Bailey & Sokol, 2011) Other investigations have linked alcohol to damaging the DNA of a growing/ developing baby in the womb (however, these investigations have so far only been conducted on lab mice). (Medical Research Council, 2011) Already, a 50% increase has been seen in FAS cases (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) in the past three years, and the Department of Health estimates that 1/100 babies are born with alcohol-related disorders. (Gander, 2014)

The adoptive mother of the six-year old has seen first-hand the consequences that alcohol consumption can have on children, and strongly believes that the legal system should step in and enforce some laws to prevent against further cases of FAS. “You can’t make it a criminal offense if you are still legally saying this a safe amount to drink, or you can drink. It needs to be clear from the start that you can’t [drink]”. (Gander, 2014)

Her argument is also supported by Dr. Raja Mukherjee, a consultant psychiatrist, who asserts that even minimal consumption by a woman during pregnancy puts her baby at risk for FAS, “If you want to guarantee safety and you want to guarantee no risk then no alcohol is the best way forward”. (Gander, 2014)

The implications of a law criminalizing the consumption of alcohol while pregnant will certainly serve to reduce the high numbers of babies suffering from ABRDs such as FAS. Babies suffering from FAS are usually hyperactive and delayed in their development– if exposed to high levels of alcohol while in the womb, they can display withdrawal symptoms such as extreme irritability, shaking, and diarrhea. Additionally, school aged children with FAS often experience learning and behavioral disabilities, and for this reason find themselves falling behind in school. They also are high at risk for having trouble with the law, developing mental health problems and themselves abusing alcohol and/ or drugs. (Canadian Paediatric Society, 2002) Considering this, as well as the previously conducted research demonstrating other harmful effects of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, it is apparent that alcohol is to a large extent extremely damaging to developing babies. A law criminalizing this act may not be the worst idea.


(2007). Alcohol Metabolism: An Update. Alcohol Alert, 72. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from

Bailey, B. A., & Sokol, R. J. (2011). Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Miscarriage, Stillbirth, Preterm Delivery, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome . Alcohol Research & Health, 34(1), 86-91. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from the NIAAA Publications database.

Paediatric Society. (2002). Fetal alcohol syndrome: What you should know about drinking during pregnancy. Paediatrics & Child Health , 7(3), 177-178. Retrieved February 24, 2014, from the PMC database.

Environmental Chemistry: Lecture 21. (n.d.). NAU Courses. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from

Gander, K. (2014, April 23). Drinking alcohol while pregnant could become a crime after landmark test case . The Independent. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from

Hard, M. L., Einarson, T. R., & Koren, G. (2001). The Role of Acetaldehyde in Pregnancy Outcome After Prenatal Alcohol Exposure. Therapeutic drug monitoring, 23(4), 427-434. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from the PubMed database.

Research Council. (2011, July 6). Excess alcohol could damage our DNA. Medical Research Council News. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from

Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). Effects of Alcohol on the Developing Embryo and Fetus. FASD Center for Excellence. Retrieved February 23, 2014, from

The Zest for Curing Zits: What Acne Victims Should Know

I have been trying to get rid of my pimples for the past two years. It has gone worse and I have tried multiple acne removal products. I was using one product in Shanghai and when I went to India for Christmas break, I switched my acne gel again. My grandma, who claimed that she had never experienced acne breakouts in her life, told me that I’ve been putting too many products on my face and this is actually making things a lot worse for my skin. For the first time, it hit me. I was putting way too many products on my face and didn’t even think about what I was putting and how much I was putting.  That got me thinking about what are truly in these products and how they are affecting my skin. I thought about Laurie’s blogpost about petroleum jelly and realized that many of us have a lot of misconceptions about face cream and gel. I wanted to clear things up for myself, so I did my own research. I found out that most acne products have this chemical called benzoyl peroxide. My question is to what extent is benzoyl peroxide effective for acne treatment?

Acne is caused by the overproduction of sebum, which is an oil produced by the sebaceous glands in our body. The oil travels from the sebaceous glands to the follicle, where the skin hair grows. When there is too much oil in the follicle, the pores on your skin gets blocked and forms a bump on your skin. This area becomes an ideal place for bacteria to grow, exacerbating the bump on your skin. (Chase, B.).This bump is known as a pimple.

I’m sure some of you have heard of brands like Neutrogena, Ponds, and Garnier. They offer topical products to help fight those acne on your skin. If you’ve used some of these products, your skin has definitely been exposed to a chemical called benzoyl peroxide or BP (May, E. 2013). You’re probably wondering, how does this chemical work to remove pimples? BP works like an antibiotic as it kills the bacteria in your clogged pores. When BP comes into contact with your skin, it decomposes into benzoic acid and oxygen (Chase, B.). This is because the oxygen-oxygen bond in the structure has a very weak bond and can easily break when it comes into contact with the skin. When this bond breaks, free radicals form from the oxygen atoms. These free radicals are then attached to the sebum lipid. The bacterium that causes acne is called Propionibacterium Acnes and it is known to be anaerobic, which means it can only thrive in the absence of oxygen. The oxygen derived from BP causes the bacteria to die as it provides an oxygen rich environment within the infected area  (G, Susan 2010). Pimples grow because the sebum blocks the pores, and therefore, oxygen and allows for these bacteria to infect the pimples.

Molecular Structure of Benzoyl Peroxide
Molecular Structure of Benzoyl Peroxide

Looking at the mechanism of BP surely tells us that it is an effective chemical for killing the bacterial growth within our pimples. However, I’ve been using products that contain BP but am still not experiencing any changes in my skin. I still get pimples. With that being said, I realized that perhaps it’s not about how much BP and what brand I need to put on my skin. I must understand my skin characteristics and what my skin needs in order to fight acne. Since every skin is different, not everyone can cure his or her acne with BP.

BP can cause skin irritation, dryness, and peeling which are some of the things I have experienced but have just ignored because the problems were so minor. Regardless, they did happen and never solved my acne problems. I recently experimented the amount of acne gel I put on my skin and how much dryness it would cause. I found that when I do put more and more acne gel, my skin would feel even dryer. This tells me that BP isn’t entirely bad, but I just needed small amounts of it to protect my skin from getting too dry. This speaks to some of us who naturally have dry skin. Do not use too much acne gel (ones with higher BP concentrations) if you have dry skin! If you don’t have skin that is too dry, BP can be an ideal medication for your pimples since it does remove the mixture of sebum and exfoliate the dead skin cells (Chase, B.).

It’s crucial for us to truly get to know the types of skin products we use as they can have a significant impact on our skin. I was simply putting on lots and lots of BP on my skin and causing my skin to experience unnecessary stress. One thing I learned for sure is that during puberty, which a lot of us are still experiencing now, our hormonal changes encourage sebum production and thus pimples are quite inevitable. However, getting to know your skin type is the first step to solving your acne problems.


Chase, B. (n.d.). Salicylic Acid vs Benzoyl Peroxide for Acne. Retrieved from

G, S. (2010, September 6). The Chemistry of Acne Medication: Benzoyl Peroxide. Retrieved from

May, E. (2013, May 21). Why Benzoyl Peroxide is Bad for Acne Skin. Retrieved from

Okamoto, L. (2013, February 23). You put WHAT on your face?!. Retrieved from

Puusa, S. (2013, January 23). Why You Should Not Be Afraid Of Benzoyl Peroxide – And My Experience In Quitting. Retrieved from

Making science visible in the community

68 students

14 ideas

2 days

1 community

Our IB science student’s had two days to find inspiration, generate ideas, create, experiment, and present their prototypes for making science visible in the school community. We saw them collaborate, embrace the ambiguity of the task, take ownership of their idea and learn from failure. Most of all our student designers were empowered and showed that they cared about the needs of our community.

In the spirit of making science visible we have created the following videos to showcase each prototype and the evolution of ideas.

The 14 prototypes

Group 4 Teaser

We think some of these prototypes have the potential to be developed into final products. Do you?

Which idea do you think has the potential to make the greatest difference in our community?

Share your opinion below by posting a comment. Be sure to give a good reason for your choice.

Note: All comments will be approved by the blog administrator.

What do fertilisers and gunpowder have in common?

During the summer holiday, my family and I visited a large cave in the Malaysia. The cave was a famous tourist attraction as there were thousands of bats living in the cave. As we walked along the elevated walkway in the cave, the guide began to talk about the history of the cave. He said that in the past, people used to collect guano in the cave. As he said that, the guide shined his flashlight on the cave floor, and I realised that I could not see it at all, as it was covered in a thick layer of bat feces. The guide then explained that people collected guano for fertiliser and even used it to make fireworks. After he said that, I thought why would people want to go all the way to a cave just to collect bat droppings for fertiliser, and how can bat droppings be used to make fireworks. When I returned to Shanghai, I decided to do some research to find out what chemical properties of guano made it such a valuable fertiliser and how could it be used to make fireworks.

Based on my research, I found that the reason why guano could be both a fertiliser and a component in explosive is because of the rich amounts of various nitrates (NO3)in it. Nitrates are polyatomic ions that have a trigonal planar structure, with the nitrogen atom as the central atom.
As mentioned earlier, guano was valued as an extremely efficient fertiliser because of the high amounts of nitrates in it. (Wikipedia). Nitrates contain nitrogen, which is an extremely important element for not only plant life but also other organisms as well because it is the main component of amino acids and nucleic acids, which is used to make DNA and other essential proteins. However, the element nitrogen itself cannot be broken down and used by plants as nitrogen molecules are held together by extremely strong triple bonds. Therefore, nitrogen has to be reduced into various nitrates. This is why nitrates have a negative charge to indicate a gain of electrons. Plants get these nitrates naturally from the soil. By adding fertilisers such as guano, the nitrate concentration of the soil increases, therefore increasing plant growth. These nitrates include potassium nitrate  KNO3   , sodium nitrate NaNO3 and others. However, though guano used to be mined and collected in the past, today these nitrates are produced synthetically. For example, potassium nitrate is produced when sodium nitrate and potassium chloride are reacted together in a decomposition reaction.

NaNO3 (aq) + KCl (aq) → NaCl (aq) + KNO3 (aq)

Sodium nitrate is produced in a acid-base reaction with nitric acid and soda ash

2 HNO3 + Na2CO3 → 2 NaNO3 + H2O + CO2

However, while fertilisers containing nitrates greatly promote agricultural growth, the excessive use of them has a negative impact on the environment. When the excess fertilsers get washed away into freshwater lakes and rivers, eutrophication occurs, in which there is an excessive growth of algae. The algae deplete the surrounding waters of oxygen, killing the marine life in it (Schindler, David, Vallentyne, Joh R, 2004).

As to the reason why guano is used to make fireworks, the answer is because nitrates are powerful oxidisers (Earl, 1978). Oxidisers are essential in explosives as it provides the oxygen needed to fuel the explosion (Earl, 1978). This is because as mentioned earlier nitrates are reduced fro nitrogen. As we have recently learnt, oxidizing agents are often the ones that had been reduced. Nitrates are often used as oxidisers because of the energy released from the triple bonds of nitrogen.

From my research on guano I realised how chemistry can be used to benefit and harm society. Using chemistry to isolate and mass produce nitrates in synthetic fertilsers from guano boosts agricultural production. However, these fertisers pollute the environment. Understanding the chemical properties of nitrates lead to the development of powerful explosives that can be used for peaceful purposes such as mining or harmful purposes such as terrorism. In conclusion, knowledge in chemistry can be used to benefit our lives and also identify potential threats.


Earl, Brian (1978), Cornish Explosives, Cornwall: The Trevithick Society

Schindler, David and Vallentyne, John R. (2004) Over fertilization of the World’s Freshwaters and Estuaries, University of Alberta Press

Decongestants – Visine for Your Nose?

A few weeks ago I traveled to Beijing for a golf tournament.  Unfortunately, I have terrible allergies to pollen and other air pollutants, so as soon as the plane landed in Peking and I stepped into the airport I immediately began my sneezing fit.  Ordinarily, after sneezing, your nose will feel congested for a few moments and then will return to “normal.”  However, because the air was so thick with pollutants, my nose remained congested and I continued to sneeze on approximately five-minute intervals.  Frustrated that I couldn’t breath well through my nose and because my mouth was becoming dry, I hesitantly decided to take a decongestant pill.  This has been a regular occurrence since I was a child: allergies act up, nose becomes congested, pop a pill, few minutes later I can breath again.  For the longest of time, I never questioned this process.   Then, a few months ago, I found that I was always congested, even on the days when pollution levels were low and there were little to no blooming flowers.  I couldn’t breath normally without taking a decongestant and ended up it everyday for approximately two and a half weeks.  As I look back, it was quite foolish of me to do so.  I didn’t know anything about the drug other than it helped me breath, and I didn’t think much of the fact that I couldn’t breath normally.  So as I arrived in Beijing two weeks ago, I wondered, what does this pill really do to me, how does it work, and did I harm myself beyond repair?

Typically, when people think of nasal congestion, they think it is a result of copious amounts of mucus or fluid forming in their nose.  However, this is not the case.  Nasal congestion occurs when the arterioles (small blood vessels) in the membranes of the nose dilate and become inflamed.  This results in a kind of swelling in the nose and makes it difficult to breath because the passage has narrowed or closed off.  (Kaneshiro, N. n.d.)

When individuals take nasal decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine hydrochloride (C10H16ClNO) (Pseudoephedrine Hydrochloride. n.d.)

Chemical Structure of Pseudoephedrine
Chemical Structure of Pseudoephedrine HCl

the chemical will bind to alpha receptors (receptors on the membranes of nerve cells) to send a signal to the membranes in the nasal passages to force the blood vessels to constrict.  (Guzman, F. n.d.)

This inhibits the dilation of the arterioles and reduces the inflammation, therefore relieving congestion and allowing the nasal passages to relax.  Based on principle, nasal decongestants are similar to red eye reducing eye drops in that the topical eye drops constrict the blood vessels in the eye to reduce redness.

While an addiction in the traditional sense cannot be developed from long-term use of decongestants, a kind of dependency and tolerance can build up over time from using them daily.  With daily use, the body will become tolerant to the decongestant and will begin to produce chemicals and antibodies to combat the effects of the drug.  In this case, it will begin to produce vasodilators in order to reverse the effects of the decongestant (which are now perceived by the body as unnecessary).  As a result, higher doses of the drug are needed to achieve the same decongestant effects as originally produced.  (Discovery Health “Can nasal sprays be addictive?”. n.d.)  With continued use for many months, or years, continuously using a decongestant can increase blood pressure as it constricts the blood vessels, or can create other, more severe side effects such as tachycardia and seizures.  (Pray, S., & Pray, J., n.d.)

Vasodilation in Arteries
Vasodilation in Arteries

Fortunately, the tolerance that may develop from continued use of decongestants can be reversed.  If use is discontinued for a few weeks, it gives the body the time it needs to return to “normal” and the changes it made to produce the antagonistic chemicals (to the effects of the drug) will disappear.  This implies that even if a tolerance and “dependency” is developed, they can easily be annulled and the body will lose its tolerance.  After the body has returned to a normal state, should the need arise, individuals may choose to take the decongestant and can expect to experience the full effects of the decongestant – open nasal passages and the ability to breath easy.  (Discovery Health “Can nasal sprays be addictive?”., n.d.)

After researching, I realized the severity of taking decongestants for extended periods of time.  Prior to researching, I had assumed that decongestants were not, “serious” drugs in that they couldn’t possibly have many negative long-term effects.  However, I now realize that drugs, regardless of their purpose and accessibility, are strong chemicals used to create chemical changes in our bodies.  While I will never take a decongestant for more than seven consecutive days, the occasional use of it is acceptable and in the long run, it will not harm my body and has not done any lasting damage to my body.


Discovery Health “Can nasal sprays be addictive?”. (n.d.). Discovery Health “Discovery Fit & Health”. Retrieved October 12, 2013, from

Guzman, F. (n.d.). Alpha receptors | CME at Pharmacology Corner. Medical Pharmacology | Pharmacology Corner. Retrieved October 21, 2013, from

Kaneshiro, N. (n.d.). Nasal congestion: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health. Retrieved October 10, 2013, from (n.d.). Pseudoephedrine – Oral, Afrinol, Novafed, Sudafed . Retrieved October 10, 2012, from

Pray, S., & Pray, J. (n.d.). Safe Use of Nasal Decongestants. Medscape Multispecialty . Retrieved October 13, 2012, from

Pseudoephedrine (Oral Route) – (n.d.). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from

Pseudoephedrine Hydrochloride. (n.d.). ChemicalBook—Chemical Search Engine. Retrieved October 11, 2013, from

Pseudoephedrine Information from (n.d.). | Prescription Drug Information, Interactions & Side Effects. Retrieved October 12, 2013, from

Sudafed decongestant tablets and liquid (pseudoephedrine). (n.d.). – The UK’s leading independent health website. Retrieved October 13, 2013, from


Sleeping Pills: Should you use them or not?

Sometimes at night I see my mother drinking sleeping pills before she goes to her bed.  She complains that she is unable to sleep well these days because of stress.  Similarly, I have difficulty sleeping too, and it is irritating when you are really tired and your body wants to rest but you can’t just fall asleep.  So I once asked her if I could have a tiny piece of the tablet she usually takes, but just as I thought, she said no.  She told me that it will cause addiction and it is bad for our body health.  Indeed, people get dependent to sleeping pills just like drugs, and I knew that people sometimes give themselves fatal overdose to commit suicide.  However New York Times reported that although the US Food and Drug Administration has not approved any sleeping pills for use by children, an estimated 180,000 Americans under age 20 take prescription sleep aids anyway.  (Join Together, 2005)  Let’s take the teenagers who are physically close to adults aside, but wouldn’t that be harmful for the little kids?

Sleeping pills are one of the sedatives that depress the central nervous system of the human body.  Over the counter sleeping pills contain antihistamine, which is the same medication found in allergy medicine.  To produce sleepiness, antihistamine does the opposite of histamine, which releases a neurotransmitter to produce awakeness.   Antihistamine contains diphenhydramine hydrochloride or doxylamine succinate, and both ingredients send a signal to the brain to depress the central nervous system.  (Fryer, n.d.)  To be more specific, the neurotransmitter, gamma-Aminobutyric acid (commonly known as GABA for short) is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that tends to cause the brain to “calm down”, and the active ingredients in the sleeping pill reduces the ability of nerves by altering a cell’s membrane potential causing less neuronal activity.  (Terix, n.d.)  Furthermore it also influences the levels of tryptophan, serotonin (a calming neurotransmitter), melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone).  This in turn leads to relaxation, relief from anxiety, induction of sleep, and suppression of seizure-activity.

However, there is a reason why sleeping pills are said to be bad for our health other than problems arising from addiction and withdrawal symptoms.  Many studies have found connection between regularly taking sleep aids and an increased risk of death and cancer.  One study discovered that “those who took 1 to 18 pills of any sleep aid or hypnotic medication per year had a greater than three-fold increased risk of early death.  Heavy hypnotic users were 35% more likely to develop a new cancer.” (Oz, 2013)  There are no clear explanations for this connection, however the connection between the use of sleeping pills and the risks of suicide and risky behavior, such as impaired driving, is quite obvious.

By looking at these facts it is natural that parents keep their children away from taking one.  However, it is not just adults who suffer from sleeping disorders such as insomnia.  Synthetic Melatonin supplements have been used as a solution for helping restless children sleep.  Melatonin is a hormone found naturally in human body that helps control the sleep-wake cycle, and its natural levels in the blood are highest at night. (Therapeutic Research Faculty, 2009)  Lights tend to decrease production of melatonin, causing the body to stay awake, which explains why people sleep well in dark rooms rather than in well-lit rooms.  The supplements appear to have a good safety records, and have successfully corrected the sleep-wake cycle of a blind child with multiple disabilities too.  Since melatonin comes from natural hormones, the side effects are milder compared to those sleeping pills that contains antihistamine.

Structure of Melatonin (Remedium, n.d)

However it doesn’t mean that melatonin has no bad side to it, and doctors believe those supplements should only be used for the most serious sleep and neurological disorders.  Still, some doctors say that parents are missing the point and give their children melatonin supplements when they don’t need to.  One mother has confessed that at night she “lines up her six healthy children nightly to give them their melatonin pill” because she is stressed out from taking care of her children after the hard work she had done that day.  Dr.Ditchek in New York University School of Medicine is concerned that the melatonin supplement may interact with other hormones in the body, potentially affecting fertility or sexual development, and further study is necessary for the serious problems that melatonin may have. (Wallace, 2013)

In this stressful world, sleeping pills have an undeniable appeal to people who suffer from sleepless nights.  However after this research I realized that we should try not to use nor rely on them because natural things are best for our body health and sleep isn’t an exception.  It is important to be aware of both beneficial and harmful side of what we use in our daily lives.  In conclusion, people should try to change their life habits (like stay away from coffee and PC before sleeping) before they reach for their sleeping pills.


Join Together. (Nov 16,2005). Many Kids Taking Sleeping Pills. In The Partnership at Retrieved from

Fryer, L. (n.d.). How Does a Sleeping Pill Work?. In eHow. Retrieved from

Terix, F. (n.d.). Sleeping pills: How do they help you sleep?. In HubPages. Retrieved from

Rao, N. (Feb 28,2012). Sleeping pills: how tiny dose can kill. In Daily Express. Retrieved from

Oz, M. (Feb 11, 2013). What You Don’t Know About Your Sleeping Pills. In The Dr. Oz Show. Retrieved from

Therapeutic Research Faculty. (2009). MELATONIN: Uses, Side Effects, Interactions and Warnings. In WebMD. Retrieved from

Wallace, J. (June 28, 2013). Melatonin: A ‘Magic’ Sleeping Pill for Children?. In Retrieved from

Images Cited

ALAMY. (n.d.). medicine. The telegraph. Retrieved from

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Meeting Steel

I was watching the Discovery Channel the other day and came across a show about steel.  Living in today’s technologically advanced era often leads me into thinking that cars, boats, bridges, pots and pans are very ordinary, but I’ve never realized just how ubiquitous steel is (or the fact that steel isn’t an element).  I was so intrigued by steel that day that I actually sat for over an hour to watch the show.  So how is steel made and why is it used so widely?  Curious, I decided to learn more about steelmaking and hope to provide some insight into this ‘ordinary’ material.

Steel is essentially an alloy of iron, the second most abundant metal on Earth (Iron Fact-ite, n.d.), and 0.5 to 1.5 percent concentration of carbon (Brain & Lamb, 2000).  It is used widely for its strength, durability, affordability, flexibility, and recyclability.  What got me interested was also the connection between its manufacturing process and redox reactions, which is what we are currently learning about in IB Chemistry.

The two visuals below sum up steelmaking in a nutshell.

To make steel, coal is first converted to coke, or pure carbon, as a source of energy for the blast furnace, where iron ore is turned into molten iron and limestone is added.  Inside the blast furnace, carbon and carbon monoxide act as reducing agents in reducing iron (III) oxide, the ore, into iron.  Because carbon is above iron on the reactivity series, carbon, being more reactive, is oxidized and iron is reduced, as seen below. (Brown, n.d.)

Fe2O3(s) + 3CO(g) à 2Fe(l/s) + 3CO2(g)

Fe2O3(s) + 3C(g) à 2Fe(l/s) + 3CO(g) (Brown, n.d.)

At the same time, limestone (CaCO3) is used to remove impurities, such as silica, in the iron ore.

CaCO3 + SiO2 à CaSiO3 + CO2 (Brown, n.d.)

In the next stage, the molten iron is mixed with recycled steel and alloys based on the customers’ needs.  This then enters either a basic oxygen furnace, where 70 percent iron is mixed with 30 percent recycled steel, or an electric arc furnace, where 70 to 100 percent recycled steel is used (Making Steel, n.d.).  The molten steel produced is then sent to a slab caster to be casted into solid steel slabs, which is later reheated to ensure that the slabs were all at the same temperature before being rolled into strips.  The steel slabs then go to the roughing mill and finishing mill, which reduces the slabs’ thickness and rolls them into strips, and become hot rolled products.  Then hydrochloric acid (HCl) is applied to remove surface scales before the steel strips are cooled, and now they are ready for sale for construction, automotive, appliances, and manufacturing. (Steel Builds a Better World, n.d.)

I found steel’s manufacturing process rather interesting, but what was more also interesting was the fact that steel is 100 percent recyclable and can be “recycled infinitely without ever affecting its strength or durability” (Steel Builds a Better World, n.d.).  As someone who cares about environmental health, I was very happy to know about this.  In fact, manufacturing using recycled metals not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions but also saves up to 56 percent the energy used to make steel from iron ore.  Moreover, it is also beneficial to the economy in that in 2008 alone, the “scrap recycling industry generated $86 billion and supported 85,000 jobs” (West, n.d.).

On the other hand, however, iron and steel manufacturing also raises environmental concerns.  The iron and steel industry release air pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, and particulates, such as soot and dust, into the air.  Moreover, steel works also releases large volumes of wastewater, which, if retained in unsealed ponds, may contaminate other local water ecosystems.  Additionally, the consumption of 21.1 gigajoules per tonne of energy (used by US scrap-based plants in 1988) also brings up the issue of energy conservation. (Spiegel, n.d.)

I realized that it is important to consider both merits and shortcomings before reaching conclusions.  As much as steel is useful and recyclable, its manufacturing also harms our environment.  This research was an eye opener for me as I found a real-life application, steelmaking, for what we’re learning in class!


Brain, M., & Lamb, R. (2000, April 1). How Iron and Steel Work. HowStuffWorks. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from

Brown, D. (n.d.). The Extraction of Iron.Doc Brown. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from

Iron Fact-ite. (n.d.). Planet Earth. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from

Making Steel: How It’s Made. (n.d.).SteelWorks. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from

Spiegel, J. (n.d.). Environmental and Public Health Issues. International Labour Organization. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from

Steel Builds a Better World. (n.d.).Dofasco. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from

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Steel Finishing Flowline. (n.d.). Steel Works. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from

Steelmaking Flowline. (n.d.). Steel Works. Retrieved October 9, 2013, from


Since last year I have been supplementing my workouts with protein powder. I believe that the gains I have obtained while supplementing my workouts with protein powder were achieved at a faster rate than when I worked out and received all my nutrients from the food I ingested. Getting my protein powder at first was really difficult because my father was seriously against me putting “unnatural” supplements into my body. It took a little convincing but I manage to buy my first protein powder 1 year and a half ago. Without truly looking into the details of protein powders, I based my purchase off of the supplement store manager’s recommendation, and bought myself an “All Natural Whey Isolate” Protein Powder! This protein powder was more expensive than all of the other powders in the store (should have rang some bells), but the manager assured me that it’s because this protein powder is all “natural”. I know from a light research done in the past that whey protein powder is derived from milk, therefore I wonder if the production of protein powder involved anyother materials (other than milk) , and if so are they also naturally occurring or manufactured in some lab.

Whey is a bi-product of cheese and casein manufacture. When 100 L of milk is used to produce cheese and casein, generally 12 kg of cheese is made, along with 3kg of casein, and 87 L of whey. This bi product named whey is definitely not the same Whey protein powder, which I put in my protein shake. This whey is 6% solid, and is a greenish liquid, which looks and tastes unimaginably horrible. This is why in the past whey was used as pig food and fertilizer and sometimes the whey was simply discarded into the ocean.

Whey Protein Concentrate is produced using ultrafiltration. Ultrafiltration keeps in a liquid product retentate, which consists of any insoluble material or solutes greater than 20000 Da molecular weight. The rest of the whey (greenish liquid) passes through the membrane and is called the permeate. The permeate consists of most of the lactose and H2O originally found in the whey. The retentate, which consists of only 1-4% of the original whey inserted into the ultrafiltration, is then spray dried into a powder that consists of 35-85% protein depending on the intending customer.

Digestive enzymes in a controlled environment manufacture whey Protein Hydrolysates, where the temperature and pH levels are controlled. Raw materials from Whey Protein Concentrate are used. The WPC raw materials are filtered and spray dried in the same way regular WPC are made, after which they are subjected to the digestive enzymes. A regular protein is a chain of amino acids in which the amine group of one amino acid is bound to the carboxylic group of a neighboring amino acid via a amide bond. Proteolytic enzymes catalyst the hydrolysis of these bonds. Chains of 2 to 5 amino acids are called peptides. In a hydrolysate, all the proteins are broken up into peptides and free amino acids no greater than the peptides.

Peptide Hydrolysis

Figure 1 Protein Hydrolysis

The research I performed has shed a new light on the substance I drink almost three times a day. This research has not only proven to me that chemistry is truly everywhere but has also shed some light onto the economical side of protein powder production. In conclusion the production of whey protein concentrate is “all natural” by that I mean that it involves only milk, which has been ultrafiltrated. The production of protein powder hydrolysate in my opinion is also “natural” because large amino acid chains are broken up using digestive enzymes, which are naturally occurring. The economical perspective of protein production comes from the fact that from 87 liters 3.48 liters of protein powder.

Protein Powder

“The Chemistry of Whey Protein –” N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <>.

“Minimal whey protein with carbohydra… [Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2007] – PubMed – NCBI.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Oct. 2013. <>.

Can breathing kill you?

The October break gave me a lot of time to unwind, and was a nice break from the stressful and always dreaded “IB Year 2 Semester 1”. One of the ways I decided to spend my downtime was by blogging on a social media site called Tumblr, and it was then that I came across this post:

Post originally by

As we were studying Oxidation and Reduction in class, I had to investigate the idea further.

A quick Google search on the statement led me to a thread on The Student Room (UK) with others also discussing their fears: was breathing ultimately killing them?

A Clarifying Question by Ruthless Dutchman

A Bold Statement by Broken Social Gene

Some users showed their support and offered scientific explanations-

Explanation by Toquin, A Respected Member

It made sense… I had learned from Biology class that one of the reactants required for the process of cellular respiration is Oxygen which comes from the air that we breathe. Further research led me to a report linking Oxidative Stress (essentially a deficiency of anti-oxidants) to a string of diseases including Diabetes and Arteriosclerosis (Vendemiale et al., 1999). I realized then that this was not a debate to be taken lightly, and decided to investigate the following question for my blog post: to what extent does Oxygen harm the human body?

I turned to the experts for some insight.

It turns out, Oxidation is a natural occurrence when there is exposure to air. Cut an apple and leave it out, it will undergo Oxidation and slowly change color (to brown). Leave equipment made from Iron out unprotected, and it will rust. Breathe, and your cells will decay.

Oxygen in our body reacts with our cells, and as a result, these cells undergo oxidation. As oxidation is the loss of electrons, the affected cell is chemically altered and ultimately dies. It is then replaced by fresh, new cells. According to Jeffrey Blumberg, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, this is nothing to worry about. Blumberg dismisses any fears about oxidation by saying that it is a “natural process” that occurs “during normal cellular functions” (Davis, n.d).

However, what we do have to worry about are those cells that are unintentionally damaged in the process- Blumberg asserts that although the metabolism of oxygen in the body is “efficient”, 1% – 2% of cells will suffer this damage in the process (Davis, n.d). This damage occurs by the breaking of covalent bonds between their molecules (SucceedMonavie, 2010). As two molecules split apart, the shared electron is released and both molecules become unstable and highly reactive as a result. These unstable and highly reactive molecules are known as ‘free radicals’, and are a type of Reactive Oxygen Species (Evans & Halliwell, 1999).

Molecule before Oxidation
Molecule before Oxidation – (SucceedMonavie, 2010)
Molecule breaks apart, releasing an electron
Molecule breaks apart, releasing an electron – (SucceedMonavie, 2010)
Molecules turn into unstable 'Free Radicals'
Molecules turn into unstable ‘Free Radicals’ – (SucceedMonavie, 2010)

Because of their unstable nature, ‘free radicals’ will attack healthy cells in an attempt to act as as an oxidizing agent to gain back an electron and achieve stability (SucceedMonavie, 2010). According to Blumberg, “these molecules will rob any molecule to quench that need [for an electron]”, and this makes the ‘free radicals’ potentially very dangerous (Davis, n.d). When attacked molecules are oxidized by a free-radical, the attacked molecules turn into free radicals themselves (SucceedMonavie, 2010). As 1 free-radical breaks apart a bond between 2 healthy cells to undergo reduction, 1 free-radical (if not stopped) is later responsible for the production of 2 radicals. This statistically works similar to bacteria growth, and results in a chain-reaction that produces a rapid and exponential increase in the number of ‘free radicals’ present in our body. Oxidative stress, defined as “a disturbance in the balance between the production of reactive oxygen species (free radicals) and anti-oxidant defenses” can be attributed to this chain reaction (Betteridge, 2000). It has been linked to various heart diseases and cancers, as well as to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease (Davis, n.d).

'Free Radicals' attack nearby healthy cells
‘Free Radicals’ attack nearby healthy cells   –   (SucceedMonavie, 2010)
1 'Free Radical' oxidizes 2 healthy cells
1 ‘Free Radical’ oxidizes 2 healthy cells – (SucceedMonavie, 2010)

Additionally, as the ‘free radicals’ attack healthy cells around them, they may not kill the healthy cells. This can potentially lead to devastating consequences for the body. According to Blumberg, “if free radicals simply killed a cell, it wouldn’t be so bad… the body could just regenerate another one”. He instead suggests that the problem lies with damage to the cell, as this damages the DNA which leads to the mutation of the affected cell, as well as abnormal growth and reproduction of that cell- “the seed of disease” (Davis, n.d).

So oxygen is harmful to the human body? Why don’t we just stop breathing?

I realized that the initial post had been right, to a certain extent. Although Oxygen does have the potential to do damage to our bodies, it is also vital to our survival- and it certainly does not “take 80 years to kill us”. We must also remember that only 1% – 2% of metabolized Oxygen actually turns into a ‘free radical’ (Davis, n.d). Valko et al. (2007) look to Reactive Oxygen Species as being “two faced”- though these can damage cell structures, proteins, and DNA, they can simultaneously strengthen the immune system. As this strengthened immune system can then combat a host of illnesses including Oxidative Stress, the actions of Reactive Oxygen Species “re-establish” and “maintain redox balance” or “redox homeostasis” (Valko et al., 2007). Interestingly enough, there are animals out there who do not need any oxygen whatsoever to survive (Danovaro et al., 2010). For us however, oxygen is required for cell respiration to occur- if you don’t breathe, you die.

So how can we take active measures to slow down the process of Oxidation and prevent the onset of Oxidative Stress?

The initial post on Tumblr was right to a certain extent; anti-oxidants do serve this purpose. Anti-oxidants are able to stop the dangerous chain reaction by donating one of their electrons to the unstable ‘free radical’, therefore stabilizing it. They are not oxidized in the process (this is one of their properties), so all potential harm is eliminated from the body (SucceedMonavie, 2010). It is for this reason that Oxidative Stress occurs only when there is an imbalance in the amount of ‘free radicals’ and levels of anti-oxidants present in the body; if the body is lacking in anti-oxidants or abundant in ‘free radicals’, then there will not be enough anti-oxidant to stop the chain reaction from occurring. Increasing intake of anti-oxidants will prevent the sickness from developing (Davis, n.d). Some common foods high in anti-oxidants are tomatoes, carrots, tea, and citrus fruits. Fun fact relating to China- Chinese oolong tea in particular, is 40 times richer in anti-oxidants than regular green tea (Rutherford, 2011). Blumberg urges, “Sure, you can live your whole life without getting epicatechin 3-gallate, a flavonoid found in huge quantities in green tea, but if having it in your diet promotes better health, why not try it?” (Davis, n.d)

Anti-Oxidant on the scene
Anti-Oxidant on the scene   –  (SucceedMonavie, 2010)
Anti-Oxidant donates an electron
Anti-Oxidant donates an electron to the ‘Free Radical’ to stabilize it (SucceedMonavie, 2010)
Anti-Oxidant remains neutral, and 'Free Radical' is reduced / stabilized
Anti-Oxidant remains neutral, and ‘Free Radical’ is reduced / stabilized –  (SucceedMonavie, 2010)

Decreasing the risk of developing ‘free radicals’ in the body can also be a preventative measure. Although my blog post focused specifically on the action of Reactive Oxygen Species, there are other types of free radicals as well. One of these is the Reactive Nitrogen Species, taken into the body by breathing in Nitric Oxide (Valko et al., 2007). This is present in polluted air, something we are very much exposed to as residents of Shanghai. Blumberg asserts that the “toxins” present in the air of a city environment cause an “oxidative burden” on the body which is, with modernization and increased industry and technology, much higher than ever before. He also labels cigarette smoke as having “active free radical generators”, and recommends quitting smoking to “preserve health” (Davis, n.d). Minimizing exposure to pollution and second-hand smoke are also important steps that can taken to do this.

Other factors that can contribute to Oxidative Stress if exposed to in excess, are X-Rays, sunlight, strenuous exercise, and alcohol (Parnes, n.d). Although X-Rays are unavoidable for medical reasons, limiting consumption of alcohol and increasing consumption of anti-oxidants when participating in strenuous exercise or gaining excessive exposure to sunlight can reduce risk of developing Oxidative Stress.

So what? Who cares? (Implications)

Living in China, a country with huge amounts of pollution, increases our risk of developing Oxidative Stress. Additionally, as the sickness has been linked to a host of diseases, preventative measure should be taken in order to minimize the risk of developing those illnesses. Awareness of risk factors of the sickness can help us take these preventative measures.


DJ, B. (2000). What is Oxidative Stress?. Metabolism: Clinical And Experimental , 49, 3-8. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from the PubMed database.

Danavaro, R., Dell’Anno, A., Pusceddu, A., Gambi, C., Heiner, I., & Kristensen, R. (2010). The First Metazoa Living in Permanently Anoxic Conditions. BMC Biology, 8(30). Retrieved October 9, 2013, from

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Vendemiale, G., Grattagliano, I., & Altomare, E. (1999). An Update on the Role of Free Radicals and Antioxidant Defense in Human Disease. International Journal of Clinical & Laboratory Research, 29(2), 49-55. Retrieved October 6, 2013, from the PubMed database.

Carbon Nanotubes: An Allotrope Worth More than Diamonds?

Recently I read a BBC article that both confused and intrigued me. The article was about a Stanford University engineering team and their creation, the “first computer built entirely with carbon nanotubes.” (Morgan, 2013) This reminded me of graphene, a singular sheet of covalently bonded carbon atoms in hexagonal rings, that had come up in class. Remember that graphite is one of the allotropes of carbon along with diamond and the C60 fullerene and that graphene is a single layer of the carbon sheets that make up graphite. (Graphene: World-leading Research and Development, 2012) Interestingly enough, India and Vhristi have both written on graphene, and nanotubes respectively, but through wider and more introductory lens; I hope to focus my research on the application of nanotubes in electronics. Thus with this foundation, I decided to investigate further the one claim the article brought up that really fascinated me, that carbon nanotubes could eventually replace silicon chips as the linchpin of modern electronics. (Hsu, 2013)

Carbon Nanotube Arrangements
Carbon Nanotube Arrangements

Single-walled carbon nanotubes are sheets of graphene rolled up into a cylinder; depending on the direction in which the sheet is rolled, the nanotube will possess different physical properties. (Nanocyl, 2009) Extreme strength, up a hundred times stronger than steel, while maintaining lightness is one of the characteristics that have made scientists so interested in carbon nanotubes. (Bonsor & Strickland, 2007) The other is the ability to act as a semiconductor, a substance with conductivity less than that of most metals but greater than that of an insulator. (Forbus) Currently, the heart of the ubiquitous tablets, computers, and smartphones is the silicon transistor, a semiconductor switch that allow for the control of electrical signals. (Brain, 2001) To keep up with society’s demand for smaller, lighter, and faster devices, engineers have had to shrink transistors. (Hsu, 2013) However as silicon transistors get smaller, with the smallest being Intel’s 22-nanometer Ivy Bridge model, more of the energy that goes in is transformed into heat and wasted. This physical limitation has prompted research into carbon nanotubes as an alternative because of their minute size and “energy-efficiency at small sizes.” (Hsu, 2013)

So, after establishing that carbon nanotubes, theoretically, could outclass the silicon chip I went back to the BBC article to ask: what does this ‘landmark computer’ really mean for the future of carbon nanotube technology? While the computer the Stanford team, led by Subhasish Mitra and H.S. Philip Wong, created is only an elementary prototype that can only count to 32, it is definitive proof a computer could be made solely from nanotubes. (Morgan, 2013) The process in which they arrived at the computer also made great strides in use of nanotubes in electronics. The team aligned the naturally misaligned nanotubes in chips with only 0.5% disparity, designed an algorithm to bypass those that were skewed, and vaporized the “metallic” nanotubes that always conducted electricity. (Shulaker, Hills, Patil, Wei, Chen & Wong, 2013) Although these improvements have streamlined the process of creating carbon nanotube based nanoelectronics the 8000-nanometer transistors are still far from being able to compete economically or technically with silicon chips. (Palmer, 2012)

Carbon Nanotube Transistor
Carbon Nanotube Transistor

Given that silicon chips will eventually reach their limits, this test has shown that carbon nanotubes are progressing as a viable replacement for the current industry standard. (Hsu, 2013) An economic implication of this development is that if the nanotubes keep making significant progress, this possibly more efficient option to the silicon chip will be met with great demand in our technology driven society from firms and governments, the former to produce the next-generation of electronics, and the latter to improve domestic technological and military infrastructure. Just like the silicon chip allowed for a surge in technological innovation, carbon nanotubes could too engender its own rush of progress. A more short-term implication of this auspicious advancement will be reenergized investment and resources dedicated to nanotube research by firms and laboratories not wanting to be beaten to the possible patent of the next half century. But for carbon nanotubes to make the transition from laboratory to factory to store shelf will be costly and time-consuming. One must consider the economic and technological quandaries that will undoubtedly arise as this technology advances, as with all innovations. How can we mass-produce carbon nanotube transistors? How do we maintain a high quality when dealing with such tiny basic components? Each is a question that must be resolved before this new technology hits the shelves.

But I have to say, after reading about the nanotube computer I felt genuinely excited. I know that many obstacles stand in the way of carbon nanotube devices, especially the development of a cost-effective means of mass-producing nanotube transistors. On the surface this seems like a classic case of a scientifically sound theory without any means of practical execution but in this case I have hope. Ever since I have remembered I’ve been waiting for that futuristic advancement that really ushers in a new technological age like home computers and mobile phones did in the 1990s. If this it, I have hope that some combination of entrepreneurship, capitalism, and scientific curiosity will see carbon nanotube technology commercially possible, if not in our smart houses, supercomputers, and flying cars.


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Image Sources:

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