[ home | contact dr. berk | archive | science q&a ] Updated: Niko-Niko Punsuka Hamuemon

Please Pass the Science
by dr. scott berk

Simplistic, misleading, and somewhat condescending. . . but never boring!


What gas is released when styrofoam reacts with acetone.
- walt

Your question is a bit misguided. There is no chemical reaction, per se, but merely a phase transition. Styrofoam is simply "puffed-up" polystyrene. Upon treatment with acetone, the polystyrene foam matrix breaks down, releasing the gas trapped inside the polymer strands. My initial research on the subject of what gas is released yielded two possibilities: It could just be air which has diffused into the foam after it has been produced. More likely, it is the "blowing agent," gas mix in with the styrene as it is being polymerized to foam it up. The old blowing agents of choice were CFC's, but those fell out of favor when people started realizing that they chew holes in the ozone layer. More recently, low molecular weight hydrocarbons such as benzene, ethylene and pentane are used as CFC alternatives.


What are the oils & waxes inside lava lamps? And where can I purchase them? Thanks in advance...
- victor

They are a "proprietary mixture" of, as you guessed, oils and waxes. According to a press release I once read, getting the specific gravity just right took quite a bit of research and development. Unfortunately, my home laboratory is not equipped with the appropriate analytical instrumentation to figure out the precise composition of the material. You may want to contact the Lava Simplex company, makers of Lava Lamps, to see if they can send you some replacement lava. Good luck!


Hello, hello....I am faced with a conundrum of sorts. I own a very small surfboard manufacturing company in Oregon and I have been experimenting with various "alternatives" to the archaic standardized practices of the industry...that is, the use of polyester resins and such in production. Patagonia surfboards is claiming to have ingeniously come up with a wonderful alternative....polystyrene foam with veggie based epoxy resins. this is, to me, simply another "enviro" scheme, as polystyrene is not much better than than polyester....and they are still using methyl ethyl ketone peroxide catalyst as their mainstay...icky stuff! Patagonia's claim is that their foam is recyclable and their epoxy resin releases 89% fewer volatile organic compounds... (type in "green blanks" under alta vista to see their claims and comments).. As a surfer and a low impact human being, I can't in good faith make surfboards anymore...I had been using hemp instead of fiberglass, but that is akin to choosing a quick and painless death or a not so quick and painless death, both of which the end result is still death. I am afraid I would rather live. (Am I to long winded?)...my question... I want to make a completely biodegradable surfboard...no icky catalysts, no yucky resins, no toxic foams, etc...can this be done? Patagonia's "green board" is in my eyes simply the lesser of two evils and a grand public relations stunt to gain an edge on the market. This is a billion dollar industry and has a major impact upon our environment...any thoughts...

Do you really want a biodegradable board? I mean, ocean water, being highly saline, is actually quite corrosive. It's quite a balancing act of properties to come up with something reasonably safe that doesn't fall apart after repeated exposure to the environment, especially the fairly rigorous ocean environment. Ironically, the answer to the completely "natural" surfboard lies in surfing's past, before the advent of polyurethane foam boards revolutionized the sport. I'm talking, of course, about balsa boards. Yes, they're heavier, but just about every other lighter-weight material I can think of is either a polymer, made of hydrocarbon-based materials and polymerizing and blowing agents, or a composite, which is basically a material ground up and then bound together by some sort of glue (which gets you into the same problems as with polymers). Perhaps if you can come up with some sort of natural adhesive to bind a lightweight natural material together, you could lay claim to an "all-natural" board. But I bet you'd have to work pretty hard to find something as good as wood. Nature did a pretty good job with that composite material. Finally, you must ask yourself how much relative harm you're doing to the environment by manufacturing surfboards, even the least desirable polyurethane kinds. Compare, for instance, the VOCs that are released in the production of one board versus those released from a single drive to the beach, especially if your vehicle isn't in perfect shape. I guess this argues for living right on the beach and rediscovering the classic wood boards of the past!

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