Sugar Daddy: Like sleeping with an elephant

Posted on behalf of Sugar Daddy, with a nod to Andy’s recent post

As a fifth-year chemical biology graduate student, I sometimes wonder if I’ll know when I’ve been in grad school too long. Maybe I’ll want to finish that last project, or start something anew to pass along to a new student. Maybe a personal life decision is playing a factor in my wanting to leave now or stay longer. Maybe I look around at group meeting and realize that free pizza once per week isn’t as great as it used to be, partially because I know what everyone in the group is working on and am slightly less interested in it than I used to be. Maybe I read every paper in my field with such a critical eye that it all seems boring now when it was so exciting only a few years ago.

But sometimes you need something more direct, like a kick in the face, a surefire sign that it’s time to pack up the pipets, file away the round bottom flasks, and start looking for greener pastures in some other field of science. Last week, I think I got that sign: VWR and Fisher simultaneously told me that the world is out of acetonitrile. Yup, that’s right. If I ever need a sign to graduate, it’s that the world has run out of one of the two solvents that I use on the HPLC. (Given that the other solvent is water, I guess if I had to pick which one I’d rather run dry… I guess the situation could be worse.)

The story there is somewhat interesting. I’ll write what I’ve heard, and please write any comments if what I’m saying is rubbish or not. Basically, the most economically viable way — and currently the only way — that acetonitrile is produced is as by-product of acrylonitrile production. Acrylonitrile is a monomer that finds its way into nylon, acrylic, plastics, and all sorts of products; it is a much more important product in the global marketplace than pitiful little acetonitrile, the by-product of acrylonitrile production.

So, acetonitrile supplies are tied to the laws of supply and demand in the acrylonitrile market. Given the global economic situation, building construction projects and the general production of goods — that is, things that rely on products made ultimately from acrylonitrile — are all way down. Therefore, demand for acrylonitrile is down; the price of acrylonitrile has plummeted in the last few months, and production is drying up. Unfortunately for us chemists, the demand for acetonitrile, the bastard step-child of acrylonitrile production, has remained relatively constant, because HPLCs still need to run even if Lehman Brothers has closed up shop and GM isn’t far behind.

Wikipedia claims that the situation was caused by a shutdown of acrylonitrile production in China last summer because of the Olympics and damage to a plant in Galveston, Texas due to Hurricane Ike, but as I understand it, these are medium-sized blips that are only exacerbating a larger market situation.

Acetonitrile shortages have happened before and will happen again. Like the famously flamboyant former Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, once said about Canada’s proximity to and geopolitical entanglement with the United States, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

So, basically, we’re not in a very good place until someone can figure out how to make acetonitrile independent of acrylonitrile production in a way that is economically viable. Then we can finally kick the elephant out of our bed, allow the acetonitrile market to be regulated by its very own market forces, and maybe keep me from interviewing for postdocs and writing up my thesis.

Hmm… perhaps a good puzzle for a lazy Thanksgiving afternoon? Thanks for the idea, SD! Catherine