05 December 2006

Smells Like Protein Spirit

Did anyone smell rotten eggs in the air yesterday? I did, in the early evening on Gest St. just west of downtown. I smelled it for just a second after briefly opening my car window, but it's hard to mistake that foul odor, especially when one is familiar with the common laboratory chemical, mercaptoethanol.

Mercaptoethanol smells awful. It comes in small vials about the size of an AAA battery. Believe me, nobody wants to take a chance on spilling large volumes of this stuff. One teardrop will stink up an entire house in about 10 minutes. It's nasty.

Turns out the energy company adds mercaptan to its gas (as a safety measure, I presume) and people around town noticed the smell when some of the natural gas was released into the atmosphere.

Is there something wrong with pumpkin spice or vanilla-honeysuckle? Maybe someday Yankee Candle will start buying energy companies and change this.

Here's a brief organic chemistry lesson you can impress your friends with. An alcohol is a compound with a hydrocarbon chain and an hydroxyl (OH) group attached to it. The name of the alcohol depends on how long the hydrocarbon chain is. The ethyl alcohol that we all know and love has 2 carbons. The rubbing alcohol I use for after shave (this is true) has 3 carbons. The methanol that Russian criminals use to make "vodka" in abandoned buildings has 1 carbon. And if you drink it you will go blind or die, so stick to the good stuff.

And you can have more than 1 hydroxyl group. If you stick an -OH group on both carbons of ethanol, for example, you'll get ethylene glycol, antifreeze. And if you replace one of those -OH groups with a sulfur group, -SH, you'll get mercaptoethanol. And believe me, you'll know it.

I just realized my post title doesn't make sense yet. Mercaptoethanol is used in labs for protein analyses. That's why Gest St. smelled like 'tein spirit.


TravisG said...

Not bad, for a chemistry lesson. I actually understood what you were talking about all the way through.

KatieG said...

this is way too much science for my liking, but just wanted to give you props on the greatest subject heading i've seen in a while.

i don't know why - but it made me chuckle out loud - during an otherwise tiresome and generally annoying week.

TravisG said...

When I first read the header, I thought you were gonna rank on Jeff Goldstein at Protein Wisdom, who I'd imagine smells like hand lotion and testicles.

WestEnder said...

Ahh yes, hand lotion and testicles. Reminds me of that great Daily Show episode when Samantha Bee jacked off a hog (a pig, that is) for a pig breeder.