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Chemical Eye on the Atomic Deficit
by Preston MacDougall


April 09, 2006

The first rule of holes is: If you are in one, stop digging.

This bit of folksy wisdom came to mind when I heard that President Bush selected the current Director of the Office of Budget and Management, Joshua Bolten, to be the new White House Chief of Staff.

You have probably also heard that, in order to accommodate continuing near-record budget deficits, Congress was recently obliged to raise the federal debt ceiling to $9 trillion.

jpg deficit


Any more digging, and we will have to add another zero to the federal debt. For those who are counting, that would be the thirteenth.

There isn't a superstitious bone in my body, but something tells me that 13 zeros on the federal debt will not bring good fortune to future generations. Cost them a fortune? Undoubtedly.

As astronomical as this debt is, it is the atomic deficit that has me more concerned. I refer to the teeter-tottering imbalance in the international trade of the U.S. chemical industry.

Practically speaking, chemistry is the rearrangement of matter at the atomic level. For instance, cyclopropane and propylene have the same chemical formula, C3H6. The former costs a hefty $114 for just 25 grams of this gas, which is used as a general anesthetic. The latter costs but 25 cents per pound. Among many other uses, propylene is a feedstock for making plastics such as polypropylene, which you can often identify by the number 5 inside the recycling symbol on the bottom of shampoo bottles and such.

Rather than mixing things up willy-nilly, which would be dangerous environmentally and economically, the chemical industry is all about responsibly adding, subtracting, and/or rearranging atoms in molecules such that value is added.

Furthermore, the chemical enterprise is a global endeavor since some regions are rich in resources, such as hydrocarbons, while others are blessed with great institutions that have a long history of training talented masters of the atomic domain. Whether you are in the U.S. or abroad, visiting the chemistry department at any university that is known for its cutting-edge scientific research can be like a quick round-the-world tour. Only instead of tourist attractions, the various labs and centers house gleaming instruments that are the tools of the trade.

To put it another way, and to simultaneously pay a memorial tribute to one of my favorite popular music singers from the '60s (Gene Pitney died this past week while on tour in Wales), let's just say that Mallinckrodt Hall, where chemistry lives, is Mecca to me. (For those who are not washed in the solvents of an advanced organic lab, Mallinckrodt Hall is the home of the chemistry department at Harvard University.)

Getting back to business, the American chemical industry itself has a long and storied history. For example, the DuPont gunpowder plant that was built in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1802, played a key role supplying the government during the War of 1812.

As a whole, the chemical industry has been a very healthy one - economically - with chemical exports far exceeding chemical imports when all the books have been balanced, every single year. That is until 2002, when the American chemical industry recorded its very first trade deficit of $5 billion.

The atomic trade balance has been in the red every year since then, reaching $10 billion last year. This is quite a rearrangement in itself, considering that the same trade balance was $20 billion, on the fortunate side, in 1997.

I strongly doubt that this economic trend coincidentally follows another trend in data released by the National Science Foundation: the number of Ph.D. graduates in chemistry peaked in 1994, at 2,257, and has been in decline since then.

Whether you have faith in supply-side economics or not, this much is clear: every tangible thing that we buy is made out of atoms, and one or more chemical processes probably transformed it in some way. I suspect that if our supply of highly trained chemists continues to decrease, deficits of various kinds will continue to increase and the hole will get deeper.



Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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