Big Chemistry: From Gasoline To Wintergreen

Most of us probably have some vivid memories of high school or college chemistry lab, where the principles of the science were demonstrated, and where we all got at least a little practice in experimental methods. Measuring, diluting, precipitating, titrating, all generally conducted under safe conditions using stuff that wasn’t likely to blow up or burn.

But dropwise additions and reaction volumes measured in milliliters are not the stuff upon which to build a global economy that feeds, clothes, and provides for eight billion people. For chemistry to go beyond the lab, it needs to be scaled up, often to a point that’s hard to conceptualize. Big chemistry and big engineering go hand in hand, delivering processes that transform the simplest, most abundant substances into the things that, for better or worse, make life possible.

To get a better idea of how big chemistry does that, we’re going to take a look at one simple molecule that we’ve probably all used at one time or another: the common artificial flavoring wintergreen. It’s an innocuous ingredient in a wide range of foods and medicines, but the infrastructure required to make it and all its precursors is a snapshot of just how important big chemistry really is.

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Running Methanol RC Engines On Gasoline

Methanol is a popular fuel for small engines used in radio-controlled models, but comes at a higher price than gasoline. It’s also harder to source and can be a mite corrosive, too. Gasoline comes with some benefits, but running it in a methanol engine usually requires some mods. [David] and [Bert] worked together to build a mixture controller for just this purpose.

The controller uses a solenoid to control the flow of gasoline to a conventional methanol-tuned carburetor for a small RC engine, allowing it to be accurately tuned to run gasoline well across the whole RPM range. Having gone through many revisions, all documented in a big forum thread, the latest version uses a Seeduino Xiao controller and a BMP280 pressure and temperature sensor for determining the right fuel/air mixture for the conditions. A small OLED screen can optionally be fitted to help with configuration of the mixture controller.

The system has worked well in testing, with [David] and [Bert] reporting that they have “converted engines as small as 0.3 CID up to large radials with this system.” It’s a promising tool that could be handy to have in the RC modeller’s arsenal.

These tiny engines have other applications too; they can make for one crazy power drill, that’s for sure!