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Natural or Not: The Story of a Mineral Oil Molecule
By: Johann W. Wiechers, PhD, JW Solutions
Posted: May 3, 2011
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Finally, the molecule had some space to move around, and its new life started as it emerged to the surface on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Now it was shaken, not stirred, and soon found itself in a distillation column. It was getting hotter and hotter and some of its smaller friends could no longer cling to it, disappearing into thin air. Then the molecule itself could no longer stand the heat and at around 270°C, it also had to leave. Workers in blue overalls commented, “this is the really nice fraction,” but the molecule could not hear this as it was trapped in a cooling column. Realizing that its environment had changed, it was then surrounded only by friends and was no longer in a gooey, dark mass. The workers in blue overalls were right, it was indeed a really nice fraction!
Next, the molecule entered a pressure tank filled with hydrogen gas. “We’ll nicely saturate this lot,” said the workers, and any double bond or unsaturated bond that could be found in its friends’ structures was saturated in a rather forceful way. After two hours at 220°C and 50 atmosphere hydrogen gas, no double remained. Luckily, this molecule was already a cycloalkane and there was nothing to saturate in its skeleton. With time to observe what was happening to its friends, the molecule noticed it could gradually see further and further. In fact, since its "before Brown" time as a little amino acid, it had not experienced such a high degree of transparency. Yes, the molecule felt good that it was part of a nice fraction. Maybe that was what saturation was all about; it was satisfied, saturated and happy.
Now the molecule made another jump in time, but just a small one. A couple of fantastic things happened to it as the molecule found itself incorporated into a cosmetic cream—the process by which being so secretive that this author, by contract, cannot divulge. What can be said is that the mineral oil molecule found itself located in the internal phase of an o/w emulsion, which again involved another increase in temperature, vicious stirring in a large high shear mixer, and cooling. The molecule had never felt so luxurious in its life; it had felt free as a simple amino acid in the primeval sea, powerful as a protein in the muscles of Dunky, and suppressed during its transformation into a cycloalkane. Being a part of a cosmetic formulation really gave it the feeling of luxury; perhaps it had even reached the chemical equivalent of Nirvana.
The cosmetic cream container was then picked up by a consumer who carefully studied the INCI list on the label. “Mineral oil,” the consumer said. “Should I really use this horrible synthetic stuff on my face?” The molecule replied, "I’m not synthetic! Once upon a time, I was a sea monster (D. terrelli). Then I was suppressed in the dark for millions of years, which was not nice but happened naturally to me. Then I was heat separated from my friends, and there was nothing synthetic about that. That saturation process was not fine but I escaped that rough process because I was already saturated. I am just as natural as you are!”
However, despite the molecule being close to the surface of the luxurious cream, the consumer did not hear it. This consumer was the type that believed anything man-made was synthetic but the mineral oil molecule disagreed, finding it to be wrong. If the consumer would have listened, the molecule would have explained that every human being on earth is man-made. So according to this theory of naturalness, humans are therefore synthetic. The only person that lived on earth that was not man-made, according to the Bible, was Jesus Christ. He would therefore be the only natural human being that ever lived, but many people called him supernatural! The mineral oil molecule had to admit that a few weird things happened to its friends in the oil refinery, but did they make this molecule unnatural?