CSI Science! on my job

I’ve been a chemical engineer for twenty years now, so you’d think I do lots of sciency things at work. Yet, usually, what I do looks absolutely nothing like what they show on tv for CSI or one of the other science procedural shows.

Except today. I’ve been doing CSI-ish stuff. It sucks: back hurts, eyestrain. Ugh.

It all started when the plant guys came to me with their usual complaint: “It’s doing X. Make it stop.”

X, in this case, was sparkling crystals on the filter cartridges of one of my processes. I considered, but rejected, the possibility that one of the union operators had been glittering himself up to go to a circuit party or something.

So, I got to be all sciency. Looked at the crystals under the microscope. Tried to dissolve them, react them, melt them. No joy. But they’re considerably larger than what should have been possible to get through to that filter, so something was going on.

So, I spent a good day, hunched over filter cartridges, with flashlight in one hand and tweezers in the other, picking itty-bitty crystals off to collect them. I sent them off for x-ray diffraction, and finally have my answer:


My filter cartridges are, apparently, jewel-encrusted.

Still makes no sense, so I’ve just spent another day with the tweezers playing CSI tech. I’m sending another sample off for re-analysis.

I guess I’m a little miffed, though, that no one will understand why I found my instructions to the lab amusing:

"Re-analyze unknown solids by x-ray diffraction. Probably silicon dioxide, as:

  1. Quartz
  2. Cristobalite
  3. hi, Opal"

Okay. Hm. I remember something about artificial generation of opals. They’re not so much a solid…
To Wiki!

Opal is a mineraloid gel which is deposited at a relatively low temperature and may occur in the fissures of almost any kind of rock

The water content is usually between three and ten percent, but can be as high as twenty percent.


As well as occurring naturally, opals of all varieties have been synthesized experimentally and commercially. The discovery of the ordered sphere structure of precious opal led to its synthesis by Pierre Gilson in 1974.[5] The resulting material is distinguishable from natural opal by its regularity; under magnification, the patches of color are seen to be arranged in a “lizard skin” or “chicken wire” pattern.

Hmm. Check for the lizard skin pattern. If it doesn’t exist, you may have something. But this does seem to be obvious, it’s not going through the filter as a solid. You know more about this than I do, but… notice the non-crystaline opal in the notes.

So how long is the re-analysis going to take?

Is anyone at the plant interested in the fact that your filters seem to be breeding opals?

I’ll probably have the results by next week.

And, while it is possible that we have SiO2 coming in with a raw material, it is very unlikely to be opals (cristobalite, maybe). And, of course, shouldn’t be getting to where it is, in any case.

Little too small to get a visual ID, though – they’re basically pinhead size, at most. Still larger than 5-7 microns (which should be the max that could get through to that filter).

Mostly, we’re just bemused at our jewel-studded filter cartridges. Somewhat more fabulous than you expect in a chemical plant.

… although if I can get one of the other processes to start making rubies or diamonds or something… hmmm.