Friday, January 2, 2015

Wax and Wonderful New Year!

Happy New Year to all! We are now past the anticipation of December, in Western culture, for Christmas and other religious holidays (gatherings of family and loved ones, traditions of gift-giving, greetings of love and friendship), and anticipation for the end of one calendar year and the hopes of the new year. We have also survived the long darkness of the northern winter solstice and welcome slowly lengthening daylight.

At this time of the year, candles have long been popular, originally as a source of light during the long dark cold nights. Our lights of winter and winter holidays have not just been utilitarian, so we can actually see or find our way in the physical darkness, but carry symbolism of hope, knowledge, goodness, truth, “a light shining in the darkness”. Before electrification, candles provided a slow, long-burning source of light and the portability that a campfire or hearth could not. Candles, in regions with reliable electrical service, are now primarily for decoration or ambience, although here in the eastern US, we keep spare candles in case of hurricane/ice storm/blizzard power outages. Certainly no one, hopefully, is using real candles as lighting on interior Christmas trees anymore!

Candles these days are primarily made of paraffin wax, a soft malleable long-chain hydrocarbon derived from coal or petroleum. Beeswax is occasionally used in artisan candles, and, formerly, rendering of animal fats was a major source of candlewax.

Waxy paraffins are generally longer chain hydrocarbons of the alkane series CnH2n+2. Simply, the carbons are linked by single covalent bonds to each other in a chain, and a hydrogen is single-bonded to each of the two remaining bond sites of each carbon; the end carbons have three hydrogens. The first four alkanes in this series (methane, ethane, propane, butane) are gases at room temperature; the next alkanes to C17H36 are liquid. The waxy solid alkanes (or paraffins) have a carbon number of 18 or higher.
Example of alkane structure, ethane C2H6 (

My favorite mental picture of waxy crude hydrocarbons comes from Hollis Hedberg’s seminal 1968 paper on  “Significance of high-wax oils with respect to genesis of petroleum” (American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, vol. 52, p. 736-750): “High wax content is a distinctive and readily detectable characteristic of many petroleums, most simply manifested by a tendency for the oil to congeal at relatively high atmospheric temperatures (high pour-point). This tendency is often dramatically demonstrated by drill-stem tests in which the fluid blown into the air at reservoir temperature falls back with a dull thud as a solid on the derrick floor.”

But despite the New Year, there is still a lot of cold winter, actually most of astronomical winter, left to “weather” since the spring equinox is still almost 3 months away. For two years, I lived in Norway, “Land of the Midnight Sun”, although in Oslo, it is never 24 hours of darkness (about 6 hours daylight in late December). By February, the continuing cold, lack of daylight, lack of holidays until Easter, can make the populace ‘vaersyk’ (weather-sick or, in modern lingo, to have seasonal affective disorder), despite their enthusiasm for winter sports, with an unfortunate high suicide rate. Here in eastern Pennsylvania, 70 miles due west of New York City, we wait now in anxious anticipation of whether Heikki Lunta, the Finnish-American god of snow from the blizzardy Upper Peninsula of Michigan (lived there the record-snowfall winter of 1978-79), will taunt us this year as he did last (I was running out of places to pile up what I shoveled off the sidewalk). 

Eventually it will be spring, with visible new life, new beginnings, less darkness. We can trade our long-chain-paraffin candles for short-chain-propane-powered barbeques and easy outdoor social gatherings in comfortable weather. However, we should actually never wait for a calendar date for new beginnings or steps toward improvement in the human condition, but make it a year-round goal. Best wishes for joy, good health, and peace in 2015!

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