With the current economic slowdown (is that euphemistic enough for you?), there's a lot of talk about economic connections. There are the very direct connections: For instance, if automakers close down or reduce production, then those companies won't be buying any/as much steel, autoparts, paint, etc. and their suppliers will suffer. Then there are the more subtle connections: For instance, if automakers layoff employees, those employees won't be buying homes, clothing, electronics, etc. and those industries will likewise suffer. But I hadn't considered that some connections are more hidden, like that between automakers and the pharmaceutical industries.
Pharmaceutical companies tend to use a LOT of acetonitrile (that's acetonitrile at left), probably because it was cheap. I say 'was' because that's all in the past now. A year ago, a 4 liter bottle of purified acetonitrile cost us about $15 a bottle (we were buying in bulk). Today, that bottle has recently cost us over $100, when it's available, and the rumor is that some companies are charging as much as $250 a bottle. So what's the connection?
Well, it turns out that the reason acetonitrile was so cheap is that it's a byproduct of the manufacture of certain types of plastics... like those used to make auto parts. No credit, and a tanking economy, means no car sales. No car sales means no car manufacturing, means less car part manufacturing, means less acetonitrile byproduct. The shortage drives up prices. It's basic economics.
OK, such is life. But what happens when there's just not enough to go around? I'm not sure. It's possible that someone will manage to make another acetonitril source profitable. I hope so. If this doesn't happen, I don't know what will. I'm pretty sure that pharmaceutical production won't be stopped. But I'm also sure that the FDA makes it a royal pain in the butt to change solvents... and probably rightly so. So, it's not like they can just switch over to methanol in a heartbeat.
It's an interesting problem, and I'm curious to see how it plays out. More to the point, it's very likely a problem that's playing out in different forms in a multitude of industries. Our global economy is as interconnected as the biosphere. Make more iPods and the price of eggs drops? Increase the cost of corn and the price of aluminum drops. Release leopards in NYC and the loan market opens up? Could be... who knows? Interesting times we've got here. And it'll be fascinating to watch how they play out. Looks like my generation will have some tales for the grandkids, after all.