Off to the Races! Summer Hiatus

In a few days, I’ll be traveling to the U.S. World Superbike round at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway.  Later on in July, I will be attending the Speedway Grand Prix in Cardiff, Wales.   I am very excited about attending these events and getting a chance to see some amazing riders and machines in action on two very different types of track surfaces.

During my travels, I hope to gather some more great ideas to continue the blog this fall and I am also currently amassing interesting information on tire compounds for a post that should appear sometime in the later part of the summer.

Have a wonderful summer, everyone.  Ride safely and, most of all, enjoy yourself.


Not So Heavy Metals – The Art and Science of the Motorcycle Frame

For this post I am very excited to have as a co-host Mr. Tim Huber, a moto-journalist from Los Angeles. Tim and I met back in January at the Women’s Motorcycle Show, where he was covering the event. We found that we had in common a love of two wheeled machines and writing about them. We also enjoy watching motorcycle racing of just about any type and we enjoy the technical aspects of things such as motorcycle components (frames, electronics, etc.).


Tim & I would like to dedicate this piece to the memory of Nicky Hayden.  Like motorcycle frames, Nicky displayed strength along with flexibility.  He provided underlying support to so many and became the foundation around which his race teams were built.  Those who attached themselves to him knew the metal from which he was made and were dedicated to making him shine.

#RideonKentuckyKid         Race in peace #69


Welcome, Tim! Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and how you got your start as a journalist.

Tim: Hey, my name’s Tim Huber, I’m a 27-year-old motorcycle journalist living (and riding) in Los Angeles. Motorcycles have been the primary focus in my life for the past half-decade or so. I love sport bikes, canyon and track riding, but I can have fun on just about anything with two wheels. In addition to riding modern sport bikes, (mainly supersports), I also buy vintage Hondas and rebuild them with a friend. When I’m not riding or wrenching I’m usually writing, reading, looking at or talking about bikes. I also enjoy playing motorcycle racing video games (Ride 2 and the MotoGP series) in addition to watching real racing, another serious-passion of mine.

Because I personally knew very few other riders when I bought my first scoot, (with almost none of them being sport or race enthusiasts), I went to the interwebs to share my passion for high-performance two-wheelers and organized competition. I began posting stories on the website (and app) Eatsleepride (ESR), mainly as a way of sharing views and discussing bike-related topics with fellow riders. After months of posting I was contacted by staff at ESR and was offered a press pass to an event if I wanted to cover it for them. All the work for them at that point was voluntary (without pay) but I enjoyed getting free passes to events I would be attending anyway and getting to go to press days that were closed to the public was just an added bonus. Eventually my writing for ESR led to me having the experience and confidence to start receiving paid work as a moto-journalist until I was able to transition to doing it full time.

After randomly watching some Mark Neale racing documentaries on Netflix shortly after I started riding, I got bit by the race-bug and almost instantly became an avid fan of road racing. Around this same time I stumbled across the Rossi v. Stoner battle at Laguna that would only compound my interest. The speed, the strategy, the skill, the characters, the bikes, I loved (and continue to love) everything about it.  I started out just watching MotoGP but by the start of the next season I was following Moto 2 & 3 and World Superbike (WSBK), the TT, NW200, Ulster GP, etc. I couldn’t get enough, so the inception of MotoAmerica was more than welcome news to me. The drama and excitement brought on by two world-class racers going head-to-head, knowing either can wreck at any moment is unlike anything else I’d ever experienced.

Even someone who’s never thrown a leg over a bike in their life can still thoroughly enjoy the spectacle that is a motorcycle racer dragging a knee at triple-digit-speeds or the drama of an overtake on a final lap. Having said that, having experience riding a motorcycle, especially a sport bike, helps you fully grasp the magnitude of the skill professional motorcycle racers possess. There’s also undeniably an element of enjoying the evolution of engineering and technology used in motorcycle racing, as grasping exactly what is happening under the fairings is far more impressive than most probably realize.

 Daphne: Thank you. That’s a fantastic introduction, Tim! Your passion and enthusiasm for the sport is infectious.

Now, why frames? What makes them so interesting to me, as a chemist?

Well, most are made of metals, or metal alloys (mixtures of more than one metal in a particular amount, which is often, in racing applications, proprietary to the manufacturer’s process). Metals are of great interest to me as a chemist since they are some of the inorganic substances that have been studied the longest, many even prior to the development of chemistry as a field, during the time of the alchemists! Metals have incredibly interesting properties, and many are beautiful to look at, as well. (We’ll get into the properties of some of the metals a little later; please read on…)

OK – over to you, Tim. As a rider and a moto-journalist, please talk us through what it is about motorcycle frames and the materials from which they are made that really causes you to take a shine to them.

Tim: From learning more about the bikes used in racing (or on the street) I could better understand what the riders were doing and why they were doing it. Being better acquainted with how everything works not only allows me to learn from watching professionals, but it also allows me to have a greater appreciation for the ingenuity that’s responsible for state-of-the-art components of modern race-machines, production-based or prototype. Without the remarkable technical achievements of those developing race bikes, today’s fastest motopilots would never be able to consistently achieve the corner-speed, lean angles, acceleration and raw performance that add up to breathtaking lap times. (It’s not until you have a go at a track that’s used as a venue for professional racing that you realize how phenomenal professional bikes and riders are. My fastest lap being almost ten-seconds slower than even the slowest on the professional grid make their superhuman abilities abundantly and depressingly clear).

For this post we’re going to be examining the semi-literal backbone of every motorcycle – the frame. Motorcycle frames house the engine and attach to the bike’s sub-frame (tail-section) fork and swing-arm. But these metal structures do more than connect the parts that make up the sum that is a motorcycle — decades of development have resulted in some truly impressive frames that enable today’s fastest two-wheelers to accelerate, brake and corner better than ever before.

As metallurgy has evolved over those decades, significant advancements in engineering have been possible, giving developers the tools needed to squeeze better performance from these geometric metal designs.  This evolution in metallurgy has also resulted in better performing (faster and more powerful) engines, making the need for brilliant frame development that much more necessary to compensate for today’s 250+HP machines. Advancements in metallurgy have advanced just about every part found on a bike, from valve-springs to brake-rotors.

Understanding exactly what it is that frames do, how, why and when they flex, is vital to grasping the technology. Because the article, “Flexi-Flyer Frames Explained by Redbull MotoGP Riders”, in rideapart.comhas recently done such a wonderful job visually depicting exactly what I just mentioned, I’ll let the video in the link below demonstrate a frame in action.  (If you are Formula 1 fan, you might just recognize a familiar face in that video, as well.)

Daphne: Wow, Tim, that is such a great article and cool video. Thanks for finding that and bringing it to our attention.

Since my husband has two KTM’s in the “paddock”, I was looking at KTM’s site the other day, and this is what they noted about the frame of their new 1290 Super Adventure S, 2017 model:

“The chrome-molybdenum steel trellis frame makes a major contribution to the bike’s excellent chassis geometry. It’s a rugged, laser-cut, robot-welded thing of beauty with a glorious surface finish. And at only 9.8 kg, it helps to keep the total, unfueled weight at a spectacular 215 kg. All muscle, zero fat.”

Ooh, la la! When I saw the term “chrome-molybdenum” (or chrome-moly, as it’s sometimes known) I went straight to my periodic table phone app (I know; pretty geeky!) to take a look at some of the properties of chromium and molybdenum. They happen to be part of the “transition metals”. If you view the Periodic Table of the Elements, these metal elements are purposely set apart as a “block” in the middle section, where the Table takes a “dip” in the number of rows. Their placement there has to do with their unique electron arrangements. Many of our most useful industrial metals, such as iron, copper, titanium, etc., are also transition metals. With chromium and molybdenum having nearly identical electronic arrangements (in the same vertical column, or “group” but just one row apart), this also gives them very similar properties, such as high melting points, high densities, and the ability to form alloys. Chrome-moly steel is one of those alloys. Both chromium and molybdenum on their own can be used to make steel harder, and molybdenum increases strength and corrosion resistance, as well. (I think that those design engineers at KTM know a thing or two about chemistry!)

As mentioned in the video, aluminum is the main component of many frames used in racing. Aluminum is much less dense than steel or chrome-moly steel, and it is, as indicated in the video, its low density that allows an aluminum frame to be very light weight. However, as was also noted, the steel frame is significantly stronger than an aluminum frame, requiring less material. So, as Tim says in the next paragraph, it’s all about balancing the various factors involved…back to you, Tim.

Tim: Like everything in life, balance is key to finding success when engineering a motorcycle frame. It needs to flex enough to soak-up the imperfections of the tarmac on a road or track, but must be rigid enough to compensate for the engine’s power and the machine’s overall weight and consequent stress put on the frame in any given situation. I once heard the engineer who developed the Suzuki GSXR’s frame for many years say that frames need to “bend like a tree” — a very simple yet very apt analogy.

The importance of the frame and suspension on a motorcycle can’t be overstated. The reason so many manufacturers (and high-performance aftermarket components companies) highlight these features and their being adjustable should speak to their level of importance. The bike’s frame is the first line of defense against imperfect roads or surfaces before any of the traditional suspension components start doing their job. Setting your bike up for optimal performance makes all the difference in the world; I can’t tell you how much more natural proper body position feels once you dial in your bike’s settings. This is why professional teams put so much effort and energy into scrutinizing every little detail when setting up a bike for any track, as well as the reason race organizers, direction and officials allow teams to have so much time to make said adjustments. Simply put: horsepower and other specs mean very little without having dialed in the frame (and suspension).

You have this massive collection of connected pieces of metal that are strong enough to house and support a 1000cc race engine, but flexible enough to allow the bike to absorb the tarmac’s bumps and elevation changes in an effort to minimize turbulence as the bike travels. This is just one of many important pieces in the puzzle of finding faster lap-times. Camber and off-camber turns are a wonderful example of the dynamic range these frames possess. The idea of this heavy metal structure flexing under the weight of the machine’s components in addition to the rider’s weight in multiple directions is one of those brilliant achievements we commonly overlook, like microwaves, the Internet and internal combustion engines, in general.

Daphne: I so agree! And as you have explained, engineering a motorcycle, especially a racing motorcycle, is a true engineering feat. It also can’t be overlooked that knowledge of materials, some creativity, artistic ability and plain old-fashioned hard work, go into it, as well.

I was truly excited and fascinated to read former MotoAmerica racer Elena Myers’ blog posted May 18, 2017, on the McGraw Powersports site, where she discusses setting up a race bike. Here’s a quote, referring to “bike build” that highlights how important frames really are – (boldface type and underline added for emphasis)

“It all starts at the race shop. Teams like Monster Energy Yamaha and Yoshimura Suzuki have their own dedicated shop to build and prepare their team’s bikes. At the beginning of the year, sitting on the lifts at the team’s shop are two brand new motorcycles that either came off a showroom floor, or in a crate from the manufacturer. No doubt they are a work of art, but except for the KTM class, no racer is going to race a bike just as it comes from the manufacturer. That baby is going to be torn down to the frame. The engine will be sent off to the engine builder, forks sent off to the suspension builder, and the stock electronics, wheels, brakes, triple clamps, rear shock, exhaust, bodywork, controls and sometimes the tank will all be scrapped in favor of lighter, stronger, and flat out better performance parts.”

So, when all of the other components are sent away for modification, the frame is the one consistent part of the motorcycle that is unaltered.   The trusty frame patiently waits for everything to be bolted back on and testing to begin. (OK, I’ll stop anthropomorphizing now.)

If you’d like to read the whole piece by Elena Myers, please refer to the link below:

I want to sincerely thank Tim Huber for contributing his knowledge, great writing skills, enthusiasm, and passion to this blog. I hope that we can partner for a future post or two. In the meantime, look for his contributions in ESR and other venues and follow him on Twitter (@TimHuberMoto) or Instagram (timhubermoto). It will be worth the read. And, as always, continue to enjoy the ride!

Motorcycles – Without Molecules


I have been busy with some motorcycling fun unrelated to the chemistry of motorcycling, but just as engaging.

Check out my 2-part guest blog on FullThrottleMotorsport, hosted by Emily Macbeth, where I discuss my experience as a first time flag marshall during the MotoGP and MotoAmerica races recently held at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX, USA!

I’ll have another post coming soon (with molecules included) with another guest blogger, discussing tire compounds.  Stay tuned, and in the meantime, remember to continue to enjoy the read and the ride!

Guest blog: Reflections from a First Time Flag Marshal (pt 1)

Guest blog: Reflections from a First Time Flag Marshal (pt 2)

Braking Pad

35Braking 15Pad

The transcript of the dialogue with my guest, Tommy Coleman, follows, and is also embedded as an audio file.  Enjoy, and please leave your comments.  To comment, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click the link symbol in the purple circle on the left hand side of the page. Thank you!

Daphne: For this post it’s my privilege to have as a co-host, Mr. Thomas (Tommy) Coleman, a motorcycle mechanic at GP Motorcycles in San Diego, and a former student of mine, who has taken three semesters of chemistry courses as he pursues his dream of becoming a physician. Our topic is brake pad materials and design.

 Welcome, Tommy! How long have you been working as a motorcycle mechanic at GP and what are your specialties?

Tommy: I’ve been working at the dealership for 16 years now, and nearly all of that time has been spent doing collision repair. Some of the collisions come in from the racetrack, but mostly it’s like street-related losses from sport riding and parking lot tip-overs. My job, ultimately, is to get the bike back in action and make sure it’s 100% functional and safe.

 Daphne: That’s fantastic! You know, you also recently completed three semesters of chemistry and your next step will be Organic Chemistry. What are you looking forward to the most as you continue your studies?

Tommy: Right now I’m doing my best to learn the sciences as if they were like a collective language. I feel like if I gain a basic command of this language, it will help to serve me in taking the MCAT and further, to retain the concepts long-term so I can pretend to my future patients that I am a scientist!

Daphne: Ha!

Tommy: One thing I’m really looking forward to right now is learning organic chemistry. Finally, after all of the calculation-based chemistry courses, the organic chemistry series is more like using my right-brain neural pathways and feeling like a creative person again!

Daphne: Excellent. I know that you’ll do well and I hope you’ll enjoy Organic Chemistry as much as I do. Now, tell me your thoughts on brake pad design, with, let’s say, a comparison of two or three types of brake pads and the differences in their design and the materials from which they’re made.

Tommy: Well, there are two main types of brake pads: there’s organic and then there’s sintered.

I don’t personally have hard data on as far as like, longevity, between the two types – but in my experience, they seem similar in that regard. But I can tell you though, that the organic pads seem softer and the friction material crumbles a lot easier than the sintered pads when you install them like when you have to use a metal object to retract the caliper pistons. That has always given me the impression that the sintered would have to last a lot longer.

Organic brake pads for the rear is probably the best choice because if you’re talking sport riding applications, the capacity for too much rear braking power can be dangerous. An experienced sport rider will sometimes get 100% of their stopping power from front-end braking only. When they do that, the front end will dive and will thus lighten the rear end of the motorcycle. And when that happens while applying the rear brake, even very slightly, the rear tire is prone to locking up and skidding. If this type of skidding is induced while trail braking into a corner, a high side event can be precipitated. That being said, it is almost always better to run organic pads on the rear end of a sport motorcycle.

If you’re riding a Harley, though, I would opt for the sintered rear pad because due to the weight distribution of most cruiser type motorcycles, rear braking can provide a large percentage of the total stopping power, even when under emergency braking situations.

I think in my opinion, the perfect configuration for any sport motorcycle would be a sintered pad in the front with a cast iron rotor, for longevity, and then I would use an organic pad and stock brake rotor for the rear.

Daphne: Cool!

Tommy: Outside of performance stuff, I think one of the coolest things about sintered brake pads is the sound they make while you’re braking. This can be quite audible even with a helmet on covering the ears. Sometimes, with certain kinds of, certain braking systems, the pads will even drag enough to elicit sound at all times while riding the motorcycle.  It’s kind of like a real loud hum or hiss. It’s really neat! So, additionally, there is a visual aspect of a sintered pad that kind of sets them apart from an organic pad. If you wanted to see whether or not your bike is running sintered pads – you didn’t know – you can look at ‘em and look for kind of like a tight knit, uniform appearance of gold speckles in the friction material; it kind of looks like little tiny pieces of gold metal. They would be the sintered type of brake pads. If you have organic pads, they will appear – as sometimes they have little speckles in them, but, sometimes they’re just really overall a really dark, uniform color. And you can kind of look at the pictures that we’re going to put into the blog.

Sintered Brake Pad (above)

Organic Brake Pad (above)

Daphne: Cool! So, your firsthand experience is really interesting, Tommy. I did a little research on the chemistry (and a bit of physics) of the brake pads, and this is what I found:

So, in general, when brake pads are applied, the brake pads contact the moving rotor. The energy due to the rotor’s motion is called “kinetic energy” which is changed to heat (or “thermal”) energy generated by friction (basically, the rubbing of the pads on the rotors). This causes some of the brake pad material to stick to the rotor. Now the “sticky” pads and rotor together are causing “kinetic friction” to slow down and ultimately, as more force is applied, to stop the motorcycle.

I also discovered that sintered pads are sometimes called semi-metallic. They often are a composite material, like a resin, that includes bits of metals such as copper. Those are the metal flecks that you mentioned. You know, recently, certain metals (like copper) have been found to be harmful to the environment, especially to aquatic life, so their use in brake pads is being restricted.

There’s always new cutting edge technology being developed by chemists in the field of materials science to make sure that the safety of the rider and other living creatures is a top priority. In fact, that’s why the other type of brake pad, the organic brake pad variety, also has changed drastically in recent years.

Tommy, you’re probably too young to remember that for many years, most organic brake pads were made of asbestos, a material that is now banned in many applications and is severely limited by laws in some U.S. states (for example, here in California and also in Washington).

Tommy: Actually, I do remember. Exposure to asbestos typically occurs when somebody breathes in small particles of asbestos that are airborne. This can cause certain types of cancers like mesothelioma where, basically, asbestos particles can act like a corkscrew. They’ll drive into biological molecules from which they will remain for many years.

Daphne: Wow! Sure, and from experience, you know that a lot of brake “dust” is generated when organic brake pads contact a metallic brake rotor. Imagine working on a bike that has asbestos pads and breathing that dust on a daily basis! Fortunately, here in California, manufacturers are not allowed to make brake pads with more than 0.1% of asbestos, by weight.

Well, Tommy, I imagine that choosing the right type of brake pads should involve not only what we’ve just highlighted, but also might depend on the specifications of the bike that you’re riding (things like weight, horsepower, top speed, power band, torque curve) and its intended use (like racing, track days, daily commuting or touring) along with the riding surface (public roads, dirt, rally, dual sport, closed circuit road course). Right?

So, can you give us a few tips on which type of brake pads are recommended for some of those applications?

Tommy: I think in general I would advise any novice rider to stick with organic pads as they do provide the best feedback under light braking operation. Additionally, when organic pads are used under emergency braking they will respond more progressively than sintered pads and thus will not throw the rider over the handlebars. However, when riders get more comfortable and sport riding ensues, harder braking applications also occur. This is where a sintered pad can be of benefit. More stopping power and the fact that less lever input is needed to slow the bike down will translate to a more precision feel for a very experienced rider. They can stop on a dime!

 Daphne: Wow! I’ve learned so much from this discussion. I hope that it’s been as interesting to our listeners and readers as it has been to me. I really want to thank you for being part of the blog. It’s been great!

I plan to have more guest spots in the near future. So, everyone stay tuned; keep enjoying the read and the ride!

Tommy: ‘Bye!

Daphne: ‘Bye!

Let’s Take an “Energy” Break!

My last post focused on my favorite inorganic molecule, water. I haven’t forgotten about brake pads, but my co-host is busy starting a new semester and writing essays for admission to universities, thus, that topic has temporarily come to a grinding halt. (It’s ok to groan.)

In the meantime, I thought that I could let you in on a secret (ingredient, that is) and discuss my favorite organic molecule, caffeine!

Now, before you think that I’ve gone “off topic” and left motorcycles out of the equation, just think about how many times that you have seen the logo of an energy drink on a motorcycle racer’s leathers, helmet, fairing, etc. Or, for that matter, at a race track on billboards, bridges, or even as part of the title of a circuit in Austria! Aha! What is the main ingredient in most energy drinks? That’s right – my favorite organic molecule – 1,3,7-trimethylpurine-2,6-dione. (No wonder we chemists mostly refer to it by its common name, caffeine. That’s a mouthful!)

Being a “baby boomer”, I tend to get my caffeine “fix” from my two cups (approximately 16 fluid oz. or 475 milliliters, mL) of coffee each morning. That’s about 300 milligrams (mg) of caffeine, depending on the brew. (I like mine strong; that’s why they call our generation the “coffee achievers”, I guess.)

So, if “boomers” are the coffee achievers, then perhaps the folks from Gen X, Gen Y, and the “millennials” could be referred to as the “energy drink dynamos”! They typically tend to drink more of those types of beverages than they do coffee. However, a 16 oz energy drink (like the one that causes you to grow feathery appendages, or the one that might be in a scary creature feature), contains only about 160 mg of caffeine; just a little over half that of my two cups o’ joe. To be as dynamic, they’ll just have to drink two cans of their favorite energy drink, then.

So, is caffeine the secret to the “energy” you get from an energy drink or a cup of coffee? No, not really. Caffeine acts on certain sites (receptors) in the brain that normally are activated by the molecule adenosine. When adenosine molecules build up over time, they create a chain of events that make you begin to feel drowsy. Caffeine molecules are similar in structure to adenosine, so that they effectively block the action of adenosine but do not trigger the same effect. (It’s kind of like having a key that fits into your bike’s ignition but won’t actually engage the starter.)   Caffeine molecules temporarily keep you from feeling sleepy and they also cause other molecules to be released into the brain that stimulate the central nervous system and give you that feeling of being alert and energized!

Caffeine, then, makes you more alert and is actually known to temporarily increase performance on certain tasks. However, the majority of energy drinks have another ingredient that contributes much more to the “rush” that people describe after imbibing their beverage of choice. That ingredient is good old-fashioned sugar! Each 16 oz energy drink typically has about 30 grams of sugar that provides 110 Calories of “energy”! I don’t plan to sermonize, but those calories are of the type that the American Heart Association (AHA) and other medical related groups refer to as “empty” calories. They give you a very quick energy boost (that sugar “rush”) but are metabolized rapidly and thus may leave you feeling tired and “drained” of energy a few hours later. Also, that 30 grams of sugar is already over the AHA daily limit recommended for women (24 grams) and pushing the limit for men (36 grams).

Don’t worry. I’m not going to criticize anyone’s nutritional habits or choice of beverage. I am a firm believer in “all things in moderation” and allowing people to make their own choices. Before you do so, just be sure that you know as much as possible about that choice and whether or not it’s right for you. If you want to explore some good links that I found enlightening, see below:

See you on the road or at the track! I’ll be the one drinking the … H2O.


Water — A Very Cool Story!

As I stated in my last post, water is my favorite inorganic molecule! It is so simple, yet it has extremely unique properties. For example, as you well know, ice floats in liquid water. However, that’s not the case for the solid vs. liquid forms of most substances, inorganic or organic. Why’s that? Well, it goes back to the physical property of density. The density of solid ice is less than that of liquid water because the amount of molecules that are “packed” into a certain amount of space is less for ice than for liquid water; that makes ice less dense, and it floats. (Thank goodness, as there would otherwise be no ice-skating on frozen lakes and ponds in the winter.)

But that’s enough about ice; brrr! We don’t want our motorcycles’ engines to be quite that cold, but we do want them to be kept cool so that they don’t overheat while we are at idle or while touring, commuting, racing, etc.

In general, engine cooling occurs in one of two ways, air or liquid cooling. The vast majority of modern sport and race bikes are liquid cooled, with the most common liquid being (you guessed it) water!   (Well, it’s not usually pure water, but we’ll touch on that shortly.) There can be some disadvantages to water-cooled engines. In brief, there are more parts to leak or fail, such as hoses and water pumps that are needed to keep the water circulating around the outside of the cylinders and cylinder heads (in the “water jacket”). Nevertheless, water is plentiful and it has another fabulous physical property that is unique in comparison to other similar molecules. It has a very high specific heat capacity.

A high what? It’s okay if you aren’t familiar with this term. It’s fairly simple to understand. Specific heat capacity is how much heat energy a substance must absorb to raise one gram of that substance by a single degree Celsius. Looked at another way, if a substance has a high specific heat capacity, then a one degree temperature change results in more heat being absorbed for the same amount of material, compared to a substance with a low specific heat capacity. For example, it takes about four times as much heat energy to raise the temperature of a gram of water from 20-21°C (or from 45-46°C), as it does to effect that temperature change for a gram of aluminum or air. Aha! While air has the advantage of being all around your engine, it can’t absorb the amount of heat energy that water can to keep your engine within a safe operating temperature. And air only circulates if you are in motion or it’s windy. That’s not so great out in the desert as you are idling and waiting for your rally race to begin.

Speaking of desert riding, there are both hot and cold temperature extremes in which even our fantastic water molecule can’t do its job. At 100°C, water boils and at 0°C, it becomes ice. So, that’s where anti-freeze comes in handy. In fact, anti-freeze (often, but not always, the compound ethylene glycol) when mixed with water actually lowers the freezing point and raises the boiling point. That’s a pretty “cool” effect. The chemistry behind these physical changes of the properties of the mixture compared to pure water has to do with the general principal of “colligative” properties of substances.

[You can learn more about that at the HyperPhysics site,]

When I asked my husband why it took him almost 30 years before he owned a water-cooled bike, the answer was basically due to the simplicity of the air-cooled engines. In fact, his first water-cooled motorcycle had a water pump failure while we were riding California’s Highway 9 through the Santa Cruz Mountains. So, why did he encourage me to purchase a water-cooled motorcycle as my second ride?

Well, I wanted more horsepower for street riding, which meant that I needed an engine with either a greater displacement or one of similar displacement that could run a higher compression ratio. I chose the latter, and that required it to be water-cooled, due to the higher engine operating temperature. I was happy. I had a bike with similar size and weight, but I could get more “bang for the buck”.

It’s still true that air-cooled engines are simpler to maintain if you are a do-it-yourself kind of person. But if you have a good mechanic, or your own shop, then why not give water-cooling a try?

Speaking of mechanics, my next post will feature a guest co-host and former student of mine who is a certified motorcycle mechanic. We’ll be talking brake pads. Oh, stop!

Carbon Fiber: Strong, Light and “Organic”?

Carbon fiber has been used in many applications because of several of its important features such as its strength and lightness. Those characteristics will be explored in this post but the chemist in me must first address the nature of carbon and carbon containing compounds.

The term “organic” has most likely become familiar to many of you because of its connection to foods – how foods are farmed, processed, preserved, etc. However, to a chemist, the term organic means the branch of chemistry that involves the study of compounds that contain the element carbon.

My inorganic chemistry colleagues will be the first to remind me that carbon, in its pure form, is not actually considered to be organic because it’s an element, not a compound. Pure carbon takes several forms, including the “lead” in your pencil (graphite form), a lustrous gemstone (diamond form) and some other forms that have been discovered within the past century, such as the fullerenes (usually 60-70 carbon atoms arranged in a 3-D structure similar to a soccer ball or geodesic dome, thus, affectionately known as “Bucky balls” after Buckminster Fuller).

So, is carbon fiber organic? The answer is — it depends on the context! The website “How Products are Made” ( explains the composition of and process for making carbon fiber, as follows:

“A carbon fiber is a long, thin strand of material about 0.0002-0.0004 in (0.005-0.010 mm) in diameter and composed mostly of carbon atoms. The carbon atoms are bonded together in microscopic crystals that are more or less aligned parallel to the long axis of the fiber. The crystal alignment makes the fiber incredibly strong for its size. Several thousand carbon fibers are twisted together to form a yarn, which may be used by itself or woven into a fabric. The yarn or fabric is combined with epoxy and wound or molded into shape to form various composite materials.”

Aha! So basically carbon fiber alone is probably best classified as inorganic but those “composite materials” are carbon based compounds (plastics, epoxies, etc.) and are thus classified as organic. Therefore, if you have carbon fiber composite “bits” on your motorcycle, then you can make the claim that your bike is (at least partly) organic! (Try dropping that line while shopping at your local organic food co-op and let me know about the reactions you get!)

OK – back to the matter at hand … so, it’s the way that the fibers are aligned that gives carbon fiber its characteristic strength. This strength, combined with its light “weight” makes it a very desirable material in the manufacture of automobiles and motorcycles, especially in racing applications where both strength and lightness are highly desirable. It is very important to note that carbon fiber and carbon fiber composites have complex characteristics that require multiple measures for comparison with other materials. However, to simplify the issue of lightness, one can compare the simple physical property of the density (the mass per unit volume) of the materials. Steel has a density that is a little more than five times that of a typical carbon fiber composite, and aluminum’s density is almost twice that of such a composite. The bottom line, then, is that the same sized (volume) part made from a carbon fiber composite makes that part about 2-5 times lighter than if an aluminum or steel part is used. That simple, single factor has revolutionized the design and manufacture of motorcycles (and airplanes and autos, too).

Well, before I leave off, I just want to point out that it’s not only professional racers who like to go fast and thus incorporate carbon fiber “bits” into their bikes. Motorcyclists who ride for fun, enjoy the occasional track day, and commute on our motorcycles, appreciate a strong yet light machine. Oh, and carbon fiber also looks pretty stylish and “racy” to those of us who admire the speed and the design of modern bikes. Below are two photos of stock carbon fiber parts on my Ducati Hypermotard 1100 and one of the after market exhaust on my husband’s Hyper. (So far mine is stock, but perhaps the future holds some mod’s for me, too. Oh, and I also recently fell in love with a beautiful helmet that is wrapped in carbon fiber. Drool …)

Phew! All of this “talking” is making me thirsty. Stay tuned for my next post about my favorite inorganic molecule (water) and its connection to motorcycling. It’s very cool. (OK, I heard you groan…)

Please share your comments and photos with me! I’d love to see them.

Motorcycles & Molecules – What’s the Connection?

In 1989, I began my teaching career as a Chemistry Professor at San Diego Miramar College, a two-year community college in San Diego, California, USA.  In 1990, my boyfriend (now husband), Frank, introduced me to his 1987 Ducati 750 F-1.  It was love at first sight, although I had to wait until after my dad passed away in 1994 to get on a motorcycle.  (Dad lost his cousin to a motorcycle accident at 19, and just couldn’t bear seeing his only child on a “death machine”.  I had to respect his wishes.)

In the late summer of 1994, I rode behind Frank on the back of a Harley Sportster that we rented while on vacation in San Francisco.  It was great fun, but I decided almost immediately that I needed to learn to ride.  We were planning to marry and start a family in the next 4-6 years (before I turned 40) and I wanted to learn to ride before then!

Within a year I signed up for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation riding course and the instructor told me that I was “a natural”!  I passed my written exam with 100% correct and my riding exam the next week with flying colors!  I was hooked; I was a “woman on a motorcycle”; woot!

I have loved every minute of riding, but have not had as much seat time as I would have wanted ideally; first, due to my pregnancy and the birth of our son; second, due to a herniated lumbar disc.  I have not ridden much in the last 8 years and have been living vicariously through televised or Internet viewing of every racing series that I can find time to watch, attending as many live racing  events as possible, and following numerous racing series and racers (especially female racers) on Twitter and Instagram.

One of my goals for 2017 is to develop the upper body and core strength to be able to ride my (new to me, last year) 2009 Ducati Hypermotard (currently being kept “warm” by Frank when he’s not riding his own Hyper or my Suzuki DRZ400SM).  Another goal for 2017 is to continue posting to this blog, “Motorcycles and Molecules”, that will interweave my passion for bikes and chemistry.

Stay tuned for my next post about carbon fiber and how a motorcycle enthusiast/organic chemist can appreciate it from two different perspectives.

Ride within your limits; enjoy every ride as if it was your last; and live to ride another day!


Daphne — Twitter/Instagram (@d_figuer)