NEW FEATS OF Chemical Wizards REMAKE THE WORLD WE LIVE IN (Jul, 1936)
NEW FEATS OF Chemical Wizards REMAKE THE WORLD WE LIVE IN
By ALDEN P. ARMAGNAC
IMAGINE a ball of fiber, weighing only one pound, of so fine a texture that if unrolled it would reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific! This marvel of chemistry, exhibited when American chemists recently assembled at Kansas City, Mo., to compare their achievements, is the latest kind of rayon, or artificial silk. A garment made from it can be hidden in the palm of the hand. To produce it, laboratory workers have gone the silkworm one betterâ€”for it measures one third thinner than natural silk. Improvements in methods of purifying the wood pulp that serves as its raw material, and in the chemical solutions and machinery used in its manufacture, have combined to make its production possible.
As much like Arabian Nights tales read the stories of other feats that chemists here and abroad are accomplishing today. Your home, your clothing, your car, and the whole world about you are benefiting from the wizardry of their touch.
From water in which corn has been steeped during the manufacture of corn starch, they have found, comes a sugar with a strange dual personality. In its pure form it is sweet to the taste, and is being tested clinically as a substitute for ordinary sugar in diets for diabetics. Treat it with nitric acid, however, and it becomes an explosive more powerful than nitroglycerin! It has the advantage that no inert material need be added to prepare it for use; nitroglycerin, a liquid, must be molded with earth to be usable in the form of dynamite, but the “corn dynamite” is naturally a solid. Applications are foreseen for it in quarrying, excavating, and tunneling. As much as 1,-000,000pounds of the sugar, it is estimated, can be recovered annually as a by-product of starch manufacture through a new chemical process devised by Prof. Edward Bartow, president of the American Chemical Society.
BY SEEKING a substitute for air, Dr. J. Willard Hershey of McPherson College, McPherson, Kans., demonstrates that the audacity of chemists knows no bounds. Recently he reported that he had found something better for human lungs than the natural atmosphere!
Air that we breath contains nitrogen, oxygen, and small amounts of helium and other rare gases. Would any other gaseous mixture support life as well? Shutting mice, guinea pigs, cats, and monkeys in hermetically sealed glass jars, Dr. Hershey experimented to see how long he could keep them alive in gases and gas mixtures of every possible variety, constantly supplied through tubes. Pure air, he found, came out second best in his tests! Animals thrived in a mixture of helium and oxygen, which received the highest rating. Sufferers from diseases which cause difficulty in breathing may be the first to benefit from his discovery.
Your motoring habits may be changed in two important particularsâ€”tires and fuelâ€”by new discoveries. Current reports from Germany announce that chemists there have mastered the production of artificial rubberâ€”but American experimenters have already shown the way. A factory at Deep Water Point, N. J., is now producing synthetic rubber at the rate of a million pounds a year. Special properties give it important advantages over natural rubber in many applications, and in time of war, chemists foresee, it might replace the natural product altogether. For the discovery of its basic raw materialâ€”a compound of ordinary acetylene, named vinylacetyleneâ€” Father J. A. Nieuwland of the University of Notre Dame has received the Nichols Medal, one of the highest American honors in chemistry. “This field of research requires greater courage than that of the battlefield,” declared the chemist who made the award. Experts well know the extreme danger of an explosion during experiments with little-known derivatives of acetylene, and Father Nieuwland, fully aware of his peril, risked his life countless times in the tests that led to his success.
MAKING gasoline from coal is an achievement of foreign chemists, and huge plants for the purpose have recently been set in operation in England and Germany. Meanwhile, in this country, the idea of blending gasoline with alcohol for motor fuel has aroused chemists to lively controversy.
Advocates of the plan maintain that it would enable farmers to dispose profitably of huge quantities of surplus farm products such as corn, which would be chemically converted into alcohol. Blending the product with a considerably larger proportion of gasoline, they assert, would yield a motor fuel at least as good as pure gasoline, if not actually superior in economy and power output. While chemists are not in agreement as to the value of the proposed blend, U. S. Bureau of Standards experts hold that it would be a satisfactory motor fuel, with one important proviso â€”that, for best results, engines should be especially designed for its use. At any rate, motorists will soon have an opportunity to judge for themselves, for as this is written a plant is being opened at Atchison, Kans., to produce 10,000 gallons of alcohol from corn daily. The product is to be used to produce blended motor fuel, which is expected to sell at the same price as ordinary gasoline.
Photographers may benefit by an accident that recently befell four young research chemists, engaged in preparing a batch of photographic emulsion. To their surprise, printing paper coated with the emulsion produced black where the white parts of the picture should have been, and white where they expected black. Investigating, they found that they had stumbled upon a formula for a new kind of material for photographers, which permits direct photographs to be made, without requiring the production of a negative as an intermediate step. The new emulsion is declared suitable for films, plates, or paper, and is developed by standard methods and solutions.
New metals are emerging from the laboratories of modern alchemists. Superior blades for safety razors are promised by a steel alloy developed especially for the purpose by chemists of the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research at Pittsburgh, Pa. Other combinations of metals have recently yielded a tungsten alloy that replaces lead as a shield against the powerful rays of radium; an alloy of iron, aluminum, nickel, and cobalt from which the most powerful permanent magnets in the world are now being made; and stainless-steel alloys, combining beauty with strength, for building railway cars. So bewildering is the variety of new alloys constantly being developed that chemists themselves are hard put to it to keep up with advances made by their own colleagues. To index what is known today about iron and steel alloys alone, in handy form for reference, the Engineering Foundation of New York City has put 150 men to work on a monumental search of the whole world’s technical literatureâ€”an undertaking believed to be unprecedented in scientific history.
STRANGE as it may seem, one of the metals about which chemists know the least is iron itself! Pure iron is almost a myth. That the iron we know bears little resemblance to it, however, was demonstrated not long ago when experimenters produced the purest specimens on record, by heating them in hydrogen flames. The iron they obtained does not rust in pure oxygen and water, even after months of exposure.
Unfamiliar colors will greet the eye in the strange new world being created by scientific investigators. British chemists recently announced the discovery of a new blue coloring pigment, for use in paints and printing inks. Until now, ultramarine, discovered in 1704, and Prussian blue, discovered in 1826, have enjoyed a virtual monopoly for the production of this shade. Neither, however, has possessed all the qualities prized in a pigmentâ€”brightness, strength of coloring, and fastness to light and heat, as well as to acids, alkalies, and other solvents. The new pigment, christened “monas-tral fast blue,” is hailed as satisfying every one of these tests. In addition, it is declared the nearest approach yet made to an ideal shade of blue for color printing. Random examples like these show how the triumphs of chemists are affecting every branch of life. Some of the most remarkable transformations wrought by their magic, however, may occur right in your own home.
Wooden furniture, for instance, may become out of date before long. Things that have always been made of wood or metal â€”radio cabinets, bottle caps, bowling pins â€”are now being fashioned from synthetic materials known as plastics, created in the chemist’s test tube. That, experts say, is only a beginning. Imagine tables, chairs, and beds made of these glistening plastics, easy to keep spotless and difficult to scratch or mar! At this very moment, only the slightly higher cost of the synthetic materials stands in the way of their universal use. If it can be pared down so that plastics can compete with wood and metal on a price basisâ€”and this is quite within the realm of possibility, according to William Haynes, New York chemical expertâ€”their possible applications become startling. “Just one industry I can find,” another prominent chemist, Dr. John E. Teeple of New York, remarks jestingly, “where the disappearance of wood might be a horrible calamity. I cannot see how the manufacture of antique furniture could continue without wood!”
EVEN the supremacy of glass as a material for windows is threatened by new transparent materials of the plastic type. While their value for use in the home remains open to speculation, they have a number of desirable qualities. One is their flexibility, permitting them to be bent into curved shapesâ€”a feature that has already led to their adoption for airplane windows.
Will steam heat go into the discard one of these days? Chemists are developing a preparation to take the place of steam in a heating system.
Its base is a white, flaky compound known as diphenylâ€”a chemical relative of synthetic geranium perfumeâ€”which turns to vapor at about 500 degrees F. Since it holds more heat than steam, and can be raised to a greater temperature without developing dangerous pressure, the new heat-carrying material has already found industrial applications.
HOME refrigeration, too, has come in for attention from the chemical engineer. Ice boxes employing “dry ice,” or solidified carbon dioxide, as a refrigerant have recently been introduced, particularly for use in hot regions of the country where ice factories are remote and where electricity is not available. The dry ice is placed in an insulated inner compartment so that it will not withdraw heat too rapidly, as its temperature of 109 degrees F. below zero would otherwise freeze solid the whole contents of the refrigerator. Its chilling effect, transmitted through metal fins on the compartment, can be regulated to keep the ice-box temperature within the desired limits. A novel advantage resulting from evaporation of the refrigerant is the atmosphere of carbon dioxide formed within the ice box, which is said to retard bacterial growth and also to check the spread of food odors.
Frying pans of glass with superior heat-resisting qualities, for cooking on top of the stove, are the result of a recent chemical improvement upon the glass used in standard oven ware. Behind this development lies the story of chemists who turned cooks in a Corning, N. Y., laboratory to test glassware made from as many as 1,500 promising new formulas. Tons of potatoes and countless hamburger steaks sizzled in their dishes. Hungry dogs, more pleased than the scientists themselves with some of the first results, got many of the meals. Some of the food was burned blackâ€”purposelyâ€”to see what the glassware would stand. Eventually the experimenters arrived at the formula they were seeking, which is embodied in the glassware that has just reached the market.
No article used about the home is too inconsequential to attract the interest of skilled chemists. One has just produced a “nonskid” floor wax by impregnating ordinary wax with rubber, preventing falls on a freshly polished floor. Another has improved cedar chests by perfecting a transparent exterior coating which retains both the natural oil of the wood and its moth-repelling aroma. Thus, even to the smallest details, chemists are helping to make the world a better place to live in.