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November 2000
Vol. 30, No. 56.
Industrial Chymist

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Our heritage: What is it?

That question was posed to a distinguished panel during the dedication of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s expansive quarters in Philadelphia’s historical district. The responses reminded me of the tale of the blind men describing an elephant on the basis of the part each could touch. But the panel was unanimous in its concern about the failures of chemical professionals to gain public, and concomitantly governmental, trust. On this score, Perkin medalist David Bryan of Union Carbide raised two telling questions. First, he asked which chemical killed more people annually than any other. Think first of the public’s answer, then your own, and then see the answer at the bottom of the page.

Next he said, “Envision this scenario: The world is enjoying all the materials that chemists have created save one—glass. Now imagine that you and your colleagues have discovered glass and want to market it. How will the public value something whose production is so energy-intensive? Will people store food in something made of sand? Would they permit tons of such stuff to be buried in the ground or used in the construction of homes when they learn that it produces deadly sharp shards when it breaks?

All agreed that the sole solution to the polemics of the purveyors of chemophobia is improved education. It was here that I was reminded of an aphorism taught by William E. (Butch) Hanford: “If you want to do something different, you have to do something different.” What we have to do different is attack the continuing, ubiquitous failure to distinguish between science and technology. The panel kept talking about better instruction in “pure” science, when all “Dick and Jane” care about is technology, that is, what gets into the channels of commerce, and what is encountered daily, about which school chemistry has little to say—except for pollution, of course.

And there was the other continuing, ubiquitous semantic question: invention versus innovation, terms used interchangeably by the panelists. When I asked the panel to clarify its uses of these terms, Dexter Baker came up with a differentiation that had served him well as chairman of Air Products. In essence, he said that innovation is the totality of events that lead to a product. Invention may or may not be part of that totality and certainly doesn’t guarantee it.

It was then that Stuart Churchill, emeritus professor of chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, graced us with these words from Igor Stravinsky (1):

Innovation presupposes imagination, but should not be confused with it. For the act of innovation implies the necessity of a lucky find and of achieving full realization of this find. What we imagine does not necessarily take on concrete form and may remain in a state of virtuality; whereas innovation is not conceivable apart from its actually being worked out. Thus, what concerns us here is not imagination in itself, but rather creative imagination: the faculty that helps us pass from the level of conception to the level of realization.

Bioavailability and all that

How solids dissolve is one of those phenomena that’s largely determined by surface morphology and surface/volume ratio. My last encounter with that truism was recalled by my learning of a cute way to control both parameters that is being developed to improve drug delivery. Bradford Particle Design has patented several means to precipitate drugs dissolved in organic solvent by using supercritical CO2 as an “antisolvent” (2). The company claims good morphology control and solvent recovery.

What triggered my thinking was a project in which we had to convert manganese ore into MnCl2, a precursor of an organomanganese candidate to use as a gasoline antiknock agent. Other firms were competing to supply the MnCl2, so I got the bright idea of adjusting the surface of our product to facilitate its reactivity in an organic medium. We spray-dried our stuff so it had lots of stressed, and therefore reactive, surface.

What resonated with that experience and the use of supercritical CO2 in morphology control was the realization that spray-drying a solution in the latter could lead to some unique surface chemistry. Anybody tried that yet?

Incidentally, we did not become the MnCl2 supplier. A customer of our customer did, but that’s another story.


  1. Stravinsky, I. The Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Easy Lessons; Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1942.
  2. Bonner, J. Chem. Ind. 2000, 391.

Ben Luberoff (bjlphd@aol.com) is the Founding Editor of CHEMTECH, predecessor to Chemical Innovation.

The answer: water.

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