Putting New Chemicals to Work

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  • COMMERCIAL CHEMICAL DEV

    Putting New Chemicals to Work LAUREN B. HITCHCOCK, The Quaker Oats Co., Chicago, I11.

    The old adage about the world m a k i n g a beaten path to your door i f you can bui ld a better mouse trap must: b e replaced, in reference to better chemical products, by ' T h e successful enterpriser m u s t beat a pa th to the m a r k e t "

    A. NEW chemical becomes commercially available in the United States every day and it could be yours.

    As members and guests of the Commer-cial Chemical Development Association, you are vitally interested in maintaining and increasing your contributions to chemical progress, for the welfare of the country and mankind generally, and there-fore for your own greater satisfaction. Principles which will assist you in the dis-covery and development of useful new chemicals are becoming recognized. Never has there been a higher premium on efficiency in the evaluation of new prod-ucts, for their number is becoming legion.

    The Oil, Paint, and Drug Reporter has been for years the principal bulletin board of market prices for industrial chemicals actively bought and sold generally. I the early 20's it listed a little over 1,000 products. Today the number is around 5,500 (/), a growth of about 4,500 in the chemicals actively sold and quoted on the established commercial scale. In addi-tion, every manufacturer has products commercially available and regularly shipped in quantity, but to a somewhat more limited market, that are not yet listed by OPD. Conservatively esti-mating the latter group at 50% of the listed products, it would number about 2,250, or a total increase in commercially available chemicals in the past 25 years of about 6,750. This corresponds to an average growth of 270 new products per year, but since the curve is sweeping up-ward exponentially, the current rate is well above the average, and must surely be now at least one per day reaching the commercial stage.

    Paralleling this growth in numbers, the value of chemical and allied products turned out annually in the U. S. has in-creased fourfold in the past 25 years (IS), while the entire organic chemical output of th* nation increased 20-fold (7). The U. S. Tariff Commission reported last December more than 6,000 synthetic organic chemicals from over 500 producing companies (IS). Would you care to esti-mate the number of chemicals offered to-day in se mi commercial, pilot plant, or

    experimental quantities? While the ratio of these so-called "research" products to commercial products varies greatly be-tween companies, it is probably conserv-ative to guess 50% as an over-all average. This means 3,400 embryonic chemicals in this country, nol to mention the un-counted curiosities standing on all our laboratory shelves not yet offered even ex-perimentally.

    With over 10,000 products in sight and the number growing each year, how are we going to select out of this horde those most needed in our economy today and tomorrow? Dwiglit Eisenhower said re-cently in an open letter to America's stu-dents (0) "We -Americans know how to produce things faster and betteron the wholethan any other people. But what will it profit us to produce things un-less we know what we are producing them for, unless we know what purpose animates America?"

    Obviously a chemical divining rod is needed badly; one which the director of research might hold in front of a small sample, deflecting in proportion to the potential gold. Or a machine like the Bush Integrator, t ha t electronic brain which will solve automatically in minutes complex mathematical equations requiring years of human labor. If we could "set up" on such a machine several of the measurable properties of a chemical com-pound, together with some economic data and come back after lunch to find the market identified and the annual sales forecast for 10 years, chemical industry would gladly contribute a $100 million for the construction and operation of the first machine.

    William B. Ml , with characteristic aptness and penetration said (): "I have sometimes thought that the most useful and beautiful piece of research that any chemical organisation could possibly undertake would be to work out some formula by which, having put into a test tube a bright idea, together with so many units of labor, so many units of raw ma-terial, so many units of selling cost, so many of market price, of popular favor, of taxation acid, of government interference,

    so many units of this, that, and the other, one might boil the contents for 5 minutes. Then, if the solution turned green, the project should proceed forthwith; if red, abandoned; and, if white, deferred for further study."

    Since neither divining rod nor electronic machine appears to be in immediate pros-pect for the selection of the "chemicals most likely to succeed/1 we are seeking to develop methods, which while much more laborious, premise substantially improved yields at no greater cost, as compared with the rather haphazard procedures characteristic of the period preceding World War I I .

    Why Development Methods? But American chemical industry has

    thrived so greatly since 1920 you may ask why we need to be concerned with our development methods for the future. The answer is first, that our chemical in-dustry was very small prior to World War I, and so for the past 34 years has flour-ished in relatively virgin territory; we had so few chemical materials and needed so many. Second, the number of products available for evaluation has become very large and is growing rapidly. Third, we have gone far toward satisfying the minimum chemical requirements of our economy, and progress from here on will trend more toward improvements in our current industrial arts, toward competition between different products rather than be-tween producers of the same product, even to competition between whole industries, as plastics vs. metals, synthetic vs. natural fibers, and synthetic vs. natural rubber. Fourth, in other fields as well as our own, new technical developments will call forth new chemicals, and will also come about as the result of new chemicals. I t is increasingly difficult to define "chemi-cal industry," now that we must include the petroleum, the food, the packing, the fertilizer, the metallurgical, and other industries, as both consumers and pro-ducers of chemicals.

    Moreover, the emphasis is shifting now to the utilization of the results of research, as distinguished from the first three dec-ades when the cry was for research and yet more research. Few indeed are the research departments in chemical industry over 18 years of age. Operating on an average of 3 % of the gross sales, research departments are overloaded with projects

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  • to the point where they must establish priorities and postpone some desirable work indefinitely. Yet warning notes are already being sounded not to carry re-search forward on a scale which will turn up possibilities faster than the company is financially or physically able to assimi-late them.

    Robert E. Wilson also calls attention to this problem in his recent address before the Industrial Research Institute (15).

    Where this is true, and there are many indications that it is becoming more gen-eral, the remedy may well be to divert a portion of research effort to the utilization of research results, supplementing this force with development and technical oales specialists to the extent necessary and within the means of the company. Other-wise we face the danger of half-used or un-used research contributions, with corre-sponding waste of research funds, demoral-izing reaction on the research staff, and a loss of profitable opportunities which can not be evaluated.

    James Russell Lowell said that "It is not the finding of a thing, but making some-thing out of it after it is found that is of consequence." When research invariably finds many more things than it set out to, or many different things from what it in-tended, Lowell's philosophy charges us with a much greater responsibility in connection with each research project than we antici-pate. We must evaluate the unexpected findings as well, for they may be just as important as the thing we set out for.

    There is an ancient and obscure fable that illustrates this idea rather aptly (5): Once upon a time in the ancient province of Serendip there was an old king who had three sons. As he saw the end of his days approaching, he called the three princes of Serendip together and told them that he wanted to divide the country among them. One was to start out to the east, the second to the west, and the third to the south, each on a mission of discovery. In the re-mote fastnesses of the western section were rumored riches of precious stones, in the east reports of ivory and silk resources, and in the south great potentialities in the form of forest and agricultural wealth. They were to*return two years hence, and the one who had added the most to the wealth and economy of Serendip would receive the north area and the crown as his reward. And with great foresight and wisdom, the old king, realizing that there were surely many other values in his far-flung kingdom of which he had not re-ceived even rumors, specified that any discoveries made by a prince enroute to his goal, either on the highway, or in straying into bypaths, would be included in figuring the total assets added by his expedition.

    This fable has given rise to the principle of serendipity (14) in the field of patent law, but I think it has even broader appli-cation to all chemical exploration and de-velopment. Almost invariably when we set out to make a new product for which we think there is, or may be, an important market, we turn up a number of other compounds on the way, perhaps in making several so-called "false starts," perhaps as intermediates in what finally proves to be the preferred synthesis, or as by-products of either type of excursion. Let us call these more or less adventitious materials "serendiproducts." Someone, perhaps the prince in charge of the expedition, will ex-amine each one and weigh its possible value to the people of the kingdom and to its future wealth as he builds up the report which he hopes will gladden the heart of the old king.

    But is this profitable? Does he not run the risk of getting diverted into side-roads leading to nobody knows what, perhaps dead ends, perhaps strewn with pitfalls, and failing completely to reach his main objective? One rather stern research director compares such tendencies to the foxhound which leaves the pack and runs off in hot pursuit of a rabbit.

    Perkin failed to reach his main objec-tive, which was to synthesize quinine, and so instead we look back today upon the "classic synthesis of mauve, the first artificial dye."

    Serendiproduc ts

    Of the 6,000 or 7,000 chemicals which have become commercially available in the past 25 years, the majority are "serendi-products." Consider part of the great family tree of the American Cyanamid Co., sprung from a campaign which got under way between 1929 and 1935 to diversify calcium cyanamide, and now down to fourth and fifth generation de-scendants. Even calcium cyanamide itself was an unexpected result. In 1898, when Sir William Crookes compared the dwin-dling supplies of Chilean nitrate and guano with that required to produce the food-stuffs for a rapidly growing world popula-tion and warned of resulting famine by 1931 unless new sources of nitrogen fer-tilizer could be found, his frightening pre-diction succeeded in arousing economists throughout the world. The following year, Frank and Caro combined calcium carbide with atmospheric nitrogen, hoping to produce calcium cyanide. To their disappointment, they found their product was invariably calcium cyanamide, but they were luckier than they thought, be-cause it turned out to be a good fertilizer, furnishing both calcium and nitrogen. In addition, calcium cyanamide could be con-verted into cheap cyanides and a host of nitrogen derivatives, such as dicyandi-amide, the intermediate to melamine. "Di Cy" itself has since found unsus-pected markets in the form of guanidines and guanarnine*.

    Much later in tiie vigorous growth of the American Cyanaonid -Co., they manufac-tured and sold dithiophosphoric acids to the mining trade for use as flotation re-agents. When i t became apparent that phosphorus and sulfur were two of the more important elements that could be incorporated in Imbricating oil additives to protect the oil against deterioration under extreme service conditions, the dithio-phosphate mining; reagents were tried for this purpose. They lacked sufficient "oil solubility, but i t was only necessary to turn to longer cliain alcohols and longer chain substituted phenols out of which to make the dithLophosphate esters that would be oil soluble. These proved, after thorough testing, to be quite effective as lubricant additives.

    In 1922, the year ia which William Bell became president, of American Cyanamid, gross sales were under $5 million. In 1939, the company manufactured about 1,000 products CIO), and in 1947 gross sales exceeded $200 million, a growth of over 40-fold in 25 years.

    To those sterling people of single pur-pose who disdaLn bypaths and all their rabbits, who renounce serendiproducts and all their pomp, let us call nt.frftnt.ion to the Union Carbide Co., wlio for years has been mothering that unpredictable offspring, the Carbide & Carbon Chemicals Corp. Consider its improbable beginnings.

    The Presto-Lite Co. originally pur-chased calcium carbide from the Union Carbide Co. froin which to make its acet-ylene. As a protectl-ve measure, Presto-Lite started a Fellowship at the Mellon Institute to discover et new source of acet-ylene. The fellowship developed a proc-ess for the crackdng of petroleum oil by means of lectrodes submerged in the liquid. Products included acetylene, eth-ylene, propylene*, and lesser amounts of other hydrocarbon products. In 1917 the Presto-Lite Co. joined the Carbide family, leaving Curme with his petroleum cracking acetylene process on his hands. He saw in it the possibility of making ethylene if he could find uses for ethylene. Ethylene glycol looked like a good possibility, and a huge market wa-s found as an antifreeze and in dynamite manufacture. In making the glycol, ethylene oxide appeared as an intermediate, aod l>ecame the starting point for ethers of g lycol s u c n *& Carbitol and Cellosolve. The cracking process was developed into a- vapor phase process and eventually the a-cetyl ene, now a by-prod-uct of ethylene,, was separated and has been sold back t o the Presto-Lite division of Carbide for many years. In other words, an alternative process for acetylene led to ethylene and coproducts, and eventually by-product acetylene, which has gone back to the connpany that originally started the reseavrch.

    Another by-puroduct of the acetyle...