Popular Science Monthly/Volume 66/March 1905/Some Present Problems in Technical Chemistry
|SOME PRESENT PROBLEMS IN TECHNICAL CHEMISTRY.|
By Professor W. H. WALKER,
MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, BOSTON, MASS.
TECHNICAL chemistry may be regarded as the performance of a chemical reaction or series of reactions on a scale sufficiently large and by a method sufficiently economical to enable the product to be sold at a profit. The problems which confront the investigators in this field of endeavor may, therefore, be divided into two classes according as they pertain to the chemical reaction involved, or to the process to be employed in carrying on this reaction. The first division is pure chemistry, even though the results of the solution be utilitarian; the second is chemical engineering. Although in the program of this congress the utilitarian side of chemistry is widely separated from the subject of general chemistry, there is in reality no dividing line between the two. It would be difficult to find an investigator in the field of pure science who does not hope, and indeed believe, that the results of his labor will at some time prove of value to humanity; may ultimately be utilitarian. On the other hand, few if any chemical manufacturers would admit that in solving their chemical problems they do not utilize the most scientific methods at their command. The research assistant is in the last analysis utilitarian; while the successful chemical engineer is preeminently scientific.
Probably in no country have the problems confronting-the chemical industries been so successfully met as in Germany; yet Germany does not excel in chemical engineers. Engineering enterprises—mechanical, civil and electrical, as well as chemical—are carried on as successfully in England and America as they are in Germany; and still the latter leads the world in her chemical manufactures. The explanation for this lies in the fact that Germany pays the greatest attention to the first class of problems, as above divided, and recognizes that pure chemistry is inseparably connected with her industries; that the application of new facts and principles follows rapidly when once these facts and principles are known. Most of the problems in technical chemistry are first considered problems in pure chemistry and studied in accordance with recognized methods of modern research by men fully trained in pure science. If these men are also chemical engineers, the ultimate solution of the problem is proportionately hastened; but they are first of all men trained in the spirit and methods of scientific research.
In general, an investigation may be prompted by either or both of two incentives; either by the pleasure to be derived from achievement and the love of scientific study for itself, or by the hope that from the investigation some immediately useful result may be obtained. Yet between the product of the first motive—pure chemistry—and the ultimate result of the second—technical chemistry—a difference does not necessarily exist. The fact that a piece of work is undertaken and carried on with the predetermined purpose of applying the results to a practical or commercial end does not in itself render it any the less a study in pure chemistry. The method of thought and action employed will be that of the investigator in pure science whatever the ultimate object may be. To make the result of the work an achievement in technical chemistry an important contribution must then be made by the chemical engineer, in order that the conditions making up the definition of the term 'technical chemistry' as already stated may be fulfilled.
In trying to point out, therefore, some of the important problems in technical chemistry, no attempt will be made to distinguish between the part which must first be played by pure chemistry in their solution, and that which will still remain to be done by the chemical engineer to make this contribution utilitarian.
There is always a tendency to measure the importance of a subject by the extent of one's knowledge of it and the depth of the interest one has in it. In order, therefore, that we may obtain a proper perspective, we must consider a problem important in proportion as it affects the greatest number of people; of moment according as the results of its solution will be far-reaching in their effects, or be but of local benefit.
From this point of view, the first industry to demand attention is the manufacture of fertilizers. In the last ten years the product of this industry in the United States alone has increased from 1,900,000 tons to 2,900,000 tons, an increase of over 50 per cent. This increase is probably more marked in America than in the older countries of Europe, because the necessity of replenishing the virgin soil was there reached long ago, while with us it is only begun. The magnitude of the industries which are dependent directly or indirectly upon agricultural products is so well recognized that it needs no discussion here. That the supply of crude material from which plant life derives its nourishment should be maintained is therefore a source of responsibility for the present as well as for future generations. Of this as of every great industry it may be said that the supply of raw material for to-morrow is a problem for to-day.
Dr. H. W. Wiley, of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, has pointed out the surprisingly large amount of potash, phosphoric acid and nitrogen which is yearly taken up by the agricultural crops alone. The average percentage of ash in all the important crops has been accurately determined and their percentage composition in respect to potash and phosphoric acid is known. In addition to this we have a satisfactory knowledge of the percentage of albuminous matter contained in the more important agricultural products. From these figures and the reports of the U. S. Department of Agriculture we can calculate the amount of potash, phosphoric acid and nitrogen consumed each year. Allowing a value of four cents a pound for potash, five cents for phosphoric acid and twelve cents for nitrogen, the total value of these ingredients for a single year amounts to the enormous sum of $3,200,000,000. To be sure, this is not all removed from the farm and lost to the soil; but that which remains in the form of straw and manure is but a small percentage of the whole. Straw is generally burned, while the soluble salts of the manure heaps are often allowed to leach out and go to waste. When, in addition, we consider the terrible waste involved in the modern methods of sewage disposal, where, instead of being returned to the soil, these valuable constituents are carried to the ocean, the net loss of these chemicals can be easily appreciated.
Of these three most important ingredients making up a fertilizer for general purposes, phosphoric acid alone seems to be at hand in practically inexhaustible quantities. Slag rich in phosphoric acid from certain metallurgical processes is already much used as a source of this material. Fresh deposits of phosphate rock of such enormous extent are being brought to light almost every day that our supply of this material may give us little immediate concern.
Although the Strassfurt region of Germany may continue to ship undiminished quantities of potash salts, the second important ingredient of a fertilizer, the world's supply can not be said to be on a perfectly satisfactory basis until independent sources are developed. In the year 1902 the value of the potash salts imported into the United States amounted to four and a half million dollars. The recovery of potash from wood ashes, while once an important industry, must diminish as the value of hard wood increases. While there are doubtless natural beds of potassium salt still to be discovered, the time seems rapidly approaching when we should render more readily available the great amount of potassium distributed throughout the mineral kingdom. Rhodin had already accomplished much towards this end when he showed that feldspar could be made to yield the greater part of its potash when it was heated with lime and common salt. Clark has found that when the mineral leucite with its 21 per cent, potassium oxide is heated with ammonium chloride, the potassium is converted into chloride and is easily separated from the melt. If this reaction could be extended to orthoclase and the ammonia recovered by treatment with lime, the enormous quantity of potash contained in this mineral would be at our service.
It is, however, to the supply of available nitrogen that the greatest importance attaches. The sodium nitrate producing countries of South America exported last year 1,300,000 tons, a large percentage of which came to America. Egypt and the southwestern United States have nitrate deposits, but of their extent and value little is as yet known. Of the other form of available nitrogen, ammonia, our main supply is at present from the destructive distillation of coal. Although the introduction of by-product coke ovens has increased this supply, our domestic production is now not over 40,000 tons a year.
In the atmosphere, however, we have a never-failing source of nitrogen which needs only to be converted into other forms to be of the greatest value. It is interesting to note that even as long ago as 1840 this same problem was the subject of considerable experimentation and the basis of several technical processes. In this year there was erected in France a plant for the manufacture of potassium ferrocyanide which depended on the atmosphere for the supply of nitrogen, and which at one time turned out almost a ton of product per day. From this time until the present, the utilization of this inexpensive and inexhaustible supply of raw material has been an attractive field and has held the attention of many investigators. It had long been known that while carbon and nitrogen alone could not be made to unite, the union was effected when these elements were brought together in the presence of a strong alkali. The technical difficulties in the way of successfully applying this reaction seem to have been the rapid destruction of the retorts and the loss of alkali through volatilization. With the advent of cheap electricity and the consequent development of the electric furnace, this idea was made the basis of further work. The destruction of the retorts was largely overcome by generating the heat within the apparatus rather than without. When a non-volatile alkali was used to eliminate the loss from this source and a higher temperature maintained, it was found that a carbide was formed as.an intermediate product and that nitrogen readily reacted with the carbon thus held in combination.
Among the investigators who have thus far taken advantage of this reaction may be mentioned the Ampere Chemical Company, located at Niagara Falls, and the group of men represented by the Siemens and Halske Company, of Berlin. The former first produces a carbide of barium and then converts it into barium cyanide by passing over it air from which the oxygen has either been removed or converted into carbon monoxide. Robert Bunsen long ago showed that by using steam the nitrogen in an alkaline cyanide may be converted into ammonia. In this case barium oxide would be left to be returned to the furnace and to continue the cycle. When advantage is taken of the process discovered by Professor Ostwald, by which ammonia is converted into nitric acid through the medium of a catalyzing or contact agent, the production of nitrates by way of the cyanide reaction is easily foreseen.
The Siemens and Halske Company prepared in addition to cyanide and ammonia by use of the carbide-nitrogen reaction a new compound in technical chemistry, calcium cyanamide. In contradistinction to cyanides the nitrogen of this compound is available for plant food and can take the place of the more common nitrogen salts in commercial fertilizers. The technical difficulties in the way of the economic application of these processes are doubtless very great, but when one considers the advance which has been made in the last five years he has ample reasons to believe that it will not be a great while before the synthetic preparation of the cyanides, ammonia and nitric acid from atmospheric nitrogen will be on a commercial basis.
The old reaction by which nitrogen and oxygen were made to unite through the agency of a high potential electric discharge has been made the basis of a process for the manufacture of nitric acid by the Atmospheric Products Company, operating at Xiagara Falls. For agricultural purposes it is proposed to absorb the nitric acid thus formed in milk of lime and so produce an exceptionally cheap product. There still remains much to be done before this can be called a technical process.
A very much less technical, but so far as our knowledge at present goes, a more promising method of fixing atmospheric nitrogen in the form of nitrates, is through the agency of bacteria. While it is true that one group of bacteria has the power of breaking down nitrates with the production of nitrogen gas, there are other groups which are equally able to absorb elementary nitrogen with the production of nitrates. A great deal of excellent work has recently been done by the U. S. Department of Agriculture, with the result that cultures for the artificial inoculation of the soil may now be obtained in considerable quantity. It has been found that these bacteria when grown upon nitrogen-free media may be dried without losing their high activity. When immersed in water they are easily revived. A dry culture similar to a yeast-cake and of about the same size can thus be sent out and used to prepare a fluid in which the original nitrogen fixing bacteria may be multiplied sufficiently to inoculate a number of acres of land. The amount of material thus obtained is limited only by the quantity of the nutrient water solution used in increasing the germs. Field experiments have shown the wonderful activity of these bacteria in fixing atmospheric nitrogen and the splendid crops which may be grown upon what would otherwise be almost sterile soil.
In this one problem of our future supply of available nitrogen for agriculture as well as general manufacturing purposes, we note the aid which technical chemistry draws from the other departments of natural science. The electrical engineer and the biologist have already contributed a great share to its solution. There remains, however, no small amount of work for the technical chemist to perform before the desired end is reached.
In an address on 'Chemical Problems of To-day,' delivered by Victor Meyer in 1889, the author pointed out that, although the synthesis of starch from carbon dioxide and water was a result not to be expected in the near future, yet, he says, 'we may reasonably hope that chemistry will teach us to make the fiber of wood the source of human food' While we do not consider that this is a problem of technical chemistry for the present, the possible use of cellulose as a raw material from which to make food renders more acute a problem which is to-day clamoring for solution, namely, the preservation of our forests. The influence which the forests of a country have upon its civilization is a topic which has been much discussed of late. That there is an intimate relation between the woodland of a district and the regularity of its rainfall, the absence of floods and freshets and the general climatic conditions, there seems now to be little doubt. But the consumption of forest products continues to increase far out of proportion to the growth of new timber. The substitution of other raw material in chemical industries which now use wood for this purpose becomes therefore an economic problem for the solution of which the chemist is held responsible.
The production of cellulose from raw materials other than wood is the first important factor in the chemical side of the question. The weight of wood consumed for the production of chemical fiber for the year 1902 was something over two million tons, while one and a half million tons were used for the manufacture of ground wood pulp. While from some points of view our American forests are sufficient to supply the demand for many years to come, it does not excuse us for the terrible waste of cellulose in forms other than wood which we are constantly suffering.
On our flax fields of the west we are annually burning thousands of tons of flax straw which contains a large percentage of cellulose in a most valuable form. Considerable work has already been done on the utilization of this straw in the production of fiber and some success has met the efforts of the By-Products Paper Company now located at Niagara Falls. There is, however, still much room for improvements. In the straw of our wheat and oats crops, which is to-day largely destroyed on the fields, we have another source of cellulose of which we avail ourselves but little. In Europe the production of straw fiber is carried on to some extent, but is capable of great extension should sufficient economy in the process for treating it be introduced. The high content of silica has ever been a source of loss, owing to the fact that the formation of sodium silicate prevents the recovery of the soda now used in the digestion of the straw.
By far the greatest loss of valuable cellulose, however, is found in waste cornstalks and in bagasse, or in the sugar-cane after the soluble portions have been removed. There is a close analogy between these two products in that there is associated with the woody portion carrying the cellulose a large amount of non-usable pith. Rapid progress has been made in the utilization of both of these raw materials within the last few years and the indications are that before long they will prove a source of value rather than a nuisance as is frequently the case at present. The market price of bleached cellulose fiber is to-day from two and a half to three and a half cents per pound. Starch may be bought for from two and a half to four cents, according to its source. It is seen, therefore, that there is little manufacturing margin in the conversion of cellulose into starch or sugar until the cost of the former has been considerably reduced. This can come about only through new processes designed to operate more economically than those at present in use and to use as raw products the cellulose at present wasted on the fields.
It would seem that a more economical step towards the production of food from wood might be through its ligneous or non-cellulose constituents. For every ton of cellulose produced there must be used two tons of wood; that is, an equal weight is wasted. In the soda process as now conducted these non-cellulose materials are burned to recover the soda which is held in combination with them. In the sulphite process this enormous amount of material, aggregating for America alone in a single year almost one million tons, finds its way into the water courses and ultimately to the ocean. This organic matter is most complex in its composition, but consists largely of one class of substances closely allied to the sugars, and another class having the general characteristics of tannins. That these sugar like substances could be made to yield a food material is from their nature quite possible; so far as we know, however, but little has been accomplished in this direction. A number of uses have from time to time been proposed for this waste, but as yet none has been of practical value. Among the more promising may be mentioned a preparation to be used in tanning leather, a sizing material for paper and. a substitute for dextrine in calico printing and as an adhesive.
In addition to our annual supply of 4,000,000 tons of paper stock, we depend upon the forests for our supply of acetic acid, methyl alcohol and acetone. In countries where there is not the exorbitant tax upon fermented mash that exists in the United States there would seem to be an opening for a process for the production of acetic acid from alcohol in a more concentrated form than can be produced through the aid of mycoderma aceti. It would, it is true, in the end depend upon the supply of fermentative material; but there are being wasted every year in the semi-tropical countries many thousand tons of crude molasses that could thus serve an economic end. For many uses acetic acid may be displaced by formic acid, a compound which admits of synthesis from carbon and water. The farther this substitution is carried the more acetic acid will be available for the manufacture of acetone and other compounds where the acetyl group is a necessity.
Concurrent with the disappearing forests is the increasing scarcity of vegetable tanning material. Hemlock and oak bark, sumac and chestnut wood are still the most important sources of tannins, although quebracho from South America and canaigre from Mexico and Texas are daily playing a more important part. The introduction of chrome tannage for upper leathers had a marked influence upon this industry inasmuch as it furnished a cheap substitute for those finer tanning materials which were constantly increasing in price. A mineral tannage for heavy hides, along the lines so successfully followed for upper leather has, however, not been developed; the product lacks the rigidity and firmness combined with the flexibility which is characteristic of oak or hemlock tanned leather. There must exist methods for supplying to the hide, materials having an action analogous to these vegetable tannins; it remains but to seek them out in order that a new and profitable industry may be established.
It is thus seen that technical chemistry can do much for the conservation of our forests; along many lines the time for action has already come.
When the consumption of a given article is in excess of its supply the market price must rise. In accordance with this law we have seen the price of crude India rubber more than double in the last few years. The consumer of the finished article must pay this advance or accept an inferior grade of goods. Generally he does both.
The tropical forests of Africa and South America still contain untold quantities of India rubber; but so does sea water contain gold. For manufacturing purposes both might as well not exist. The only human beings that can live under the conditions obtaining in these tropical jungles are the natives; but the distance to which the natives can transport the rubber is comparatively limited. Although rubber-bearing trees are now being cultivated in the more easily inhabitable portions of the tropics, it will be a long time before this source of supply is an important factor in the market. And thus it comes that the synthesis of india rubber presents to-day, from at least the technical side, one of the most promising problems in chemistry.
The investigation of india rubber is greatly handicapped by the fact that it exists only in the colloidal state. The difficulties are perhaps more largely physical than chemical; that is, it is the molecular aggregation rather than the atomic structure of the individual molecule which presents such almost insurmountable difficulties. There are no clearly defined melting points, boiling points, tendencies to crystallize or any of those means of separating mixtures or characterizing individuals which aid in the investigation of most organic compounds. The researches of Weber and Harris, resulting in the establishment of the much needed methods of analysis, have been of incalculable advantage to all those working with either the raw or the manufactured article. In many directions also the paths along which important results are to be obtained have already been blazed by these investigators. Probably no other field presents such difficulties of manipulation in addition to such profound problems of organic chemistry as does the investigation of india rubber; but on the other hand few such unlimited opportunities for valuable work are offered in the field of chemical research.
Under the general head of utilization of trade wastes may be considered a large number of technical problems the solution of which would not only add wonderfully to the economic resources of the country, but would aid in the solution of that much vexed question, river pollution. We have already mentioned the soda and sulphite liquor resulting from the manufacture of cellulose fiber from wood. Of almost equal importance is the waste yeast which is daily produced in the brewing of beer and ale. An extract of this yeast has a food value as shown by analysis equal to the best meat extracts. As the quantity of yeast allowed to go to waste is from one to two pounds for every barrel of beer brewed, we can form estimates of the great amount of this material at hand. Arsenic sulphide from the purification of crude acids, grease from the washing of wool, the utilization of city garbage and many other problems of this order are everywhere in evidence. It is not within the compass of this discussion to mention these almost innumerable sources of manufacturing waste which exist in the chemical industry; but keen competition on the one hand and the state boards of health on the other are constant stimuli to increased effort towards their utilization.
Although I have endeavored to select the above examples of unsolved problems with a view to touching upon as large a portion of the field of technical chemistry as possible, I could doubtless with equal propriety have selected others. We can simply mention such important questions as the hygienic preservation of food, the flameproofing and preservation of wood, prevention of the corrosion of structural iron and steel, the great problems of chemical metallurgy, et cetera. We must, however, note some of the more recently developed forces and phenomena of nature, the application of which to technical chemistry forms problems for to-day. One of the most important of these is electricity. Thanks to the triumphs of modern electrical engineering we are now able to call to our aid unlimited amounts of this agent at a cost comparable to that of other forms of energy. Possibly the simplest, though not the earliest, method of utilizing electrical energy in chemical processes is in supplying the heat necessary to carry on a reaction directly at the point where the reaction takes place. In a number of chemical industries, for example, the manufacture of phosphorus, it was previously necessary to produce within thick walled retorts a very high temperature. The result was that a great deal of heat was wasted, the retorts deteriorated very rapidly and the reaction was carried on at a low efficiency. By using an electric furnace for the manufacture of phosphorus these expensive retorts are eliminated. In addition much cheaper raw materials may be used, the process is made continuous and a high efficiency obtained. By the substitution of electrical heating for the closed retorts previously used in the preparation of carbon bisulphide the manufacture of this chemical has been placed upon an entirely new basis. The economy introduced by supplying the heat at the point where the union of carbon and sulphur takes place is clearly indicated by the low price at which this material can now be sold and its enormously increased consumption.
With the ability to obtain temperatures far above that which is possible by the ordinary combustion of fuel there was opened up a new field in synthetic chemistry. Reactions which it was impossible to carry out on a technical scale and others the existence of which was not suspected are now through the application of electrical energy become the bases of large manufacturing enterprises. Calcium carbide, carborundum, artificial graphite and many hitherto unknown alloys are the commercial products of the electric furnace where temperatures in the neighborhood of 3000° C. obtain.
The third and more strictly chemical application of electrical energy is in the use of the current for electrolysis. Faraday long ago determined the laws according to which chemical compounds break up when subjected to the passage of an electric current. It is only in recent years, however, that the cost of electrical energy has made it possible to apply the knowledge thus furnished by this great investigator. Among the many important advances due to this use of electricity may be mentioned the manufacture of caustic soda and bleaching powder by the electrolysis of brine. The percentage of the world's supply of these two standard articles which is now made by this process is already a formidable figure and constantly increasing. In the electrolytic production of aluminum we have seen an entirely new industry develop until it is now one of magnificent proportions.
What the application of the electricity will do for technical chemistry in the future can be predicted only by estimating the results of the past. In many fields it is practically virgin soil over which only the pioneers have trod, and which is still waiting to be tilled.
Under the name of catalysis or contact action is included the other force that we can mention this afternoon, the usefulness of which the technical chemist is only beginning to appreciate.
These substances which are capable of so wonderfully increasing or decreasing the speed of a reaction without themselves appearing in its final products vary in their nature from such simple ones as metallic platinum or ferric oxide to the most delicately constituted ferments or enzymes. The manufacture of concentrated sulphuric acid by such a process is perhaps the most striking example of the application of this idea, although to be sure the finely divided platinum used at present plays but the rôle which the oxides of nitrogen have done so successfully in the past. The reproduction of photographic negatives by substituting for the action of light on sensitized paper the contact action of certain chemical compounds, is a process worthy of its distinguished discoverer, Professor Ostwald. For this application of the catalysis idea even the most pessimistic must prophesy a great future. Still another phase of this question is found in the hydrolysis of fats by the enzyme found in the seeds of the castor-oil plant. Instead of the application of acid, heat and pressure the same result is obtained at room temperature by the quiet action of this catalytic body. The advantages to be reaped by the development of these phenomena can scarcely be foreseen. Even the wildest dreamer might easily do injustice to the possibilities of this wonderful agent when intelligently used by the technical chemist.
We probably should not invite criticism were we to state that wherever we find a manufacturing establishment based upon chemical processes, there also exist problems in technical chemistry. That one factor which is so apparent that it scarcely needs mentioning, namely, the increase in the yield of processes now in operation, is enough to substantiate this assertion. The paramount question before us is, therefore, how can these problems best be solved. In any answer to this question there are two factors, both of which deeply affect the future growth of chemical industry. The first is the attitude of the manufacturer towards science and scientific work; the second is the training of the coming chemist.
When, a few years ago, England awakened to the fact that many industries in which she was the pioneer and at one time the leader were in the main passing to other countries, there went up a great cry for 'technical education.' The nature of the industrial stimulus which has borne such magnificent fruit in Germany was not understood. In the minds of many, a panacea for all their difficulties was to be found in the technical education of the working classes. But this is unquestionably a mistake. Until there is a love of science for its own sake and an appreciation of the value of scientific methods among the leaders of chemical industry, the fruits of technical education can not be reaped. Carl Otto Weber, speaking of this move towards a more general scientific education in England, says "Until the nation as a whole recognizes that the prosecution of scientific study as a mere means of money making is a profanation defeating its own end, the history of industrial development in England will afford the same melancholy spectacle in this, as in the last century, technical education notwithstanding."
The time is past when a factory can be run by rule of thumb; when the chemist is looked down upon simply as a testing machine to be kept at a distance and generally mistrusted. It is true that there are many men to-day who pass under the name of chemist who are little more than testing machines; men who possess the ability to do nothing more than the most strictly routine analysis; but such men will never solve the technical problems of the present or any other time. I would not impugn the dignity or intrinsic value of analytical work—it is the corner stone of all chemical investigation. But I would emphasize the fact, for it is a fact, that the manufacturer who employs a so-called chemist, one trained to 'do' coppers or carbons or acids, and who at the same time expects this chemist to improve his process and keep his business in the skirmish line of the industrial battle, must eventually be numbered among the 'not accounted for'
The second factor in this answer is the training of the coming chemist. What is the reply to that now so oft repeated question, What is the best preparation for a technical chemist? I am personally of the opinion that it is not to be found in the teaching of applied chemistry, as this term is generally understood. This training must provide for something more than simply copying the present—doing as well as others do; we must build for the future. We must provide men who are prepared to solve the unsolved problems. Within the last few months much has been said and written in America about the lack of adequate instruction in technical chemistry in our universities and colleges. It is assumed that American industries based on chemical processes do not flourish for lack of men trained in this branch of science. This, however, is not the case. It is not more instruction in applied chemistry that America needs, but rather a deeper and broader knowledge of pure chemistry, with a more extended training in original research.
In many of the problems we have already noticed, the solution depends upon the discovery of new compounds—the investigation and study of new reactions and relationships. This is the province of pure organic and inorganic chemistry. The foundations of these two departments can not be too firmly or too broadly laid. The method of attack best followed in each can not be too well understood. But it is not sufficient that we study only the initial and the final products. It is all important to learn the influence of the variable factors on the process; to study the reaction for itself. This is the province of physical chemistry, a department of science the importance of which to technical chemistry can not be overestimated. To be able to actually apply the laws of chemistry and to predict the course of reactions from general principles already proven is a tremendous economy of both time and energy.
After we have acquired the tools, however, we must learn to use them; after we possess a sound knowledge of inorganic, organic and physical chemistry, we must have adequate training in work requiring original and independent thought.
As I have already noted, the training to be derived from an investigation may be the same even though the incentive for its undertaking may be different. While I believe that so far as possible the student should be influenced to work for the love of knowledge and for the mastery of science for itself, yet especially in his later years of study there are advantages in allowing him to combine with this a utilitarian aim. In America at least most men enter our technical schools with the intention of fitting themselves as rapidly as possible for some useful calling in life. They have a feverish desire to get through and to enter the creative industries and accomplish something. They will work with enthusiasm upon whatever they can be made to recognize as contributing to this end, but by their very directness are intolerant of supposed digressions from their chosen path. The presence of too much of this spirit is to be regretted; but it is a power to be turned to service, not to be opposed. It does not follow that for a training in scientific method and for broadening the mental horizon a research which can have little if any practical value is superior to one the solution of which can find immediate application. For advanced work as much pure organic chemistry, for example, can be learned from an attempt to convert safrol into cugenol (a consummation in itself devoutly to be wished) as in the transformation of some other compound with a much longer name but with no higher destiny than to fill a place in Beilstein.
So also in physical chemistry. A careful, painstaking investigation of some of our already established industrial processes with a view to determining the maximum yield at the minimum cost is of the greatest educational value. In other words, a problem for research may have a distinctly practical bearing without being any the less a study in pure science, or without having thereby an inferior educational value.
In other problems we have noted, the solution largely depends upon the process, not the reaction. This demands the chemical engineer, a man who combines a broad knowledge of general chemistry with the essentials of mechanical engineering. He must be well schooled in the economics of chemistry; have a knowledge of the strength and chemical resistance of materials; be able to design and operate the mechanical means for carrying out on a commercial scale the reactions discovered, and duplicating the conditions already determined.
With men whose foundations are thus broadly and deeply laid, anxious to enter the industrial arena, and with a generous appreciation of the scientific man on the part of the manufacturer, coupled with a willingness to grant him an adequate return on the money invested in such an education, the problems in technical chemistry of the present must rapidly become the achievements of the past.
- An address delivered at the International Congress of Arts and Science, St. Louis, September, 1904.