Monday, June 4, 2012

Unintended Consequences

Definitions: Unintended — not deliberate or planned. Consequences — Something that logically or naturally follows from an action or condition; the relation of a result to its cause; a logical conclusion or inference.

My regular readers know I’ve written before about the importance of understanding technology. We live in a complex world surrounded by technology and all the benefits that modern science has given us. It is our responsibility to understand that world in order to make proper decisions about the future. That is the essence of a democracy. We are all responsible. That is why public schools are so important. We are self governed, and that requires knowledge and experience in order to make the right decisions.

In this complicated world, I often wonder what people are thinking and how they are making those decisions. For example, consider the current situation with fracking. Fracking or Hydraulic Fracturing is a process using high pressure water and additives to fracture rock deep underground in order to release natural gas and oil. Some consider it an efficient and effective way to expand our energy reserves, lowering prices for gasoline, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Others argue that it is a dangerous method that can pollute the environment and even cause earthquakes. What is the right decision? How do we balance technology and its ability to do good for society with the dark side of industrialization and damage to our environment?

Here’s another example: In order to save energy and reduce the need for oil and coal, Compact Fluorescent Lights or CFLs have been developed. They are even being mandated by law. But the CFLs contain mercury, a very poisonous substance. In fact, certain environmental laws had to be modified allowing an exception for the mercury content in the bulbs. “It is for the greater good,” we’re told, and, “they will be disposed of properly.” That makes me wonder how many CFLs are just dumped into the trash? And what about the manufacturing facilities in China; are they environmentally safe? Is the benefit of energy savings in the replacement of incandescent bulbs with CFLs worth the risk to the environment?

Life in this modern world requires us to continually make these kinds of decisions about trade-offs and consequences.

Let me tell you a cautionary tale about a couple of inventions that were intended to make our lives better. This story is about a chemist and engineer you may have never heard of, but you have likely heard of his inventions. His name is Thomas Midgley, Jr., and he worked for General Motors (GM) at the start of the last century. Back then, the automobile was just becoming an important part of American life, and one of the problems was the amount of power produced by the gasoline engine. In order to improve the efficiency of the automobile engine, the compression ratio was increased. That’s how much the gasoline and air mixture is compressed before being ignited by the spark plug.

Simple physics indicates that the higher pressure fuel mixture will return more energy upon ignition. But there is a problem. The goal is to have a rapid, but smooth burning of the combustible mixture. Unfortunately, with low octane fuels, the mixture may explode suddenly during compression. This ill timed and premature explosion can cause damage to the mechanism. This problem is called “knocking” due to the sound produced.

Diesel engines make a value out of this compression caused explosion and run on low octane “diesel fuel,” but gasoline engines are intended to fire when the spark plug fires and knocking is a problem. This led to a quest for methods to increase the octane of gasoline.

Midgley was working with a team of scientists at GM trying to find ways to increase the octane and reduce knocking. He developed the tetraethyllead additive for gasoline. Now lead is a strong neurotoxin and cumulative poison, and, even in 1921, people knew that. Conveniently, General Motors left the “lead” out of the name and marketed this additive as “Ethyl.” Not satisfied with the rate of adoption of the new additive, the Ethyl Corporation was founded by GM and Standard Oil of New Jersey (ESSO) to literally “sell” the general public on the advantage of this additive. The production of the additive was managed by the DuPont chemical company. Some of us with gray hair may remember those cute little advertisements for “Ethyl.”

However, as I stated, lead is a poison and using the additive increased greatly the amount of lead in the atmosphere. Lead pollution has increased by over 625 times previous levels in the past century due partly to pollution by leaded fuel. This even affected the inventor. Although the Ethyl Corp. denied the health risk, in 1923, Midgley took a prolonged vacation to cure himself of lead poisoning.

Ironically, some historians believe that poisoning from the lead water pipes was one of the causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Here we were repeating the process, although not all lead in the environment was from Ethyl. Back then lead was used in everything from ammunition to paint to food cans. However, the EPA has ruled that leaded gasoline is the primary cause of the increased amount in the atmosphere.

Some would argue that Ethyl was a necessary evil, and that it did support the expansion of our automobile industry and even contributed to winning the second world war. However, there were other choices to increase octane ratings of gasoline, and Ethyl may have been more of a successful product due to advertising and the backing of industrial giants such as General Motors, DuPont, and Standard Oil (now known as ExxonMobile.)

Eventually we realized that we were steadily poisoning the entire human race. The levels of lead in the atmosphere sky rocketed after the introduction of the Ethyl additive, and, finally, in 1986, it was banned from gasoline in the United States. A recent U.N. report predicts that all use of leaded gasoline in the world will end by next year. Fortunately, the lead in our atmosphere has dropped considerably since we stopped using lead compounds in gasoline.

The next part of the story doesn’t have so happy of an ending. I am not trying to portray Midgley as a monster or a bad man. Like many scientists his goal was to make things better for society. However, this man did seem to have a particularly bad record in that regard. After inventing the Ethyl additive, Midgley turned to refrigerants.

Keeping things like food and medicine cool is certainly a benefit to mankind, and the invention of the refrigerator was a wonderful device. However, early refrigerators used gasses that were very dangerous.

At that time air conditioning and refrigeration systems used chemicals such as ammonia, chloromethane, sulphur dioxide, and propane. These materials were poisonous and could catch fire and explode. In one instance in the 1920’s a refrigerator at a hospital leaked a poisonous cloud and killed over 100 people.

Frigidaire, a division of General Motors, was a leading manufacturer of these cooling systems, and so they assigned Midgley to search for a refrigerant that was non-toxic and non-flammable.

The team searched for a material which is both volatile, which is required for a refrigerant, but also chemically inert. They eventually settled on the concept of combining fluorine into a hydrocarbon. Even though these compounds contained highly reactive elements such as chlorine and fluorine, Madgley assumed they would not be toxic, believing that the stability of the carbon–fluorine bond would be sufficient to prevent the release of hydrogen fluoride or other potential breakdown products.

Midgley developed a family of gasses called “dichlorofluoromethane,” the first chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), which they named "Freon." This compound is more commonly referred to today as "Freon 21", or "R 21".

These materials soon replaced the dangerous substances used in refrigerants at that time, and they were later used as propellants in aerosol cans, to create foams and plastics, as solvents and degreasers, and in asthma inhalers. Midgley was awarded a medal by the Society of Chemical Industry in 1937 for this work.

Due to the widespread use of CFCs and leakage into the atmosphere of coolants, the amount of CFCs in the air increased rapidly after introduction of Freon. Eventually scientists learned that the gas was reacting with sunlight at high altitudes and producing chlorine gas which combined with the ozone in the upper atmosphere, causing holes in the ozone layer. That increased the amount of ultra-violet light penetrating the atmosphere, which increased further the chlorine release from the CFCs.

The ozone layer provided protection from high energy rays from the sun, and loss of this layer can lead to skin cancers and also contributes to global warming. Finally, by 1974, production of CFCs was halted. However, the high level of stability of these materials means that the amount remaining in the atmosphere will last for around another 100 years. It will take some time before we can recover from this unintended consequence.

So we are left with a tale of a brilliant scientists who, twice, developed what he hoped would be a boon for mankind, only we later discovered they were both very bad for the environment and our health.

The final ironic twist to the story is the fact that Midgley, a victim of polio who was severely disabled as the result of the disease, had developed a set of pulleys and ropes to assist him in rising out of bed. One morning he became entangled in ropes and  was strangled and died at the age of 55.

There are lessons to be learned from this story of technology and business, and it has application in our world today. Right now there are thousands of “Midgley’s” working in the laboratories and development centers all around the world. What will be the next great invention? What will be its unintended consequences?

This cautionary tale is not taught in most history classes, and few people today even know who Midgley was. That is very sad to me. Those that don’t know history, are bound to repeat it.

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