SCIENCE— Efficiency Expert
First of a series of articles describing how Canada's new national research laboratories are “taking up the slack" in Canadian industry
DEATH came in a fog to Western Europe. In the Meuse Valley last December more than sixty people died. Hundreds of others were rushed to hospitals. Inhabitants of the affected areas fled their homes, leaving unburied their stricken cattle. Fear, racing ahead of the fog-laden winter days, reached the shores of England. “It is a visitation of God,’’ said the more superstitious. “Gases from buried munition dumps,” surmised the less credulous. But science has supplied an explanation—industrial sulphurous fumes from chemical conversion plants in a moisture-laden atmosphere. Perhaps you know that Canada, too, has had its death fog; that large sums have been spent in assessing damages; and that in 1929 the menace became so serious that it was referred to an international commission But did you know that the death fog which devastated whole areas in and around Trail, B.C., is no longer a menace? A $9,000,000 plant, the first of three units, has been erected to convert into fertilizers and chemicals for the use of Canadian agriculture and industry the 650 tons of sulphurdioxide fumes which daily belch into the air at Trail. Science has come to the aid of industry, and a waste that had developed into a huge menace has become a splendid asset. It is an illustration of the necessity of scientific research work in taking up the slack in industry. Sometimes the slack turns out to be the most important part of an industry after science has been busy.
The great industrial nations, Great Britain, the United States, Germany, France, Japan, have recognized that. In addition to the numerous great laboratories directly maintained by industrial concerns, they all have their national research institutes. In China there are industrial research laboratories. What is Canada doing?
In Ottawa today a building is going up which will cost this country $2,777,400. It is the new home of the National Research Council Laboratories, and the answer as to what Canada is doing in national scientific research. Here it is that the National Research Council will assist and supervise the scientific research work of the nation. The council has
been engaged in that work ever since 1916, but, lacking suitable premises, understaffed, and short of many appliances, it has been under a distinct handicap.
The new building will be one of the finest of its kind in the world. It will stand in ten acres of ground, being 418 feet long, 176 feet deep, and sixty feet high. The four stories will give 250,000 square feet of floor space, providing adequate accommodation for research laboratories, administrative offices, library, lecture halls and staff.
Dr. H. M. Tory, president, National Research Council, explained for MacLean’s that the work of the council is to secure co-operation and co-ordination in the scientific research of the nation, to utilize to the greatest advantage Canada’s natural resources, to train scientific men for industrial research, and to place the scientific knowledge acquired within reach of Canadian productive agencies so that Canadian industry, because of the quality and price of its products, may be able to compete successfully, not only in the domestic market but in the markets of the world.
Urgent Industrial Problems
DUT Canada cannot afford to wait the L) completion of its new scientific home.
Many urgent problems demand solution.
There are at least 100 of them in various parts of the Dominion, ranging all the way from those of radium to those of poultry parasites, from ultrasonics to aeronautics, from natural gas to moisture content and rust in grain. And any or all of these problems may be interrelated. The solution of the Trail smelter problem provides fertilizers for our farm lands and parasite destroyers for our wheat fields, poultry runs and forests; research in ultrasonics may prevent thousands of airplane crashes, as we shall see.
Thus it was that when I visited Ottawa to give readers of MacLean’s first-hand information on this important national undertaking, I found the council with the nucleus
of a research staff organized and busy in temporary quarters. A few among the many research problems which I saw being worked out there, will serve to illustrate the important part the new laboratories will have in the taking up of our industrial slack, in the building up of this young industrial nation.
By no means the least urgent of our industrial problems is gas wastage. For Canada this is a problem of national consequence. Consider the importance of gas in our every-
day lives. In twenty-five years it has created a revolution in our mode of living. Hardly a food we eat, hardly a thread we wear, or a mile we travel, but the internal combustion engine plays its part. In agriculture, in industry, whether we outdistance the birds of the air, outpace the fleetest of four-footed animals in our automobiles, or go visiting with the weird denizens on the ocean’s bed, it is gas, gas, gas.
And now measure the usefulness of gas in gallon terms. One gallon of gasoline will propel a whole family in a 2,000pound automobile over fifteen miles of highway; it will mix some thirty cubic yards cf the concrete of which that highway is constructed. For the farmer it will plow half an acre of land, and bale three tons of hay the land produces. It will milk over 200 of the dairyman’s cows, and on dark winter days it will light his barn for twenty hours with six twenty-five candlepower electric lights.
Industry, directed by science, finds infinite uses for this “liquid sunlight,’’which for eons was one of Nature’s secrets until science discovered it. But we in Canada lose more gas, a great deal more, than we recover. The most wasteful oil field in the world is at Turner Valley.
And the worst of it is that the gas we waste is lost forever.
Wealth Wasted in Gas
IN THIS Canadian oil field, according to the latest findings of the National Research Council, 400,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas is wasted every day. Every year, approximately 250 billion feet of those gaseous hydrocarbons, which scientists in laboratories “sweat blood” to produce, illuminate the heavens. For every nine feet of gas which roars forth from the underground reservoir of industrial power, less than one is saved for the people of Canada. In a previous article in MacLean's on industrial expansion in the West, the question was asked, “What would they do with that waste gas in Germany, France or England?” And what would the Australian people not give for it? In the sister Dominion, millions of dollars have been spent searching for gas and in experimental methods for its extraction from shale. The gas Canada wastes would be the
making of Australia as an industrial nation, if Australia had it. England is trying to extract gas from coal. What would the industrious and thrifty Japanese do with it? Canadian scientists are providing an answer as to how Canada may use it.
Some of the industrial wealth which the scientists at Ottawa say we may obtain from our waste gas are ethane, fertilizers and carbon. With processes already developed ethane can be converted into alcohol and a wide variety of other chemicals. The total annual gas wastage would produce more than 130,000.000 gallons of alcohol, worth seventy-five cents a gallon. Ethane forms only five per cent of the total gas wastage, and yet, converted into alcohol, it represents $100,000,000 annually. The French are turning to industrial alcohol as a motor fuel. It is not difficult to decide what they would do with Canada’s waste gas.
“Every 1,000 cubic feet of waste gas,” according to National Research Laboratory estimates, “should be capable
of producing 2,000 cubic feet of hydrogen, which can be used for the manufacture of synthetic fertilizers by combining it under pressure with the nitrogen of the air to give ammonia.” The lowest cost at which hydrogen has hitherto been manufactured for the synthesis of ammonia is about twenty cents a thousand cubic feet. Taking the value of hydrogen on that basis, every year this wastage goes on Canada is blowing into the air another sixty million dollars in the form of hydrogen. That hydrogen, in the form of fertilizers, might well go far toward solving what is one of
the most important problems of Canadian farming.
But the most startling fact about such prodigious loss is that a great deal of it occurs after the gas has been “recovered.” It occurs at the well-head—gas collected along with the crude gasoline and later allowed to escape into the air. The recovered gas is heated in order to drive off the very light portion. That which remains is gasoline. But the gasoline comprises only two-thirds of the recovered gases. We prodigal Canadians allow the other one-third, known as stabilizer gas, to follow the waste gas into the air. It is difficult to find any excuse for that, for this stabilizer gas has a distinct commercial value. Converted by pressure and cold into liquid, and bottled in cylinders under pressure, it can be used as domestic gas in small communities and as an industrial fuel for furnaces in which cleanliness and exact temperature control are important.
Last year $25,000,000 worth of liquid gas was used in the United States. This gas has a value of at least twenty-five cents a gallon, and our yearly waste in this direction alone amounts to $4,500,000. But Canada may do even better than that. Dr.
G. S. Whitby, director of the division of chemistry, estimates that by using a process recently perfected at Ottawa, this stabilizer gas should yield ten million gallons of
alcohol. Although it may look small alongside the larger figures which represent the total waste gas, the value of that alcohol would be $7,500,000—a tidy annual income to let slip after we actually have had it within our grasp.
Apart from its many other uses, carbon black is an important content in manufactured rubber. More than half of the carbon black produced is absorbed by the rubber industry. Some carbon black is extracted from the waste gas at Turner Valley, but it is only one twenty-fifth of the total amount of carbon available. At the laboratories a process is being developed which will produce larger yields without affecting the quality.
It would be impossible to estimate the wealth Canadian scientists may discover in waste gas. But already an immense amount of wealth has been disclosed. It remains for industry to take up the slack.
Dying War Industry Rejuvenated
V~VNE of the greatest triumphs of Canadian science has been won with magnesite. It is not so spectacular, and possibly for that reason has not received as much public attention as natural gas. None the less, this mineral, of which the layman seldom hears mention, plays a large part in industry, and magnesite production is an important industry for Canada.
When one steps into the department conducting magnesite research in the chemical division at the temporary National Research Laboratories, he is standing on one of the results of Canadian research work. But the chief use of magnesite is not in the manufacture of flooring composition. From magnesite is manufactured the refractory clinker used in those openhearth furnaces from which pour forth torrents of molten steel.
Prior to the war Austria had almost a monopoly in the production of magnesite clinker. It was a serious situation for the Allies, until other deposits in Quebec, Greece, California and Washington had been developed. -The industry in Canada expanded rapidly, and the annual export of dolomitic magnesite rose to over a million dollars.
But though Canadian dolomitic magnesite served as a substitute during the war, it had certain objectionable impurities, chiefly a lime content. When the war ended, the steel men went back to the Austrian product, and by 1925 the Canadian magnesite industry was faced with extinction.
The National Research Council set its scientists to work, and the industry helped with finance. This is not written for the scientists, so it is sufficient to say that two lines of investigation were followed. One was to reduce the lime and silica content, the other to render it inert. The methods worked out allowed the production companies to use a much larger proportion of the rock mined, and at the same time produce a clinker magnesite superior to all others. The net result is that it is sold freely in Britain and the United States at higher prices than the Austrian product. Today, the industry is in a .stronger position than ever. But this rejuvenation of a dying industry did not end there.
Pure calcined (burnt) magnesite has long been used in small quantities, mixed with a solution of magnesium chloride, to form a rapid setting and strong cement suitable for stucco and composition flooring. But even the “purest” magnesite contained some active lime. This has been one of the chief objections to foreign plastic magnesia. It has
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S c i e n c e—E fficiency
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caused a lot of grief to builders. The National Research Council must be satisfied it has overcome this trouble, for the floors of the new laboratories are being laid in a magnesite flooring composition perfected at Ottawa.
A Scientific Laundry
THE citizen who reads what Canadian science is doing for the smelter industry, for the conservation of our natural gas, for the magnesite industry, and for many other industries, may and sometimes does say: “That’s all very fine for industrialists and manufacturers, but where do I come in? What do I get out of it?” Quite apart from increased employment and better business, we are all served directly by science in industry.
There are still housewives who bang their washing on a stone. I have watched them do it. And many who read this will recall the days when an electric washing machine was unknown, a wringer a luxury, the days when laundries were looked on with suspicion by the careful housewife. When the presentday Canadian housewife lifts the receiver and phones the laundry, she enjoys that convenience and confidence, every bit of it, as the result of scientific knowledge applied to industry. But I hardly expected to find a washing machine at the National Research Council Laboratories, or an electric iron either. There they were, however, and many other laundry appliances also; which shows that scientists are concerned with our everyday problems.
“Will that wash to a rag? Won’t it fade? Will it shrink?” are some of the questions the housewife asks when buying a shirt for father, a pullover for Johnny, or silk stockings for herself. All those questions may be answered with exactitude long before the salesman replies, “But no, madam; these goods are guaranteed to wash.” The salesman and the manufacturer are able to give that guarantee because the manufacturer, when he is wise, avails himself of the fifteen ordinary laboratory tests undertaken at Ottawa for the textile manufacturer, and special ones he may have on request.
There are times, however, when a guaranteed material does come home from the laundry sadly damaged, shrunk or faded. And what a dispute there is ! Mother blames the laundry, the laundry says it is the fault of the soapmaker, and the soapmaker retorts, “Shoddy material,” thereby passing the blame on to the manufacturer. Perhaps it is a “cut” in a towel, and father's razor blade is under suspicion. But the laboratory men can tell. They do. “One of our simplest problems,” I was informed. In nine cases out of ten, acids are the cause, from a battery, a metal polish or the like. Once there was a cocktail spilled on a lady’s dress ! The tenth case is the unwise manufacturer, dyer, soapmaker or laundryman who does not believe in “all this scientific fandangle.”
But the scientist has many problems to solve for mother, the manufacturer, the soapmaker and the laundryman, even after he has attended to such “simple” matters as soaps, chemicals and temperatures, and their action on woollens, cottons, silks, linens, artificial silks and mixtures. Before he finally decides as to how our clothes shall be washed, or what clothes one may with impunity have washed, the scientist has to consider the conditions under which they become dirty. They are not the same in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg or Vancouver. Temperatures, nature of the “soil”—it may be gumbo in Saskatchewan and sand in Quebec—salt impregnation at coastal points, humidity, smoke-laden atmospheres, all have to be examined. Even tests for different laundries in the same city have to be different, as whether the laundry is serving office or industrial workers. An immaculate dress shirt requires quite different treatment to grease-charged overalls. I restrain my urge to go into details con-
cerning the thermostatically controlled bath, which uniformly preheats washing solutions and the launder-o-meter chambers; the spectrometer and the photometer, which detect “fadability” and the amount of “soil” left in fabrics after washing; the machines which check and record tensile strength of fabrics, and the inevitable precision balances to weigh everything used.
But there is one device at Ottawa which deserves special though necessarily brief notice. With that machine, a “soiler,” samples to be washed are thoroughly and evenly impregnated with any particular soiling mixture, without which the tests obviously would be inaccurate. The soiler is the key pin of laundry research, and it was invented at Ottawa. So the scientist not only has to solve our problems with the appliances to hand; there are occasions on which he has to invent his own, for the soiler was not the only research instrument designed and set up at Ottawa.
Mountains of Waste
THE study of insulating boards forms another of the everyday problems of direct interest to all of us, both as to cheap materials for their manufacture and their ability, when manufactured, to keep the heat in and the cold out of our homes. Tests made at Ottawa show the house builder how to lay out his money to the best advantage, and the manufacturer is shown the way to make better boards. In that research is another instance of the inventiveness of the worker engaged. But the matter of insulating boards has become a national one in another direction.
The wastage in Canada’s forest lands is only second to the wastage in our oil fields Science is continually battling to keep down the ravages of fire, insects, fungi and windfall, and yet it is estimated that this “natural” wastage runs into 1,700,000,000 cubic feet of wood per annum. It has accounted for sixty per cent of the original forest. Industry has used another thirteen per cent, leaving only twenty-seven per cent. Industry is very conscious that every foot of lumber cut must be utilized, so the lumber men have appealed to science. They know the value of science in their industry.
In the “good old days” we sold our wood, after doing no more than casting aside as useless the bark. Then science taught us to grind our wood and sell ground wood pulp. The next stage was to treat the wood with calcium bisulphite and obtain a higherpriced product, sulphite pulp. Soon after that we hearkened to science once more, and with the addition of caustic soda converted sulphite pulp into alpha-cellulose, capable of replacing rags for certain special grades of paper. Today alpha-cellulose is made into artificial silk, the manufacture of which has become an important industry for Canada. Wood sold as newsprint is worth around sixty dollars a ton; as rayon it has a value of $2,300. And now it is the bark !
Every year millions of tons of bark are wasted. Though the scientists at Ottawa have only just commenced this investigation, already they are finding much that is useful in the mountains of bark and screenings which accumulate at lumber mills. By new processes now being worked out we
may obtain insulating blocks and boards, probably enough to supply Canada’s needs and then have a lot left over for export. Mountains of waste bark may be converted into miles of board ! Every year Canadian tanneries import tanning extracts to the value of several millions of dollars. These, too, are being found in that waste bark.
Lots of other things were to be seen at Ottawa. There’s a story in every one of them. There was the scientist I found peering through a bottle of amber-colored oil. He pulled open a drawer and took out a handfwl of elevator refuse, ran his finger through it and pointed out all the little round seeds of wild mustard—dark as the havoc they create in the farmers’ fields. But they had met their Nemesis at last, for that bottle of oil had been extracted from mustard seeds, which constitute about thirty per cent of the 50,000-ton mountain of refuse which annually accumulates at Canadian wheat elevators. The oil is worth not less than seven cents per pound, and there are 220 pounds of oil in every ton of refuse. Work that out ! Three quarters of a million dollars. As for the other seventy per cent of refuse, so useless it even refuses to burn, it also may expect to go into insulating boards.
Then there was the scientist who had started in to rejuvenate another Canadian industry, asbestos, just now finding itself menaced by Russia and Rhodesia. And on the desk of another I found a beautiful, clear, waterwhite cube which looked not unlike a crystal, only it was many times lighter than rock. It turned out to be a cube of synthetic resin, of the nature of bakelite, for which industry has found many uses, including telephone receivers and a hundred and one other electrical fittings, not to mention the “amber” jewellery which is made from it.
A Priceless National Possession
SO FAR as I know, no one has ever attempted accurately to compute in figures the amount of slack which science takes up in industry. It would be a stupendous, if not an impossible task. Nevertheless the value of science in industry is evident. As President Hoover says:
“Our scientists and inventors are among our most priceless national possessions. There is no sum that the world could not afford to pay these men who have that originality of mind, that devotion and industry to carry scientific thought forward in steps and strides until it spreads to the comfort of every home . . . The nation
today needs more support for research. It needs still more laboratories.”
And it seems to me that for this once, at any rate, we can agree with President Hoover. Money spent on scientific research is money which comes back to us a thousandfold.
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles by Mr. Armitage on industrial research in Canada. In the second, which will follow in an early issue, he will describe some of the results of pure research in the realm of physics and explain how the benefits of scientific discoveries are passed on to the industries concerned.