« May 5, 2012 | Main | May 12, 2012 »

Monday, May 7, 2012

Reading List: Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide?

Gergel, Max G. Excuse Me Sir, Would You Like to Buy a Kilo of Isopropyl Bromide? Rockford, IL: Pierce Chemical Company, 1979. OCLC 4703212.
Throughout Max Gergel's long career he has been an unforgettable character for all who encountered him in the many rôles he has played: student, bench chemist, instructor of aviation cadets, entrepreneur, supplier to the Manhattan Project, buyer and seller of obscure reagents to a global clientele, consultant to industry, travelling salesman peddling products ranging from exotic halocarbons to roach killer and toilet bowl cleaner, and evangelist persuading young people to pursue careers in chemistry. With family and friends (and no outside capital) he founded Columbia Organic Chemicals, a specialty chemical supplier specialising in halocarbons but, operating on a shoestring, willing to make almost anything a customer was ready to purchase (even Max drew the line, however, when the silver-tongued director of the Naval Research Laboratory tried to persuade him to make pentaborane).

The narrative is as rambling and entertaining as one imagines sharing a couple (or a couple dozen) drinks with Max at an American Chemical Society meeting would have been. He jumps from family to friends to finances to business to professional colleagues to suppliers to customers to nuggets of wisdom for starting and building a business to eccentric characters he has met and worked with to his love life to the exotic and sometimes bone-chilling chemical syntheses he did in his company's rough and ready facilities. Many of Columbia's contracts involved production of moderate quantities (between a kilogram and several 55 gallon drums) of substances previously made only in test tube batches. This “medium scale chemistry”—situated between the laboratory bench and an industrial facility making tank car loads of the stuff—involves as much art (or, failing that, brute force and cunning) as it does science and engineering, and this leads to many of the adventures and misadventures chronicled here. For example, an exothermic reaction may be simple to manage when you're making a few grams of something—the liberated heat is simply conducted to the walls to the test tube and dissipated: at worst you may only need to add the reagent slowly, stir well, and/or place the reaction vessel in a water bath. But when DuPont placed an order for allene in gallon quantities, this posed a problem which Max resolved as follows.

When one treats 1,2,3-Trichloropropane with alkali and a little water the reaction is violent; there is a tendency to deposit the reaction product, the raw materials and the apparatus on the ceiling and the attending chemist. I solved this by setting up duplicate 12 liter flasks, each equipped with double reflux condensers and surrounding each with half a dozen large tubs. In practice, when the reaction “took off” I would flee through the door or window and battle the eruption with water from a garden hose. The contents flying from the flasks were deflected by the ceiling and collected under water in the tubs. I used towels to wring out the contents which separated, shipping the lower level to DuPont. They complained of solids suspended in the liquid, but accepted the product and ordered more. I increased the number of flasks to four, doubled the number of wash tubs and completed the new order.

They ordered a 55 gallon drum. … (p. 127)

All of this was in the days before the EPA, OSHA, and the rest of the suffocating blanket of soft despotism descended upon entrepreneurial ventures in the United States that actually did things and made stuff. In the 1940s and '50s, when Gergel was building his business in South Carolina, he was free to adopt the “whatever it takes” attitude which is the quintessential ingredient for success in start-ups and small business. The flexibility and ingenuity which allowed Gergel not only to compete with the titans of the chemical industry but become a valued supplier to them is precisely what is extinguished by intrusive regulation, which accounts for why sclerotic dinosaurs are so comfortable with it. On the other hand, Max's experience with methyl iodide illustrates why some of these regulations were imposed:

There is no description adequate for the revulsion I felt over handling this musky smelling, high density, deadly liquid. As residue of the toxicity I had chronic insomnia for years, and stayed quite slim. The government had me questioned by Dr. Rotariu of Loyola University for there had been a number of cases of methyl bromide poisoning and the victims were either too befuddled or too dead to be questioned. He asked me why I had not committed suicide which had been the final solution for some of the afflicted and I had to thank again the patience and wisdom of Dr. Screiber. It is to be noted that another factor was our lack of a replacement worker. (p. 130)

Whatever it takes.

This book was published by Pierce Chemical Company and was never, as best I can determine, assigned either an ISBN or Library of Congress catalogue number. I cite it above by its OCLC Control Number. The book is hopelessly out of print, and used copies, when available, sell for forbidding prices. Your only alternative to lay hands on a print copy is an inter-library loan, for which the OCLC number is a useful reference. (I hear members of the write-off generation asking, “What is this ‘library’ of which you speak?”) I found a scanned PDF edition in the library section of the Sciencemadness.org Web site; the scanned pages are sometimes a little gnarly around the bottom, but readable. You will also find the second volume of Gergel's memoirs, The Ageless Gergel, among the works in this collection.

Posted at 18:49 Permalink