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Science Technology

Leaded Gas, CFCs, and the Dark Side of Progress (hackaday.com) 184

szczys writes: Leaded Gas did a great job of keeping engines from knocking thanks to tetra-ethyl lead. Unfortunately the fumes from the chemical are highly poisonous. R-12 is a refrigerant that revolutionized the cold storage of vaccines. It turned out to be the first of the chlorofluorocarbons which are well known (and now banned) for damaging the environment. Both are the creations of one inventor: Thomas Migley, Jr. Two deadly inventions seem like more than enough for one person, but his story ends with a third. Stricken with Polio, he invented a system to help him get in and out of bed on his own. A tragic accident ended his life when he was caught and strangled by the system he created.
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Leaded Gas, CFCs, and the Dark Side of Progress

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  • by cruff ( 171569 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @03:41PM (#51116551) Homepage
    The summary covers all of the main points of the article, so you won't need to read TFA.
  • by cfalcon ( 779563 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @03:43PM (#51116571)

    Wikipedia has the most interesting quote about him in his article:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org].

    ' J. R. McNeill, an environmental historian, opines that Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history." '

    Anyway, it's always been a bit of an unfair slam. Leaded gasoline only became an issue when the car number went from the 7.5 million that were around when TEL was being made, to the over 100 million that were around the time that leaded ramped down in the mid 70s. The miles driven per person were also way lower back then- because most people had to get around without a car, everything was set up for that. If you had it to do all over again, you'd probably STILL use leaded gasoline until about 1955 or so. However, at least everyone knew lead was bad for you back then- not so with Freon's very hard to verify environmental impact, which wasn't understood for a lot longer.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If you had it to do all over again, you'd probably STILL use leaded gasoline until about 1955 or so.

      No, no, I wouldn't. There was a conference in 1925 about how dangerous it was. They came to the wrong conclusion.

    • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @03:51PM (#51116641)
      Lead was only needed because the manufacturers did not want to do the metallurgy needed to make their engines work properly without it. The warning signs were all there right from the start- numerous scientists, laboratory technicians, and refinery workers died or were left with the effects of lead poisoning.
      • by Jason Levine ( 196982 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @04:00PM (#51116693)

        If I recall correctly, the signs of lead being dangerous were there, but like the cigarette industry decades later, the companies invested in leaded gasoline fought tooth and nail to keep everyone believing lead was harmless. They would actively try to discredit and defund anyone who said otherwise and put all their political weight towards squashing any legislation that might question their official platform.

        Obviously, they weren't ultimately successful is keeping "lead is dangerous" suppressed forever, but they did delay any action to mitigate the effects (and profited off said delay).

        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 14, 2015 @04:20PM (#51116829)

          You recall correctly.

          The scientist who first noticed that lead from car pollution was actually contaminating the environment was smeared by car and gas companies. I think Cosmos has an episode about it.

          • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 14, 2015 @05:54PM (#51117519)

            Cosmos did have almost an entire episode (or a big part of it) devoted to this. This guy was doing research on determining the age of rocks and ran into problems when he wanted to created a lead-free lab environment. One thing led to another and he figured out lead was everywhere because of the leaded gas. From there, he realized this thing was making us sick and fought a long hard fight to bring this to the public. His R&D was directly or indirectly funded by the oil industry which promptly pulled his funding. He was a poster child for following the data and designing great tests to make the data drive conclusive.

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clair_Cameron_Patterson#Campaign_against_lead_poisoning

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        uhh, bullshit, the anti-knock agents are needed to get a reasonable efficiency out of the engine. See, engine efficiency is strongly affected by compression ratio, and the higher the compression ratio, the more likely the engine is to knock. Hence, high-performance car engines (not your sedan or pickup) need higher octane fuels. These, of course, have crap in them to retard the speed of the flame front, and at the time, TEL was the only commercially viable product. so then we got MTBE, which we also found

        • ...TEL was the only commercially viable product.

          Tell that to Amoco, which never leaded its premium grade gasoline. [wikipedia.org]

        • by Cramer ( 69040 )

          Ethanol is not "food". While the US may be wasting corn on it, most of the world isn't that stupid. (The US has "too much" corn, and can afford to be stupid with it.)

        • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

          So short term greed, results in interesting tit bits like this "A 1994 study had indicated that the concentration of lead in the blood of the U.S. population had dropped 78% from 1976 to 1991". So prior to that we were blithely creating the lead head generations and tea baggers and a massive crime wave. The greater the exposure the more likely they are to be crazy Gopers. How many people ended up dying as a result of that greed, that went on to fuel sic even more greed driven stupidity. The lead might be d

      • TEL was added to enhance the anti-knock characteristics, it had *absolutely nothing* to do with metallurgy. As it turned out, it worked as an effective solid lubricant but that was an aside.

              WWII may have been lost, or at least would have been greatly extended, if airplane engine performance was limited to fuels without TEL.

        • And here we are today with most small piston aircraft still using almost identical engines, still burning leaded gasoline. So called "100LL" (low lead) contains more lead than car gas ever did.

      • This only half of it- the other were advances in cracking/refining where the could reform paraffins to isomers with higher octane ratings.
      • Wrong...an octane booster (which was cheaper than just better refining - one should always follow the money) was required to eliminate knock and ping due to self-ignition from high compression.
        . High compression gives better thermodynamic efficiency, but higher temperatures (and due to that, increases NOX emissions). No metallurgy will fix knocking - it ruins engines no matter what you make them out of, and wastes energy by pushing on a piston that is still on the upstroke.
        Those of us who live in far
      • because people working in the factories kept getting sick and started acting crazy? Kinda like how they found out nitrates are carcinogenic: a farmer's cows kept dying of liver cancer and they traced it back to massive amounts of canned herring he was feeding them because he got it cheap from a factory after it couldn't be sold.
    • Well the ozone hole is still there, so I'd have to say the jury is still out on R12.

  • by mdsolar ( 1045926 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @03:50PM (#51116635) Homepage Journal
    Small airports next to elementary schools are probably creating future violent criminals.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Dcnjoe60 ( 682885 )

      Small airports next to elementary schools are probably creating future violent criminals.

      That depends. Main small engine aircraft now use unleaded avgas instead of the leaded variety.

      • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @06:27PM (#51117689)

        Wrong. They use 100LL, for "low lead", which isn't really low at all. All standard small-engine aircraft use this fuel, unless it's some "experimental" aircraft with a Subaru automotive engine or something.

        • You, of course, are correct. I should have said low lead, since 100LL is 1/2 the lead of 100/130. There are viable replacements for 100LL in the US (already approved in other countries). It just seems the US doesn't want to let them be adopted for wide spread use here. For instance, we looked at testing other fuel samples for our fleet and received, by mistake a load of 91/96 (the brown military fuel) and it actually worked quite well. Why it isn't normally available, I have no clue. Unfortunately, we ha

  • UnLeaded Gas (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tiberus ( 258517 )

    This article sparked the memory of wondering why we had to pay more for unleaded gas... Apparently it was expensive to remove the naturally occurring lead from the refined gasoline.

    Oh, wait . . .

    • Re:UnLeaded Gas (Score:5, Informative)

      by Gr8Apes ( 679165 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @04:10PM (#51116765)

      This article sparked the memory of wondering why we had to pay more for unleaded gas... Apparently it was expensive to remove the naturally occurring lead from the refined gasoline.

      because instead of lead, they had to add other chemicals to raise octane ratings to reduce knocking. Those chemicals cost more.

      • by Cramer ( 69040 )

        And/Or blends with more valuable (rare) distillates. TEL, MTBE, etc. are chemical hacks to prevent the lower grade compounds from igniting and burning as readily.

      • by slew ( 2918 )

        This article sparked the memory of wondering why we had to pay more for unleaded gas... Apparently it was expensive to remove the naturally occurring lead from the refined gasoline.

        because instead of lead, they had to add other chemicals to raise octane ratings to reduce knocking. Those chemicals cost more.

        In addition to costing more, some of them (like MBTE) were arguably worse for the environment... Damn you CARB (California air resources board)...

      • instead of lead, they had to add other chemicals to raise octane ratings to reduce knocking. Those chemicals cost more.

        Some of them also had other issues - like being toxic in other ways, or causing other problems.

        MTBE (the first big tetraethyl lead replacement), for instance, has leaked out of storage tanks and contaminated ground water. It produces a foul taste in microgram concentrations, so even if it turns out not to be hazardous, a little can make a lot of ground water undrinkable. There are claims

    • This article sparked the memory of wondering why we had to pay more for unleaded gas... Apparently it was expensive to remove the naturally occurring lead from the refined gasoline.

      Oh, wait . . .

      The real reason you had to pay extra for unleaded gas is that there was no alternative. The lead was added to the gas, it never had to be removed from it.

      • There were always alternatives, just that they were uneconomical. Petrol has always been a blend of products. You could run a car just fine on a single petrol component, but as is the usual with this sort of thing that single component was also the most expensive to make. Two key petrol components are often referred to as liquid gold in refining because their ideal properties allow refiners to fix any stuffed up petrol blend simply by adding more, and also because they are very costly to make; alkylate, and

    • Not sure your point here. The amount of naturally occurring lead in gasoline is nearly immeasurable - if there was lead in gas it would quickly make inoperable the catalytic converters in modern cars.

  • by mdsolar ( 1045926 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @03:56PM (#51116671) Homepage Journal
    The evidence is now very strong that leaded gasoline was responsible for much past violent crime. http://www.chicagotribune.com/... [chicagotribune.com]
  • Is there a dark side (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 14, 2015 @03:58PM (#51116683)

    to the improvement of life for millions of people? Tetraethyl lead is a small speedbump on the road to a bright future of advanced chemistry. The global car industry is a marvel. The tree huggers need to bugger off. What Henry Ford said one hundred years ago ring s truer than ever today.

    "I will build a motor car for the great multitude...constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise...so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one-and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces."

    Henry Ford.

    • by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @04:29PM (#51116911)
      And thus, the Pinto was produced...
    • to the improvement of life for millions of people? Tetraethyl lead is a small speedbump on the road to a bright future of advanced chemistry. The global car industry is a marvel. The tree huggers need to bugger off. What Henry Ford said one hundred years ago ring s truer than ever today.

      Except that it was the tree huggers who wanted to remove lead from gas for all of the environmental and health reasons. What actually caused the lead to be removed had nothing to do with that. It was the EPA requirement that cars have a catalytic converter to meet emission standards ultimately got rid of leaded fuels since lead ruins the catalytic converter.

      • to the improvement of life for millions of people? Tetraethyl lead is a small speedbump on the road to a bright future of advanced chemistry. The global car industry is a marvel. The tree huggers need to bugger off. What Henry Ford said one hundred years ago ring s truer than ever today.

        Except that it was the tree huggers who wanted to remove lead from gas for all of the environmental and health reasons. What actually caused the lead to be removed had nothing to do with that. It was the EPA requirement that cars have a catalytic converter to meet emission standards ultimately got rid of leaded fuels since lead ruins the catalytic converter.

        You're splitting hairs now - the "tree huggers" would also be responsible for the drive to reduce emissions via catalytic converters. The EPA exists as a result of pressure, it didn't just spring up out of nowhere.

    • and cancers, asthmas and other diseases it causes. How about our wars for oil fought to support the car industry (which couldn't exist without cheap gas) and the horrors wrought to support it. How about the death of public transportation and the stress and misery caused when those masses are forced to struggle to obtain costly transportation better suited for an idle rich? How about fuck you Henry Ford. You were an asshole and I want my clean air and cheap transportation back.
    • You know what else Henry Ford is quoted as having said?

      "I know who caused the war (World War I)...the German-Jewish bankers! I have the evidence here. Facts! I can't give out the facts now, because I haven't got them all yet, but I'll have them soon."

      Just sayin', it not like we should blindly accept every pearl of wisdom that dropped off ol' HF's lips or anything.

  • ah, scientists (Score:4, Insightful)

    by NostalgiaForInfinity ( 4001831 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @03:58PM (#51116689)

    You should remember that Thomas Migley was foremost a scientist, and quite representative of the hubris and single-mindedness of scientists. When he advocated for the safety of leaded gasoline, he wasn't lying for financial gain, he was doing so because he believed it. The scientists protecting you from ozone holes or lead or snake oil are indistinguishable from the scientists that create the ozone holes or leaded gasoline in the first place, or the scientists that create better cancer treatments; it's only in hindsight that you know who was right.

    So, when scientists tell you how to live your life or tell you that the science is settled and you should just do what they tell you, just remember how this guy died: A tragic accident ended his life when he was caught and strangled by the system he created.

    • Re:ah, scientists (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 14, 2015 @04:16PM (#51116795)

      Cautionary note here, kids - scientists and especially engineers (the applications guys) are in the business of pushing the envelope, so mistakes are inherent in the process. Whether it is building a longer bridge (Tacoma Narrows) or making a nonflammable refrigerant (CFCs), you take your best shot with what you know at the time. This includes coders, which is why we keep finding security holes in critical software systems. There is no solution, it's in the nature of the "progress" game, but we can try to be objective about finding faults and not hang onto dangerous technologies just because of ego.

    • by dywolf ( 2673597 )

      variation on the 'science was wrong before' myth.
      0/10 points.

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/S... [rationalwiki.org]

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      Back off, man. I'm a scientist.

    • by Radical Moderate ( 563286 ) on Monday December 14, 2015 @04:35PM (#51116951)
      ...he was indeed lying for financial gain, because he was suffering from lead poison and was quite aware of it. What he honestly believed is impossible for us to know, but if honestly believed lead was harmless he was deliberately ignoring evidence to the contrary. The fact that some scientists mislead others (and perhaps themselves) out of love for money or their pet theories, doesn't mean all scientists behave the same way.
      • ...he was indeed lying for financial gain

        [citation needed].

        There are some truly great doctors out there who for the longest time chain-smoked their way through life even as their colleagues were dropping from various cancers. It is quite possible to believe something and not have a financial tooth in the game. He was a scientist and an engineer. He did a lot of work for corporations. He wasn't getting rich of either invention, his employers were.

      • ..he was indeed lying for financial gain

        Midgeley was a research scientist working for an employer. His "financial gain" was limited to salary, bonuses, promotions, and stock options. That's the same motivation most scientists on this planet have.

        because he was suffering from lead poison and was quite aware of it.

        He thought he had inhaled too much of the stuff in the lab and needed to give his lungs a bit of time to recover, that's all. If anything, the relatively mild symptoms he had in response to working

    • So, when scientists tell you how to live your life or tell you that the science is settled and you should just do what they tell you, just remember how this guy died: A tragic accident ended his life when he was caught and strangled by the system he created.

      Okay. And after I've remembered it, then what? Ignore all science because this one guy was hoist with his own mechanism? Or listen to all science, but just bear in mind that future information might contradict it? Or should I toss a coin for each bit of science I hear?

      • Okay. And after I've remembered it, then what? Ignore all science because this one guy was hoist with his own mechanism? Or listen to all science, but just bear in mind that future information might contradict it?

        I said that you shouldn't listen to scientists tell you how to live your life or tell you that the science is settled and you should just do what they tell you. That is a statement not about science, but about scientists talking about things outside their area of expertise. My point is that scienti

    • by zmooc ( 33175 )

      When he advocated for the safety of leaded gasoline, he wasn't lying for financial gain, he was doing so because he believed it. The scientists protecting you from ozone holes or lead or snake oil are indistinguishable from the scientists that create the ozone holes or leaded gasoline in the first place, or the scientists that create better cancer treatments; it's only in hindsight that you know who was right.

      When he was advocating the safety of leaded gasoline, that almost certainly wasn't science. It would even back then have been easy to see that. You can very well know who was or is right without hindsight.

      • When he was advocating the safety of leaded gasoline, that almost certainly wasn't science.

        The scientific community gave him awards for his work, and the federal government and their expert panels determined that there wasn't sufficient evidence for harm in order to ban lead. So, in different words, the scientific experts at the time disagree with you.

        • by zmooc ( 33175 )

          the scientific experts at the time disagree with you

          But they obviously didn't do the science. Scientific experts can say what they want but if they didn't research it, you'd better be skeptical.

    • So, when scientists tell you how to live your life or tell you that the science is settled and you should just do what they tell you,

      When the science is settled though - when the vast majority of research is all pointing in one direction, don't ignore it just because it's something you don't want to face. Your freedom is not absolute, other people have to live on this planet with you.

      The scientists are totally distinguishable over time, the method converges on truth.

      • The scientists are totally distinguishable over time, the method converges on truth.

        I agree. And that convergence usually takes around a century. So, for, oh, say, climate models from 2015, we can consider the settled science in about 2115, after plenty of verification and observation.

        • "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

          - Max Planck

          • Planck is saying that many scientists are so narrow minded that they need to die before a new theory can be accepted, a pretty damning statement. He doesn't say that the next generation necessarily gets it right.

    • by slew ( 2918 )

      You should remember that Thomas Migley was foremost a scientist, and quite representative of the hubris and single-mindedness of scientists. When he advocated for the safety of leaded gasoline, he wasn't lying for financial gain, he was doing so because he believed it. The scientists protecting you from ozone holes or lead or snake oil are indistinguishable from the scientists that create the ozone holes or leaded gasoline in the first place, or the scientists that create better cancer treatments; it's only in hindsight that you know who was right.

      So, when scientists tell you how to live your life or tell you that the science is settled and you should just do what they tell you, just remember how this guy died: A tragic accident ended his life when he was caught and strangled by the system he created.

      Although potentially generally true in abstract, in the case of Mr. Midgley, he was definitely advocating leaded gasoline for *profit*.

      The TEL (tetra-ethyl-lead) anti-knock additive was patentable (the use and manufacturing techniques), where the other leading additive contender ethanol was most certainly not patentable. Mr. Midgley may or may not have believed that TEL was "safe-enough", but he and his boss Charles Kettering basically minted GM a small fortune as part of it's 50% stake in the Ethyl Corpora

      • Although potentially generally true in abstract, in the case of Mr. Midgley, he was definitely advocating leaded gasoline for *profit*.

        Midgley was employed by an employer, he received rewards from his employer, he filed patents, and he beat the drum for his inventions. If his patents made his employers money, he likely got bonuses and possibly stock. The more his inventions were noticed by others, the more citations and scientific rewards he received, as well as research grants. That is exactly how the vast

  • (and no banned)

    Do some bloody editing, someone, please.

  • R-12 is a refrigerant that revolutionized the cold storage of vaccines

    That barely scratches the surface of the thing.

    Charles Kettering, vice president of General Motors Research Corporation, was seeking a refrigerant replacement that would be colorless, odorless, tasteless, nontoxic, and nonflammable.

    Dichlorodifluoromethane [wikipedia.org]

    The refrigerant of choice for the 19th century ice machine was ammonia, which has the drawbacks of being highly toxic, corrosive, and difficult to compress. The net result is that the ice machines were massive (as big as a typical kitchen), steam powered (the best source of energy in the 19th century for large equipment. needing constant boiler attendance), required a lot of maintenance and were the source of industrial accidents.

    Sulfur dioxide is compressed readily and has a good latent heat of 25 kJ/mol. Chemists and physicists were able to put a kitchen sized version of the refrigerator on the market after World War One. Unfortunately, sulfur dioxide isn't the most pleasant refrigerant: Early refrigerators leaked and if they didn't, sulfur dioxide is corrosive, so they soon would.

    Dichlorodifluoromethane [wou.edu]

    The first refrigerator to see widespread use was the General Electric "Monitor-Top" refrigerator introduced in 1927, so-called because of its resemblance to the gun turret on the ironclad warship USS Monitor of the 1860s.

    As the refrigerating medium, these refrigerators used either sulfur dioxide, which is corrosive to the eyes and may cause loss of vision, painful skin burns and lesions, or methyl formate, which is highly flammable, harmful to the eyes, and toxic if inhaled or ingested.

    Refrigerator [wikipedia.org]

    "Refrigerator Day is the Dinosaurs analogue to Christmas and the titular celebration...Refrigerator Day, or Fridge Day for short, celebrates the development of the greatest boon to modern dinosaur, the refrigerator. Thanks to the development of this magical cold box, dinosaurs could store food and no longer had to continually roam, and thus were able to settle down and start families. Fridge Day is traditionally marked with gift-giving, a pageant recalling the first Refrigerator Day, festive decorations, a Fridge Day bonus, and jolly Refrigerator Day carols. Muppet Wiki - Refrigerator Day [wikia.com]

    Henson was on to something here.

    I don't think the geek has any clear picture of what life was like before modern refrigeration and air conditioning.

    The ideal refrigerant would have favorable thermodynamic properties, be noncorrosive to mechanical components, and be safe, including free from toxicity and flammability. It would not cause ozone depletion or climate change.

    Refrigerant [wikipedia.org]

    That ideal refrigerant doesn't exist in 2015 ---

    but if you look honestly at the problem from the point of view of someone living in 1935, Freon comes pretty damn close.

  • Everyone knows that mercury is poisonous. Pregnant women are told to avoid larger fish because of the higher mercury concentrations (from eating smaller fish). People freak out when they break a CFC (which contains less mercury than a can of tuna) and spend inordinates amount of money to clean it up.

    But then when people to go to the dentist with cavities, what do they do? Fill them with a gold and silver amalgam dissolved in MERCURY. They tell you that it all evaporates away quickly, but it doesn’

  • I knew a man like this - a boss of mine at a summer job - who was oblivious to safety concerns whether that meant ancient gas stoves he cavalierly over-rode the safety valves on, canoes, or anything else (he was an avid tinkerer and jerry-rigger, but in his case not truly inventive.) He was more than a bit of a bully in everything, and felt certain he could bully nature, too. I left that summer job glad to still have my skin (after one very close call in one of his boats.) Just a couple years later I read t

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