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Bad Boys of Science: Thomas Midgley

Thomas Midgley: Unseen Consequences

In this, the second episode of "Bad Boys of Science," we explore the enormous impact Thomas Midgley had on the 20th Century. Midgley's tale is a poignant illustration of the unforeseen repercussions that can arise from well-intentioned scientific endeavours.

Thomas Midgley

The American chemical engineer Thomas Midgley Jr. was a prodigious talent who held over a hundred patents. Two of his inventions shaped the industrial landscape of the 20th century: tetraethyllead (TEL) used as an anti-knock agent in petrol and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used as refrigerants.


TEL: The Anti-Knock agent with a Poisonous Touch

Midgley's journey into scientific notoriety began with his solution to the disruptive engine knocking in early cars.


Engine knocking, also known as "knock" or "pinging," was primarily caused by the premature combustion of the air-fuel mixture in the engine's cylinders. This led to reduced engine efficiency and, over time, damage to the engine. There are several factors that could lead to engine knocking including the use of low octane fuel, carbon deposits in the cylinders, inefficient fuel delivery and incorrect ignition timing.


To address this issue, Midgley developed tetraethyllead (TEL) which, when added to gasoline, increased its octane rating, and reduced the tendency of the fuel to pre-ignite. This allowed engines to run more smoothly and efficiently.


The introduction of TEL in the 1920s was hailed as a silver bullet, smoothing out engine performance and making the car more appealing to prospective buyers. The silver bullet was, however, laced with a notorious neurotoxin - lead. The widespread use of leaded petrol resulted in ecological contamination and public health crises that lingered long after leaded gasoline was eventually phased out.


CFCs: A Cooling Revolution… at a Cost

Not content with one revolutionary invention, Midgley's work on CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in the 1930s brought about a new era of modern refrigeration. CFCs were initially lauded for their non-toxicity and stability, making them seem like an ideal choice for various applications, from air conditioning to aerosol sprays.


Midgley did not foresee the destructive potential of his invention. The stability of CFCs meant that they were not broken down in the environment and they started to accumulate as more and more CFC-containing products were manufactured. By the 1970s, scientists discovered that CFCs contributed to the depletion of the Earth's protective ozone layer, our high-altitude shield against the Sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation.


Midgley's Legacy

Thomas Midgley's life's work is a study in contrasts. Here was a man whose undoubted ingenuity was recognized by the top scientific communities, including an accolade from the American Chemical Society for his work on TEL. Yet, his major inventions have since been recognized as some of the most environmentally damaging in human history, earning him an unintended and dubious distinction.


Midgley's personal fate bore a tragic irony. His career, marked by efforts to control the natural world through chemistry, ended when he was undone by his own creation. After contracting polio, which left him severely disabled, Midgley designed an elaborate system of pulleys and ropes to assist with his mobility. Tragically, he was entangled in this device and died of strangulation.


Today, as we face environmental challenges on a global scale, Midgley's story shows us the need for foresight in scientific innovation. It’s a stark reminder of the long-term environmental costs that can accompany the short-term triumphs of technological advancements and developments. Scientists and engineers need to consider the broader implications of their work. How do we balance the drive for innovation with the ethical duty to protect our planet?


Join us next time as we further explore the "Bad Boys of Science," whose complex stories serve as both a beacon of human capability and a warning of the potential pitfalls that lie in the pursuit of innovation.


Until next time, stay curious!


I'm always eager to hear from you, so please feel free to leave your comments! Your feedback is much appreciated.

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