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Putting color into a salute

By Chemical Engineering |


Once a year, a hundred or so upper-echelon managers of U.S. chemical-process companies go through a long-standing ritual: as they dress up for an annual award dinner sponsored by the American Section of the Soc. of Chemical Industry (SCI) a key feature of their attire is a mauve necktie. Mauve is far from being a conventional, let alone fashionable, color in the male wardrobe. But then, this event is far from a conventional dinner. It is entitled the Perkin Medal Award Dinner; its purpose is to annually honor an individual for outstanding work in applied chemistry; it is named in tribute to the first recipient, England’s Sir William Henry Perkin – who was saluted for discovering a synthetic dye, aniline purple, which today goes by the name, mauve.

This is a milestone year for the Perkin dinner. As the 2006 winner, Dow Chemical research fellow James Stevens, pointed out in his acceptance speech in Philadelphia last month, Perkin got his award 100 years ago, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his discovery.

Historically inclined readers can find an up-to-date, fairly detailed look at Perkin and his aniline purple work in the magazine article "One Man and His Color; Reflections on Mauve’s 150th Birthday," in the Fall 2006 issue of Chemical Heritage, published by the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF; Philadelphia; www.chemicalheritage.org). Here, meanwhile, are brief reflections on the role of synthetic-dye discovery in the development of chemistry and, indirectly, of chemical engineering.

On the one hand, numerous major products of today’s chemical process industries, such as soap, salt, perfumes, paints, varnishes, paper, glass, vegetable oils and beer, have been manufactured for centuries; in some cases, millenia. But to the extent that these operations involved organic raw materials, those materials were harvested from nature’s bounty; that is, they were not synthesized. Indeed, as Shreve and Brink imply in "Chemical Process Industries," synthetic organic chemistry was not even a concept, let alone industrially meaningful, prior to Wöhler’s famous synthesis, in 1828, of urea (previously regarded as a "substance produced by life") from an inorganic, namely, ammonium cyanate. While Wöhler’s discovery might in principle have triggered the onset of much of the diverse organics-based process manufacture we know today, the synthetic dye industry was the one that emerged first.

Perkin himself built a factory to capitalize on his discovery. And he went on to discover other synthetic dyes. But by and large, it was German manufacturers who became preeminent in the synthetic-dye field in the late 19th century (perhaps, observes Stevens, because British universities were not training enough organic chemists), and on into the 20th. Indeed two of today’s largest global chemical companies, Germany’s BASF and Bayer, can trace their lineage directly back to that dye manufacturing activity.

The 2006 Perkin Medal tribute to Dr. Stevens is mainly for contributions to polymer science. The inventor on more than 75 patents, he has been involved with the discovery and commercial implementation of Dow’s Insite technology and constrained-geometry catalysts, used for making some 2 billion lb/yr of polyolefins. Among his current activities are the applications of combinatorial and high-throughput techniques to catalyst research, and the relationship of catalyst structure to polymer microstructure.

The Perkin dinner has undergone some changes. Recent changes include a migration from New York to Philadelphia, a switch in timing from March to September, and a relaxation from tuxedos to business suits (today’s mauve ties are four-in-hand, rather than bow). On the other hand, the roster of winners clearly retains its high distinction.

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