75 years of industrial chemistry and chemical engineering at the NRC.
Frank E. Lathe was chief chemist for the Chile Exploration Co. before becoming the first, full-time research scientist on the NRC payroll. He was hired by NRC's first president, H.M. Tory, to rescue a profitable magnesite mining industry in the Grenville district of Quebec. This industry was threatened by competition from superior Austrian firebrick after World War I. This successful project helped to convince Parliamant to allocate funds for the first NRC laboratories on Sussex Street (now Drive) in Ottawa.
The opening of the laboratories on Sussex Drive coincided with the depths of the Great Depression, and there literally was no money to hire staff. Until World War II, chemistry projects were largely funded by industry and focused on solving specific problems. For instance, Imperial Oil funded a three-month casual appointment to investigate lubricating grease that brought Ira Puddington, FCIC, to NRC although his doctorate was in physical chemistry and his masters degree was in agricultural chemistry. In Puddington's case, the three-month project was the first stage of an extended stay that saw him become the first director of applied chemistry and then director of the Division of Chemistry when pure and applied chemistry were merged in 1969.
Much excellent work was done from 1932 to the outbreak of war. Examples include the Cambron process for air oxidation of ethylene to ethylene oxide over a silver catalyst, the development of the Stedman packing for distillation and the Pidgeon process for metallic magnesium.
World War II created conditions in which NRC was required to establish a considerable number of pilot projects. Notable is the nuclear power project (originally at Val Cartier, PQ) where the initial engineering was supervised by Wilfrid Gallay. Early in 1944, a Chemical Engineering Section was created within the Division of Chemistry and the rapidly expanding Atomic Energy project commanded much of its expertise. The atomic energy pile in Chalk River, Ont. was under development and the section worked in the areas of heat transfer, water treatment and chemical separations related to irradiated materials and products from the atomic energy pile.
At the war's end, plans for a chemical separation plant were largely complete and had been transferred to the engineering group responsible for the construction of the Chalk River plant. That group became distinct from the Chemical Engineering Section in Ottawa, and was known as the Chemical Engineering Laboratory at Chalk River, within the Atomic Energy Division of NRC. Close cooperation between these two engineering groups continued until about 1948. NRC operating responsibility for the Chalk River project ended in 1952 when AECL became a crown company.
Establishing A Reputation
The wartime projects began to dwindle by the late 1940s. Meanwhile, petroleum was emerging as a Canadian growth industry. Gishler and Peterson headed a new project to investigate the recovery of oil from the Alberta tar sands through flash distillatiion on a fluidized bed of the sand. Their pilot was a technical success and, although no commercial tar sands application happened, the fluidized solids technique they had developed was soon applied to other problems.
Application of the fluidized-bed technique considerably enhanced the Cambron process for air oxidation of ethylene by treating the catalyst as a fluidized bed of silver containing particles. This talent for optimizing earlier work by incorporating innovative technologies is an NRC trait. This is demonstrated by the work of Gishler and Mathur, who overcame the violent slugging of fluid beds of wheat through the discovery of the spouted-bed technique. The first commercial spouted-bed units in Canada were installed in 1962 to dry peas, lentils and flax. Spouted-bed applications soon spread to other countries and uses. This technique has become an internationally recognized engineering operation, with a substantial body of technical literature and many applications. Although fluid-bed technology continued to generally evolve elsewhere, research in this field gradually diminished at NRC during the 1970s.
Following World War II, during the presidency of E.W.R. Steacie in the 1950s, there was a conscious effort at NRC to devote greater resources to pure science. There was little pressure to focus on specific applied problems. Applied chemistry and chemical engineering at NRC tended to follow both fundamental and applied approaches. Fundamental work was performed within targeted project areas with the goal of obtaining specific, applied outputs. The Chemical Engineering Section concentrated on achieving continuing and progressive results in two important evolving areas: fine-particle technologies and membrane separations.
Fine-Particle Systems Research
The Applied Chemistry Division had been studying spherical agglomeration since the 1950s. Agglomeration is an invaluable, but often neglected technique, for the beneficiation of fine particulate materials into more useful granular products. This research achieved early commercial success in the fabrication of small tungsten carbide spheres used in the manufacture of ball-point pens, and in the production of other spherical sinter blanks.
Industrial personnel often find their formal education has given them inadequate preparation in dealing with problems involving particulate solids. Particulates research provides a classical illustration of the partnership between chemical research and engineering. The agglomeration processes required specialized equipment and the Chemical Engineering Section investigated various kinds of mixing equipment for scaled-up agglomeration processes. The development of intensive high-shear mixers for microagglomeration and selective agglomeration, and disk and drum agglomerators encouraged widespread investigations of applications of the technology in the chemical and resource-extraction industries.
One dynamic field for the application of agglomeration technology and ancillary techniques was the resource extraction industry. Reduction in the quality of resources and an attendant increase in the quantities of fines to be processed presented, and presents, a major economic and environmental challenge for resource-based industries. For example, the coal industry was the subject of environmental concerns focused on sludge lagoons at the mine site and on sulphur removal before combustion.
Extreme fines confound conventional coal cleaning methods which use tables, jigs, cyclones and even froth flotation. By contrast, there appeared to be virtually no lower limit of the particle size for oil agglomeration processes which could be adapted to recover fine coal, lower sulphur content, and reduce the volume of tailings. By 1981, the process was sufficiently defined that chemical engineering designed and built a mobile pilot plant into a standard 45-foot road trailer. The pilot plant toured coal cleaning facilities in Canada and the US, and demonstrated its ability to recover coal cost-effectively from wash plant tailings streams. By the mid-1980s, this technology was being applied in coal-washing operations in North America.
Parallel work in the Colloids Section led to the development of the SESA (solvent extraction, spherical agglomeration) Process for oil-sands processing.
The Chemical Engineering Section recognized that combining oil agglomeration techniques with coal-fines handling experience could aid the world-wide search for effective coal liquid fuels. Pioneering research in the preparation of liquid coal slurries was done in the early 1970s, which resulted in pilot tests in the 1980s in collaboration with CANMET/EMR. There was also an urgent need to develop a coal slurry burner that could withstand the incredible abrasiveness of coal slurry, and also adapt to a wide variety of environments and feed stocks. Such a burner unit was successfully developed incorporating ceramic materials, and is now on the commercial market. This work on atomization for combustion applications has now evolved to a Combustion Emissions Control project within the new Institute for Environmental Chemistry.
Membrane Separation Processes
S. Sourirajan arrived at the NRC in Ottawa in 1960 from UCLA where he had participated in the development of the first functionally-useful, assymetric semi-permeable reverse osmosis (RO) membrane. His arrival was the start of RO research in Canada and, henceforth, membrane research became a major activity within the section.
The resulting work in membrane development received widespread recognition within the research community. The obvious initial application of RO was water treatment, a need less pressing in Canada at that time than in most other countries. Consequently, much of NRC's early work in the characterization and modeling of membranes led to only a small amount of commercial activity within Canada, but it was commercially exploited by US companies.
Industrial partnership have always been vitally important to the Chemical Engineering Section. The long range importance of industrial and environmental applications of synthetic membrane separations offered compelling reasons for the continuance of this work. In the 1970s, Canada became aware to the extent of the contamination of its water resources. At that time, chemical engineering developed and patented a differential alcohol gelation technique for casting integrally supported, high-flux ultrafiltration membranes. Electrohome's environmental division licensed this technology from NRC to produce and market one-inch tubular membranes for the treatment of effluents from manufacturing plants. This took place under an early industrial assistance (PILP) programme led by W. Thayer and Oleh Kutowy, MCIC. Zenon Environmental Inc. (Burlington Ont.) acquired this business from Electrohome in the 1980s.
The institute for Environmental Chemistry (IEC)
A restructuring of NRC took place in 1990; it now concentrates on specific areas of research identified as important to the Canadian economy, industry, environment and the public interest. This refocusing can be viewed as a return to the more project-oriented mode of operations characteristic of NRC prior to the 1950s. A major part of the Division of Chemistry has become the Institute for Environmental Chemistry (IEC) with Bryan Taylor as director general. The IEC performs and promotes research and development in chemical sciences, chemical engineering and supporting disciplines focused on understanding, improving and protecting the environment. There are three scientific and technical programmes: Measurement Science, headed by Shier Berman, FCIC; Protection Science, headed by David Carlsson, MCIC; and Process Technology, headed, by Ed Capes, FCIC. The latter programme is staffed essentially from the former Chemical Engineering Section and the Colloids group. In addition, a Programme Office headed by Bryan Murphy is being put in place; Terry Kimmel manages business development activities within this office.
The remedy for industrial environmental ills very often requires the modification of processes rather than the suppression of symptoms. Those solutions, which are offered, require a strong engineering component because they must be industrially applicable and economically viable. The Process Technology programme provides a major focus for this applied chemistry and engineering approach within IEC through four current projects:
Separation Processes for Toxic Materials
Led by John Hazlett, MCIC, the objective of this project is to develop separation technologies using polymeric membranes, and to promote their application to resolve environmental problems through collaborative work which emphasizes the transfer of technical capability to the private sector.
Several activities are underway:
- the recovery of heavy metals from aqueous effluents;
- the removal of organics from aqueous effluents;
- the processing of non-aqueous streams; and
- the recovery of volatile organics.
IEC's strong background in membrane separations is the basis for this project. Industrial partners come from those industries with separations problems (the user industries), but in the long run IEC hopes to foster a stronger membrane supply industry as a major source of solutions for environmental problems.
Membrane separations are now being demonstrated as key elements of zero discharge' processes in the oil and gas and pulp and paper industries. Market growth of separations, based on synthetic membranes, is projected to be very rapid and IEC has every intention of assisting Canadian industry to claim a share of that market. Process Technology also has the added incentive that a vibrant membrane technology industry will augment NRC's efforts in membrane technology and disseminate its findings to the user community.
Chemical Destruction of Toxic Materials
Led also by Hazlett, the objective of this project is to apply chemical methods in the detoxification of liquid effluents. The project also aims to overcome some of the limitations of current biochemical processes through:
- the electrochemical destruction of chlorinated organics;
- the photocatalytic degradation of soluble organic wastes.
Combustion Emissions Control
Led by Kevin Jonasson, MCIC, this project's objective is to develop atomizer technology for use in gas cleaning and in high efficiency combustors by using computer modeling studies coupled to a prototype engineering and applications test programme carried out in collaboration with equipment manufacturers and suppliers.
NRC's patented atomizer technology comprises a hollow cone, internal mixing nozzle. The atomizer has already been demonstrated to be superior to existing technology in droplet formation and durability characteristics.
Three parallel activities are underway:
- atomizer testing for stack gas cleaning;
- atomizer testing for combustion systems; and
- modeling and flow visualization.
The Treatment of Particulate Wastes and Sludges
Led by Bryan Sparks, FCIC, the objective of this project is to reduce the environmental impact of hazardous industrial and resource-based sludges through the development and demonstration of improved processes for sludge reduction and reuse, based on a better understanding of the complex interaction between sludge components.
In addition to other sludge-related activities, IEC is a founding member of a consortium comprised of NRC, CANMET, Environment Canada, Suncor, Syncrude, Alberta Research Council, and the Alberta Energy Department. The consortium is researching the fundamental characteristics of sludges in general, and the production and composition of oil sands tailings ponds in particular. Each consortium member is studying a part of this very complex problem and sharing their findings.
Although the Chemical Engineering Section embraced a unit operations approach in the 1950s, a growing interrelationship between many branches of research had been inexorably moving the section into more broadly-based process research. Its new mandate, within IEC to work on chemical issues associated with the environment, simply brought a transitional phase to its logical conclusion.
Despite all the changes over 75 years of rapid scientific and technological evolution, chemical engineering successes are among the most visible activities of the NRC, and are the kind of litmus test by which the public evaluates the performance of the entire institution. Process Technology within IEC welcomes the challenge.
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|Title Annotation:||National Research Council|
|Author:||Capes, C.E.; Reaume, Lloyd|
|Publication:||Canadian Chemical News|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1991|
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