Today in Science History – February 2 – Ethyl Gasoline


Label for Ethyl Gasoline Additive

Label for Ethyl Gasoline Additive.

On February 2, 1923, “Ethyl” gasoline went on sale at a Dayton, Ohio service station.

The Ethyl brand gasoline promised to eliminate a persistent detonation problem with engines of the time known as knock. Knock occurs when the air-fuel mixture is ignited at the wrong point of the engine’s cycle. The forces generated by these explosions throw off the designed timing of an engine causing the distinctive off-beat noise of a smooth running engine. In mild cases, the sound is a slight ‘pinging’, in really bad cases the noise is a harsh knock. Besides the annoying noise, knock causes a fairly large loss of engine efficency.

One of the simplest solutions to the problem of knock is additives in gasoline. Two additives were found to help: ethyl alcohol and tetraethyl lead (TEL). Both solutions improved engine efficiency, but there were two important differences. Ethyl alcohol was expensive to produce, lead is cheap. Ethyl alcohol burns cleanly with the gasoline, lead is a known toxic substance that leaves the system with the exhaust. 

Cheap > Clean, so cheap settled the arguement. General Motors and Standard Oil began to market the Ethyl brand gasoline nationwide. Leaded gasoline was sold in the United States from 1923 to 1986 when it was ultimately banned from sale. For over fifty years, cars added lead to the environment and didn’t go away. The widespread use of lead in gasoline is considered one of the worst environmental disasters in history.

Notable Science History Events for February 2

1996 – Ray McIntire died.

McIntire was an American chemical engineer who invented foam polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam. He was searching for a substance to replace rubber as a flexible electrical insulator from polystyrene. Polystyrene is a good insulator but is too brittle. He thought he could soften it up by adding isobutylene under pressure, but what he got was bubbles of polystyrene that formed the foam known as Styrofoam.

1980 – Willaim Howard Stein died.

Stein was an American biochemist who shares half the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Stanford Moore for their research into the ribonuclease molecule. They determined the structure of ribonuclease and discovered its catalytic properties during food digestion. Stein and Moore later applied these same techniques to discover the sequence of deoxyribonuclease.

1955 – Oswald Theodore Avery died.

Oswald Theodore Avery Jr.

Oswald Theodore Avery Jr. (1877 – 1955)

Avery was a Canadian-American physician and molecular biologist. Together with Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty, they discovered the genetic information in genes and chromosomes is made up of DNA. This disproved the belief that genetic material is contained in cellular proteins.

1923 – “Ethyl” leaded gasoline was introduced commercially.

1907 – Dmitri Mendeleev died.

Dmitri Mendeleev

Dmitri Mendeleev (1834 – 1907)

Mendeleev formulated a periodic table of the elements where the elements are ordered by increasing atomic mass similar to the modern periodic table. He included eight unknown elements on his table based on predicted chemical properties due to the periodic nature of the elements.

He is also credited with introducing the Metric System to Russia while he was in charge of Russia’s Bureau of Weights and Measures.

Element 101 was named mendelevium in his honor. 

1870 – Cardiff Giant exposed as a hoax.

Cardiff Giant

Cardiff Giant – fake fossilized remains of a 10 foot tall giant man.

The Cardiff Giant was a 10 foot tall petrified giant man dug up by workers behind William “Stub” Newell’s barn in Cardiff, New York. In fact, it was a 10-foot chunk of gypsum Newell had carved into the likeness of a man and stained to look old and distressed. He buried it behind his barn and later hired workers to dig a well in the spot. When the men found the large rock, they thought they found the remains of a huge man. Newell charged 50 cents for a person to look at what he claimed was proof that biblical giants once existed. He eventually sold it for $37,500 to investors who put it on display in Syracuse, New York. PT Barnum made a copy of the Giant to exhibit in his circus.

1817 – John Glover was born.

Glover was an English chemist who created the Glover Tower to reclaim useful byproducts for reuse during the manufacture of sulfuric acid.

Sulfuric acid is mass produced in a lead chamber process. Sulfur dioxide is mixed with steam and air in a lead lined chamber. The series of reactions in this process produce nitrogen oxide as one of the products and was vented away as waste. These oxides are actually useful for the early part of the process. Glover identified this waste and created a tower to recycle the exhaust into the reaction chamber, increasing the effiency of the system.

1802 – Jean Baptiste Boussingault was born.

Jean Baptiste Boussingault

Jean Baptiste Boussingault (1801 – 1887)

Boussingault was a French chemist who determined the role of nitrogen in plant health. He made one of the first scientific studies of the practice of crop rotation. He found plants get nitrogen from the soil in the form of nitrates. He also found legume crops added nitrogen to the soil.

Boussingault isolated the compound sorbitol. Sorbitol is a slow metabolizing sugar alcohol generally used as a sugar substitute in low-calorie foods.

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