Acetylene and a Clergyman

"Do you know what a gentlemen is?" said Father Nieuwland to Professor Burke, his life-long colleague at Notre Dame University. "A gentlemen is a man who can play a saxophone but doesn't."

These words were perhaps facetiously spoken, but they reveal a characteristic trait that can be readily traced through the entire scientific career of Father Julius A. Nieuwland. It is a trait of restraint. The clergyman in science is not a rare phenomenon, and he must in the end use the same revealing devices as the rest of us to produce consistent and reproducible results. But in addition, it seems probable that the ethical consequences of his work will weigh more heavily upon a clergyman scientist, especially if he becomes, like Nieuwland, one of the world's foremost authorities on the chemistry of a very reactive compound like acetylene. The highly endothermic character of acetylene (its heat of formation is about - 52,900 cal. per mol), is the violent driving force behind many of its addition reactions, a fact which also serves to drive the mere dilettante out of the acetylene laboratory.

The particular technical saxophone that Nieuwland declined to play was an extremely toxic and blistering substance that he obtained from a reaction between acetylene and arsenic trichloride in the presence of aluminum trichloride. He synthesized this substance in 1904, as a young priest working on his Ph.D. thesis. He was content to record the observed facts, but no more. Repelled by the unredeemed malignancy of the compound, he did not pursue it further, although he spent the rest of his life working with explosive compounds, dangerous to the pioneer, but potentially valuable so far as he could see. Not until years later was this rejected compound identified as beta-chlorovinyldichloroarsine, and shown to be so toxic that 30 drops applied to the skin will kill a man. It is in fact the war gas, lewisite.

In 1906 the young Notre Dame professor was seeking an effective catalyst for condensation of acetylenic hydrocarbons, and thus he absorbed acetylene in a concentrated aqueous solution of sodium, potassium and cuprous chlorides. A reaction took place at once, but the products were not identified at that time. A peculiar odor was observed which persisted in his memory. For twelve years Nieuwland remembered that peculiar smell. Finally, in 1918, now using a cuprous chloride solution containing ammonium chloride, he identified the odor as belonging to divinyl acetylene. By means of his catalyst Nieuwland also produced monovinyl-acetylene. The rest is history. Although it was not immediately evident how this catalytic reaction fitted in with the synthetic rubber problem, chemists at the DuPont Company worked out the process for converting monovinyl-acetylene to chloroprene by reaction with hydrochloric acid, and how to polymerize chloroprene and make the first commercially successful synthetic rubber.

When the Nichols Medal was awarded to Father Nieuwland in 1935 for his work with acetylene, Dr. E. R. Bridgwater of the DuPont Company said, "Surely no honor has ever been more richly deserved than this award to Nieuwland, who, after devoting the major part of his academic life to the study of the reactions of acetylene polymerization which has proved to be the key to the synthetic rubber problem..."

Even during his undergraduate days at Notre Dame, when he synthesized acetaldehyde from acetylene using mercurous chloride, Father Nieuwland was already what he liked to call "catalyst-minded." Shortly before his death, which occurred in 1936 after a lifetime of continuous devotion to hydrocarbon studies, he said, "Looking back upon the numerous reactions of acetylene itself, especially the catalytic transformations...it seems evident that the possibilities of further research in acetylene derivatives promise great and varied possibilities...The synthetic dyes and medicinals have replaced the natural, why should not the synthetic rubbers?"

Soldier of Science, Requiescat in Pace.

INCO Nickel Narratives 4
reprinted from Chemical and Engineering News.