A CATALYTIC CATATROPHE, A QUARTER-CENTURY ON, COMPARED WITH OTHER CHEMICAL AND MATERIALS FAILURES
BY MICHAEL JEWESS
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This work was published in Royal Society of Chemistry Historical Group newsletter and summary of papers, Winter 2021, 79, 21-29 (hard copy and online).
Technological failures are classified by the author as follows:–
(i) Failures resulting from pursuing a good idea for which the supporting technology or the marketplace is not, in the event, ready.
(ii) Failures after which one wonders, “How on earth could anyone competent have thought that what was done could be effective/economic/safe?”
The “catalytic catastrophe” of the title was a commercial one for Unilever, resulting from its launch of PERSIL POWER containing a manganese catalyst, in 1994, and is classified in category (ii), as is the space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986.
Brunel’s atmospheric railway of 1846-8 is classified in category (i). Such failures are the price paid for successful innovations: good ideas will always encounter unexpected snags, and only some will survive being tried out (such as the Pilkington float glass process of 1952-1959).
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