My last blog left Thomas Midgley having solved the engine knock problem by adding leaded gas to the world’s troubles. At the time, lead was a known poison that could lead to all kinds of medical problems, just a few being blindness, kidney failure, and cancer. The EPA estimated in 1985 that five thousand Americans died every year from lead related heart disease.
That problem solved, Midgley turned his attention to refrigerators. Refrigerators for home use had been invented in 1913, and in 1923 Frigidaire came out with the first self-contained unit. But they had one worrisome problem – they tended to explode. The agents used for cooling were sulfur dioxide and ammonia – corrosive and toxic and flammable. If they leaked, which they tended to do, the results were explosive. Midgley started working on it and came up with a combination of chlorine, fluorine and carbon. He called it Freon, and it later became known as CFC. It was non-flammable and non-toxic and non-corrosive. Freon became an immediate success. As well as solving the refrigerator problem, it was used in air conditioners and as a propellant in spray cans.
Midgley was awarded the Priestly Medal by the American Chemical Society in 1941. In his acceptance speech, he stated he was glad his inventions gave citizens such life-improving benefits. [Read more…]