A glowing discovery lost on management
“Letters, we get letters, we get stacks and stacks of letters.” This member of the Newscripts gang is showing his age because that is a song lyric from the 1950s “Perry Como Show.” Other notable talents include singing the Cream of Wheat advertising jingle and reciting the introduction to the original “Adventures of Superman” TV show with George Reeves.
But back to the letters. Like Perry Como, Newscripts also gets letters, or at least e-mail, and two recent missives were particularly illuminating.
Consultant Edwin A. Chandross of Murray Hill, N.J., wrote to say he enjoyed a March 20 C&EN article on chemiluminescence (page 5), and, by the way, he invented the now-ubiquitous chemiluminescent glow sticks serendipitously in the 1960s.
Glow sticks are plastic tubes containing a solution of an ester, such as diphenyl oxalate, and a fluorescent dye. Each tube also contains a breakable inner tube containing hydrogen peroxide. Bending a glow stick breaks the inner tube, allowing hydrogen peroxide and the ester to react. The reaction product is an unstable compound like dioxetanedione, which releases energy that excites the dye, producing fluorescence.
“The beauty of the process is that any fluorescent species can be excited, which is why these devices come in so many colors,” Chandross explains in an essay that appears in the 2011 book “Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation.” He discovered the glow stick phenomenon by accident while doing other research at Bell Labs and published a paper on it (Tetahedron Lett. 1963, DOI: 10.1016/S0040-4039(01)90712-9). Bell Labs considered patenting the discovery but decided not to do so, not realizing at the time how commercially important glow sticks would turn out to be.
American Cyanamid, supported by the Department of Defense, which wanted ways to locate downed aviators in the sea at night, developed and commercialized glow sticks based on Chandross’s published concept. Glow sticks are “now manufactured by several companies and well known all over the world,” Chandross notes. “The military is still a big customer. And, of course, many kids carry them in their trick-or-treat quest on Halloween,” among many other popular uses.
As a result of Bell Labs’ patent inaction, neither the company nor Chandross ever benefited from the discovery financially. “My family still gives me flak over the refusal of the patent department to file on this,” Chandross writes. “I wish I had been smart enough to realize the applications for this chemistry. Too bad that the management, much more sophisticated than a 29-year-old researcher, did not see them either.”
In another letter of glowing importance, Paul-James Jones of New Britain, Conn., wrote Newscripts to say that he appreciated the magazine’s article about converting a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer’s outer vacuum jacket into a combination pizza oven and fire pit (April 24, page 48).
Jones showed similar originality by converting an old broadband NMR probe into a night-light. “By carefully drilling out the center of the probe, inserting a tricolor light-emitting diode where the sample would ordinarily sit, and then wiring the LED to the existing radiofrequency leads, it is possible to create a switchable night-light,” Jones writes.
Applying low direct-current voltages to the radiofrequency channels makes the LED “sample” glow in different colors. “The color palette one can achieve is virtually unlimited, depending on the relative voltages applied to each of the three channels,” Jones notes. “You are only limited by your imagination.”
Dancers a glow-glow: Ed Chandross’s profit for the night? Zero.
Credit: AlbertHerring/Wikimedia commons
Light it up: An NMR-probe LED night-light.
Credit: Paul-James Jones
Stu Borman wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society
Imagine being part of a well-funded research institution that values long-range, big-picture innovation and hires creative, inquisitive people to share ideas, experiment, and collaborate in ever-changing combinations.
Though it sounds today like a technologist’s fantasy, this was everyday life for Ed Chandross during his four-decade-plus affiliation with AT&T’s Bell Laboratories. There he played key roles in many projects and headed the labs’ organic chemistry and materials chemistry departments.
His accomplishments include developing materials for optical-fiber production and silicon device patterning—and, in one day of experimentation, discovering the chemistry used in glow sticks, which have become a staple of camping trips, Halloween outings, and raves.
“It was a hell of a ride; I can’t believe how well it worked out,” says Chandross, who started at Bell Labs in 1959 after earning his Course 5 degree at MIT and a doctorate in chemistry at Harvard. “I was fortunate to arrive when I did, and I’m very grateful to MIT for providing me with an enormously valuable education.”
Random conversations over lunch and in corridors were central to Bell Labs’ culture, which Chandross described in his 2011 book, Bell Labs Memoirs: Voices of Innovation. One casual discussion of problems with optical-fiber production gave Chandross “a moment of inspiration” for using a photochemical process to remove impurities. Experimentation quickly verified the concept, and it became an AT&T manufacturing process within weeks.
Chandross, who has a longtime interest in chemiluminescence, made the discovery that led to glow sticks in 1962 by combining organic materials with hydrogen peroxide to generate light. One combination produced faint luminescence, and additional experiments that afternoon led to the basic chemistry still used today. Chandross was unaware of glow sticks’ role in pop culture until he was contacted by a Vice magazine writer in 2013. “It turns out they’re a hot thing,” he says.
A member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Chemical Society, and a former ACS journal editor, Chandross still attends technical conferences and serves as an advisor to MIT’s NSF-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and as a consultant to Bell Labs. “I read a lot—current affairs, science, and technology—and I’m trying to catch up with the amazing advances in biology,” he says. Chandross and his wife, Barbara, have been married for 56 years and have two sons.