Sunday, December 3, 2017

candle studies: wax from an old book

The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes, by Albin H. Warth, published in 1947 by Reinhold Publishing Corporation in New York, popped up somewhere in one of the several wax research studies that lately I have been perusing online. I became keen to own a copy of the book as originally printed and bound. Amazon offered three options ranging in price from $95 (“used – acceptable”) to $500 (“used – good”). AbeBooks offered modern-day reprints for about $15 to $20, and, lo and behold, one old, original book, used, in good condition, a former library book, $22.

The book arrived in the mail this week. A bookplate informs that it once belonged to the Walter Schroeder Library of the Milwaukee School of Engineering, presented to said library by Fred Portz, Sr. A quick Google search led me to Mr. Portz’s son’s obituary (or so I believe), and I stopped to wonder why I was googling Fred Portz. Better to look up Albin H. Warth, Chemical Director at The Crown Cork and Seal Co., Baltimore, Maryland, but, wait, isn’t it too early for a side trip?


The Table of Contents alone of The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes tells us much. The chapters are organized by type of wax (natural; fossil, earth and lignite paraffins; petroleum; synthetic, etc.) and the list below each heading tells us what to expect. For example, in the chapter on natural waxes we will learn about beeswax, cotton wax, cranberry wax, wool wax, and others. Among the fossil and earth waxes we will discover algae wax and peat wax. There seems to be a regular plethora of waxes.


The book’s “Introductory” (Chapter 1) was short and easy, and I appreciated the etymology.
Wax is as old as man. The English term wax is derived from the Anglo-Saxon weax, which was the name applied to the natural material of the honeycomb of the bee. When a material of similar resemblance was found in plants it also became known as weax or wachs, and later wax.
At the start of Chapter 2, “Chemical Components of Waxes,” my gears stalled and my eyes glazed over.


I spent some time mulling over the word tautomer, then skipped ahead to Chapter 3, “The Natural Waxes,” and found myself understanding perfectly well this bit on page 40.
Coloration of Beeswax. Vansell and Bisson143 of the California Agricultural Experiment Station made a study of the coloration of beeswax. Freshly secreted beeswax is white, but it readily absorbs colors from various sources. Some pollens carry yellow substances, which are liberated to the beeswax in either solid or liquid state. A cell in a new bee comb, as well as the walls of the adjacent cells, becomes very yellow when melted (in glass) with fresh pollens collected from various plants. For example, the color imparted to white beeswax by the golden pollen of the sunflower, Helianthus bolanderi, is a bright orange yellow; that of the golden pollen of the California poppy a brilliant orange yellow; that of the bright yellow dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, Weber, a bright yellow; that of the brown pollen of the white clover, Trifolium repens, L., only a trace of yellow; that of the pollens of alfalfa, flax, hollyhock, and many others, none.

Much of the crude beeswax imported from Cuba and other Caribbean countries is distinctly brown. It has a strong beeswax odor, masked to some extent by a tobacco-like smell. The pollen of tobacco plants is said to be responsible for both the off-odor and off-color of this wax.
Before long, though, I was once again at a loss. Here it is, plain as day, the chemical composition of beeswax, and yet to me it appears almost completely meaningless.


The sub-section that ends with this big reveal begins with the claim that “For the past century the chemical composition of beeswax has been a subject of discussion … ”.

I see there’s a long way to go. (Coming up: liquid animal waxes such as mutton bird oil and “Sperm oil from the blubber and the cavities in the head of the sperm whale … ”.) Much mystery lies ahead.

Time for a Side Trip

At the end of the beeswax section in The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes, the National Farm Chemurgic Council is mentioned.
The National Farm Chemurgic Council has reported that beeswax is being used in connection with the manufacture of at least four hundred articles—from ammunition, cosmetics, and medicines, to protective coatings on airplanes.
I insisted on googling “chemurgy” and found an interesting article in the “Journal of Industrial Ecology,” Volume 7, Issue 3-4, Version of record online: 8 Feb 2008. In Old Efforts at New Uses: A Brief History of Chemurgy and the American Search for Biobased Materials, Mark R. Finlay writes:
Basing the name of their movement on the root words for chemistry (chemi) and work (ergon), chemurgists contended that the chemicals found in farm products could provide industry with needed raw materials. … Chemurgists had three principal goals: to develop new, nonfood uses of existing crops; to develop new farm commodities useful to industry to grow in lieu of surplus commodities; and to find profitable uses for various agricultural wastes and residues. Moreover, because most chemurgists were unabashedly economic nationalists, most hoped their programs would drastically reduce U.S. dependence on foreign markets.
Born in Dearborn, Michigan, in the mid-1930s out of a meeting of like minds (including Henry Ford’s, whose company in 1935 “used 1 bushel of soybeans for every car it manufactured”) and directly linked to the experiences of and aftermath of World War I, chemurgy and its emerging councils had an impact which lasted until the Second World War and somewhat beyond, fading throughout the 1950s and 1960s until the councils, if not the ideas behind them, unraveled. As with all movements, I suppose, proponents varied in their intensity of belief. William J. Hale, referred to as “the father of chemurgy” in his New York Times obituary (August 9, 1955) and described in Finlay’s article as a “Michigan chemist linked by marriage to the Dow Chemical Company, and chair of the U.S. National Research Council’s Chemistry and Chemical Technology Committee,” was perhaps on one end of an extreme.
… the chemurgists’ isolationist politics came under increasing scrutiny, and Hale’s writings, which included strong praise for the self-sufficiency schemes of Nazi Germany, became increasingly irrelevant5 (Wright 1995).