Research Laboratories and National Defense


By DR. HENRY G. KNIGHT, Chief, Bureau of Agricultural Chemistry and Engineering, United States Department of Agriculture

Delivered before the Eighth Annual Chemurgic Conference, Stevens Hotel, Chicago, Illinois, Wednesday, March 25, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 463-467.

WHEN Vice President Wallace laid the cornerstone for the first of the four Regional Research Laboratories he said, "It is a comforting thought to know that this great research laboratory that we are laying the cornerstone for today, and the other three that are under construction in other parts of the country, could be turned into research institutions for National defense should the occasion demand."

That remark was made at the cornerstone ceremonies of the Northern Laboratory at Peoria, Illinois, on October 18, 1939—just a little over two years ago. Those of us who heard that remark hoped at the time that it would never be necessary for us to direct the energies of these great agricultural research institutions toward the defense of the country. We wanted them to be used to search for ways to help farmers make more money from their crops and thereby improve their standard of living.

But we didn't get our wish. The attack on Pearl Harbor, just as the research in these laboratories was getting under way, threw us headlong into the midst of what may turn out to be the greatest conflict this country has ever seen. Instead of being on a peaceful footing we are now fighting for what may be our very existence. The production of automobiles, radios, washing machines and many other civilian needs has either been stopped or greatly reduced.

Normal procedures that have been in operation for years have been suddenly disrupted. We have been compelled to switch quickly from a peacetime to a wartime Nation. Our people, our industries, our research organizations, and all of our other possessions must now go where they will be worth the most in our all-out fight for victory and the freedom which we once enjoyed and which we are determined to regain.

I'm glad to be able to say to you on this occasion that these laboratories are living up to Vice President Wallace's prediction. They, along with other research organizations and institutions, are contributing their bit to the defense of the country. Defense activities used to refer mainly to muskets, bayonets and cannon. But it's much broader than that today. Defense activities under present conditions comprise not only those lines of research directly related to military operations, but also to the secondary problems that arise in connection with the needs of the civilian population. Of course, these laboratories were designed for peacetime investigations, and so far as we know the entire staff of scientists will eventually return to that field of work, but for the present, at least, we are devoting our entire energies to National defense.

And now that we have been attacked and forced to fight to defend ourselves, we have suddenly awakened to the factthat we can't go out and instantly buy the things required for a quick victory. With all our wealth we can't buy rubber tires, airplanes, battleships, and tanks. It takes time to increase the supplies of these things—just as it takes time to initiate and carry out large-scale programs of constructive research. I'll admit that it is sometimes difficult for the average layman to see the need for expanding defense activities in time of peace or for carrying on research for rubber or some other product which we import. But it is easy to see the value of these precautions when we are at war. We didn't hear anything about the years of painstaking research and the thousands of dollars that the Duponts put into the development of Nylon, but we are mighty proud now that we have something to take the place of silk that is no longer available in sufficient quantities to meet our needs. We are proud also of the foresight that gave us the Bankhead-Jones fund for fundamental research which has resulted, among other things, in the development of domestic drying oils used in the manufacture of paint and varnish. And now as never before we see the wisdom that Congress displayed in 1938 when it authorized the establishment of the four Regional Research Laboratories to search for new and wider industrial outlets for farm products.

These laboratories have been built and occupied and are now at work on the programs that have been mapped out for them to follow. Due to somebody's foresight we now have these four large research centers which can carry on investigations for either the civilian needs, or the armed forces, or both, and at the same time if necessary. But we couldn't get these laboratories today in time to help win the war if we didn't already have them because it has taken about two years to build and equip them. That's about the length of time required to plan and build and equip and staff and get the research going in laboratories like these. So you can see how fortunate we are in having these laboratories and in having work under way in them in times like these when every minute counts. You can see also how fortunate we are in being able to use these laboratories for research in the defense field.

Let's turn now to the work that is under way and see just what is being done in these laboratories, and how this work is fitting in to the program of National defense. Naturally, I can't tell you about all the work that is going on because some of it is of a confidential nature which I can't discuss, and because it would take too much time. So I'll take up a few of the more important topics that we can discuss and tell you about these. With your permission I'd like to talk about the topics without associating them with any particular laboratory. I'm sure you'll understand my reason for wanting to do this. First, though, let me say that there are now 189 people employed in the Northern Laboratory; 175 in the Southern; 185 in the Eastern; and 192 in the Western. In other words, something like 741 of the approximately 1,000 people that will ultimately be employed in these Laboratories are now at work. Equipment has been or is being installed in all of the 72 individual laboratory units in the Northern Laboratory; in 50 of the 72 units in the Southern Laboratory; and in practically all of the units in the other two laboratories.

Nitrocellulose, or what we used to call gun-cotton, is the basis for modern smokeless powder, which we are manufacturing in this country just as fast as we can. The cellulose which is used in making nitrocellulose normally comes from cotton linters. Our supply of chemical grades of linters is normally sufficient to meet our own needs, but with this country acting as the "arsenal for Democracy,"

our supply of linters is not sufficient to meet the combined needs of this country and the countries we are supplying.

Raw lint cotton has certain advantages as an alternative source of high-grade cellulose for use in an emergency, although, of course, it normally is too valuable for other purposes to be diverted to this use. In anticipation of a shortage of linters, one of the Laboratories began last February to investigate the possibility of using lint cotton for making smokeless powder. After successful laboratory experiments, plant-scale investigations were carried out in cooperation with industry and the Navy Department. While the final results of these investigations are not yet available, there is every indication that they will be successful. The principal problem involved in using lint cotton in smokeless powder is cutting it quickly and efficiently to suitable lengths for purification and nitration with existing equipment. A new type of cutting machine is being developed which we hope will solve this problem. This project as you can readily see is wholly of a defense nature yet it is using an agricultural product of which there is a great abundance.

Naturally, lint cotton is not the only source of cellulose. It's found in many of our farm crops. There are large quantities of cellulose in such agricultural residues as cornstalks, corncobs, cotton stalks, sugarcane bagasse, and in the straws of oats, wheat, barley, rye, and so on. We are looking into all of these different angles as fast as we can because we know that a lot of research is needed before we can say whether or not the cellulose in these now largely wasted farm residues can be obtained on a satisfactory commercial basis. One of the Laboratories is giving a great deal of thought to the whole cellulose problem, particularly as it pertains to farm residues. The scientists are studying this problem from many angles, and when they get through we hope to know a great deal more about cellulose than we do at the present time. Cellulose is used in many things both by the civilian population and the armed forces, and the more information we have on it the better we can utilize it to our advantage.

Some of the problems we are working on in these research laboratories involve the finding of domestic substitutes or replacements for imported materials which have been cut off by the war. For example, sandbags are a military necessity and are needed by the millions in warfare; yet, until recently, all sandbags were made from jute, or burlap if you want to call it by that name. Burlap is imported from India, and since the fall of Singapore it is doubtful if we can get enough now to meet even our sandbag requirements.

Looking to such a situation as we would now be facing if we had to depend on India for our sandbags our cotton technologists suggested to the War Department long before the attack on Pearl Harbor that studies be made to see if cotton fabric couldn't be treated so as to make it satisfactory for sandbag purposes. It was pointed out that certain cotton fabrics! which have the strength and quality required for sandbag purposes could be produced in large quantities in this country without much difficulty. The cotton technologists in one of our Laboratories analyzed and tested a large number of commercially produced cotton fabrics, correlated the results with data obtained from service tests, and then used their findings as a basis for drawing up minimum specifications for use in purchasing cotton sandbags which the War Department is now doing. Shortly after the War Department adopted specifications for the purchase of cotton sandbags, our scientists were asked to conduct research to determine the most effective treatment for preserving fabrics against attacks by micro-organisms. In compliance withthis request, our chemists and bacteriologists made exhaustive tests of practically all known preservatives and made the results available to the War Department. There is no way of calculating the dollar and cent value of research of this kind, but it is definitely of a defense nature and it does utilize one of our major farm crops. Projects like this that find defense uses for farm products are valuable indeed in times like these.

Another development that looks promising at this time is the possibility of producing fire hose without the use of rubber and linen. The hose used by fire departments consists of a circular woven cotton fabric lined with rubber which is now about as valuable as gold. Then there is the unlined fire hose, kept for emergency use in industrial plants and other buildings, that is made of linen, a commodity which we can't get now in sufficient quantities on account of the war. Last September, the Civilian Defense Administrator requested us to investigate the possibility of making a fire hose wholly from domestic materials that will be leak-proof and strong enough to meet the demands for both types of service. Our technologists believe that a pliable plastic lined hose of proper design can be developed which will be equal and probably superior to the present rubber lined type. The plastic lining phase of this work is being done by a large manufacturer of cotton fire hose yarn, and the results they have obtained appear very promising indeed. Our chemists and cotton technologists are also working with various chemical treatments and fabric designs to see if it will be possible to develop an unlined cotton fire hose to replace hose formerly made of linen, where the pressures are comparatively low. If these efforts are successful, this country will not only be able to lick the rubber problem as it applies to fire hose, but another step will have been made in finding new and wider uses for farm crops.

In our effort to send food to our friends across the ocean we have suddenly come face to face with the fact that shipping space is not as plentiful as it used to be. The situation is not only serious, but it is growing worse as submarines and dive-bombers exact heavy tolls from the shipping lanes. Naturally we believe we'll be able to overcome these unfavorable hurdles in a few more months after we get into full production of ships and equipment. One of the ways our scientists are trying to help in this situation is through the dehydration of vegetables. We are now vigorously pushing a Bureau-wide research project on the dehydration of vegetables. Scientists have been drawn from all over the Bureau of Agricultural Chemistry and Engineering to help in this important and much needed research, and I'm glad to report that the work is well under way. Dehydration not only reduces the amount of space that would be taken up by raw products, but it also saves on weight since most of the water, which is the weighty part of vegetables, is taken out in the dehydration. We are conducting exhaustive pilot-plant scale research with both the tunnel and the cabinet types of dryers, and have just completed a small unit for the Indian Service that is a combination of both types. This project is not only furnishing us with badly needed information on the production, storage and transportation of dehydrated products, but it may be a temporary bridge to the gap brought on by the shortage of tin which is normally used in canning fruits and vegetables. In this case we are not developing new uses for a product, but we are developing new and improved methods for saving and storing valuable food that is needed by both the civilian population and the armed forces. And that's mighty important.

One of the main troubles with dehydrated products during the first World War was the off-flavor of the product afterit was rehydrated, or restored to its natural condition. We are trying to correct this difficulty as well as to make improvements in color, flavor, and other things that add to the attractiveness, palatability, nutriment, and keeping quality of dehydrated products. The crops being studied under the present set-up include white potatoes, carrots, onions, sweet potatoes, cabbage, and other leafy vegetables.

Another timely piece of research that is under way in one of the Laboratories is the work on frozen foods. Secretary Wickard has called for large increases in the production of many of our agricultural commodities. This program not only meets with general approval, but there have already been large increases in the production of milk and eggs and some of the other commodities. The question that naturally arises in connection with this increased production is, how is the best way to store and keep these products until they are consumed?

The ever-normal granary seems to be serving a good purpose in that field. The dehydration work that we are doing and the frozen pack investigations that are under way in one of our Laboratories will all contribute to this general objective of saving the foods we are striving to produce in larger quantities.

We now come to another industry—that of naval stores; decidedly Southern, and one whose products have served in War and in peace since Colonial days. In the early days its principal product—pine pitch—was considered indispensable for caulking ships. Today the raw materials are rosin and turpentine almost entirely. Their derivatives figure prominently in war materials. Thanks to turpentine and a far-seeing synthetic chemical industry, we can now get synthetically the camphor we need for smokeless powder, plastics and other requirements. Our scientists discovered some time ago that American turpentine is rich in pinenes and constitutes excellent raw material for synthetic camphor. Unlike World War I, when Japan was our ally, the supply of natural camphor (from Formosa) is now completely shut off, like that of natural rubber.

The supply of palm and coconut oils from the Pacific Islands is also shut off and fats and oils available for soap stock are steadily decreasing. We need fear no serious soap shortage, however, for we can look to rosin to supplement our soap stock. As this Bureau has shown, rosin is not a filler, but when judiciously used with soap oils, it will make a good soap.

From dipentene (derivable from turpentine) is now being made a chemical known as isoprene which is valuable as a synthetic rubber intermediate. In the present acute rubber shortage, all possible synthetic rubber intermediates are of great potential value. Isoprene is not the only derivative of turpentine that might serve to supply such intermediates. Recently the Bureau reported on experiments with thermal isomerization derivatives of turpentine, comprising conjugated chain trienes which also have potentialities in the synthetic rubber field. These also show interesting possibilities in the drying oil and synthetic resin fields.

The naval stores industry is not one of the big industries of this country. Nevertheless, some four to five hundred thousand people in the pine belt—from North Carolina to Eastern Texas—depend on it in whole or in part for a living. Today the pine resin, or "pine gum" as it is called is still converted into but two raw materials—rosin and turpentine. The natural resin complex, consisting largely of terpenes and diterpene—mono-carboxylic acids, while it is unlike coal tar, in that it comprises non-benzenoid or hydro-aromatic compounds, is, like coal tar, destined to become a source for a host of valuable chemicals—chemicalswhich are not only important in the present emergency but which may play an important role in the post-war economy of the South.

In time of war there is a great increase in the demand for certain types of leather. It is needed to make shoes for marching soldiers, and for other war-time purposes. We now import about half of the material that is needed in tanning the leather that is produced in this country.

Due to the shortage of ships and the discrimination against cheap cargoes like tanning material the situation in this field is steadily growing worse. Prices of certain tanning materials are still rising as supplies dwindle and new shipments become increasingly scarce. The price of tanning materials has advanced about 20 per cent since the outbreak of the war in 1939. One of the research Laboratories is making a special study of this field in the hope of finding some sort of a solution to this problem. Our scientists in cooperation with scientists of the Bureau of Plant Industry and other agencies of the Department of Agriculture are making a thorough study of plants and trees in this country that give promise of producing satisfactory tanning materials in commercial quantities.

We have already found what we believe to be a very good source of tanning material in the bark of the Western hemlock tree. The results of laboratory-scale investigations with Western hemlock bark have been satisfactory. What is needed now is a pilot plant at some point in the Pacific Northwest where this bark is produced in large quantities.

The canaigre plant which grows wild in certain areas in the Southwest is also a promising plant for the production of tanning material. Our scientists in cooperation with the scientists of Plant Industry and the Soil Conservation Service are making thorough studies of this as well as other plants of a promising nature in the hope of finding an outlet to this gradually tightening bottleneck. This is a project that will probably require considerable study over a fairly long period of time, but it is something that should not be neglected too long or we may find ourselves in another rubber situation. I'm mentioning it here because it has a direct connection with leather which is used in making shoes for both the civilian population and the armed forces. It is therefore of the utmost importance to everybody.

One of our Laboratories is in the midst of an investigation which may prove to be of considerable economic importance as well as a help in providing our people with a better balanced diet. This project centers around an attempt to produce nicotinic acid now called "niacin" on an economically commercial basis from nicotine.

The aim is to try to produce the nicotinic acid from a type of tobacco known as Nicotiana Rustica which is not used for smoking and which contains more nicotine than the smoking varieties. This species is capable of producing two or three times more nicotine per acre than the ordinary varieties, and we are hopeful that this thing can be worked out so that it will become economically profitable for the small tobacco farmer to produce a nicotine crop as a supplement, replacement, or cash crop.

There are now two rather substantial outlets for nicotine. One is in the food reinforcement field after the nicotine has been converted into niacin, and the other is its use as an insecticide. You are all acquainted with the importance of nicotine in the insecticide field. And you know how the demand for niacin has increased since January 1941 when the Committee on Food and Nutrition recommended enriching white flour with thiamine, niacin, iron, and riboflavin when it becomes available in sufficient quantities. It is estimated that we now need about 200,000pounds of niacin annually to enrich our flour, and another 20,000 pounds for use in pellagra treatment. Niacin is sometimes called the P.P. or pellagra-preventing vitamin. This suddenly large demand for niacin is twenty times larger than the total amount of niacin produced in 1940, and would require around 20 million pounds of tobacco were all the acid made from tobacco nicotine. At present coal tar competes with nicotine from tobacco as a source of niacin. And tobacco may not be able to compete with the coal tar, but we are going to try to find out whether or not it can.

Another important requirement at present, and one which can only be supplied by the farmer, is for the protein needed by industry. The oldest and still the main source of this protein is skim milk, from which casein is made. In the past the greater part of the casein has been used to make the slick coating on magazine paper, and the rest has gone to make glues, plastics, and water paints. We now have a new need for protein. Synthetic fiber to help supplement our deficient supply of wool is already being made commercially from casein and used in mixture with other fibers. Of course, as with any new development, the new fiber does not equal wool in many respects, but it is warm, and we are striving to improve its other properties to the point where a satisfactory suit can be made from it. Artificial fiber is also being developed from soybean and other proteins.

Milk is valuable as a food, and casein production, of course, cannot interfere in any way with the manufacture of dried milk and cheese for our use or for export to our allies. We expect casein production to fall off about a fourth this year, and, even with large imports from Argentina, we shall need more industrial proteins than we have in sight, so we are going after this problem in two ways, trying to develop new sources of casein by using skim milk which isn't available to drying or cheese plants, and trying to develop other proteins as satisfactory substitutes for casein. Both of these lines of work appear promising; the second has been worked on for several years and already has given valuable results.

At the Department's Soybean Laboratory we tried to extract a protein from soybean curd which could be used as a substitute for casein. The project was a success. A commercial plant now in operation is turning out about 6 million pounds of soybean protein a year. But there is still a shortage because it is estimated that we need about 20 million pounds of this new soybean protein a year. We have enough soybean meal to produce this amount of protein, but we don't have the processing machinery to get it out, and that's why there is a shortage of this new substitute for casein. Of course, we'll eventually lick this problem of producing proteins for industrial use, but it may take a little while to do it.

The Laboratories are also working on the production of industrial proteins. Since the war food situation has caused a drastic shortage of commercial casein heretofore used extensively in the production of coating and adhesive materials, the need of finding satisfactory protein substitutes for casein is strongly indicated. In partially meeting this situation one of the Regional Laboratories is exploring, with encouraging results, the possibility that feathers and related substances can be processed in such a manner as to produce adhesives for plywood and related uses. Fiber and film possibilities for these proteins are also suggested. Another Laboratory is working on zein which is a product of corn. The investigations thus far show that zein can be used in certain types of paper coatings as well as for other purposes. A small amount of zein is now obtained in themanufacture of cornstarch. Much larger quantities could be produced if the price justified it. Then there is the possibility of finding a cheaper way of getting zein out of corn and of improving its stability. That's where our engineers may come into the picture. We have found that the combination of chemists and engineers makes a good team for the many and varied projects we are working on. Each complements the other.

One of our Regional Laboratories is conducting investigations on the development of plastics, cellulose pulp, paper, and low-cost building materials from agricultural residues. It is also carrying on cooperative investigations with various State engineering and agricultural experiment stations and farm equipment manufacturers on harvesting and collecting machinery with the objective in view of not only lowering collection and baling costs, but also improving the quality of the residues.

Penicillin is a substance of unknown nature produced by the action of a mold, Penicillium notatum, when grown in artificial culture. When diluted as high as 1:50,000,000 it will stop the growth of bacteria such as Streptococci, Staphylococci, and certain other pathogens. It is non-toxic to humans and can be administered intravenously, orally, or by surface application. It has been found to be especially efficacious by the English in the treatment of gangrenous infections and burns, the latter making up a large part of current casualties in the British Isles. Penicillin is at present very difficult to prepare, but if made generally available it may well be the biggest advance in the treatment of infections since the development of the sulphonamide drugs. One of the Regional Research Laboratories, because of the special training and experience of several members of its staff in the handling of molds, has been chosen to conduct work leading toward the eventual commercial production of this interesting material, and noteworthy accomplishments have already resulted from its activity in this field.

I haven't said anything about the part the pilot plant is playing in the Regional Laboratory program. Sometimes it's a fairly easy matter for a good scientist to produce something in the laboratory on a very small scale. I know of any number of persons who have done that. But that is merely the first link in a chain of several links, and the rub comes when a manufacturer sets up a commercial plant and attempts to turn out large quantities of a product based on nothing more than test tube results. The pilot plant is needed to bridge the gap between the test tube and the commercial plant. In reality a pilot plant is a small-sized commercial plant designed so that records and cost accounts can be kept on production. These, of course, help the prospective manufacturer to reach a constructive conclusion asto whether or not it would be profitable for him to enter that field.

Each of the four Laboratories has a large space designed for pilot plant research. One of the Laboratories has just completed and is placing in operation a large pilot plant for the production of motor fuel from agricultural products. This pilot plant would have been in operation long ago if we could have gotten the necessary equipment. This particular pilot plant is large enough to produce 500 gallons of fuel spirits a day. It contains the most modern equipment that we could get under the emergency conditions that have existed for more than a year. We have developed the most efficient strains of yeast to use in fermenting the raw material for this work. Our first work is with corn but we expect to conduct investigations on a great many farm products and by-products in our attempt to get accurate and constructive information on this tremendously important motor fuel problem.

And, of course, you know from what you have seen in the papers, that we are working on synthetic rubber in one of the Laboratories. I can't tell you much about that project because it is of a confidential nature. I can tell you that our most promising prospect is in the production of what scientists call a rubber extender. By mixing this material with natural rubber from the rubber tree or from the guayule plant which the Bureau of Plant Industry and the Forest Service have been asked to develop in this country, we can extend or enlarge the amount of commercial rubber that can be produced from natural rubber. We'll soon be in pilot plant production of this new rubber extender which can be made from one of our widely produced farm crops. With the rubber situation as it is it seems to me that we should encourage the development of rubber trees in South and Central America, the development of the guayule plant in this country, as well as the development of synthetic rubber and rubber extenders. After these sources have been developed industry will select the ones that are the most economically practicable for commercial production. And we should push all of these projects as fast as possible in the hope of soon finding something that will prevent the civilian population from having to do without rubber.

I've only touched on a few of the more important research projects now under way in the four Regional Research Laboratories, but I've tried to give you enough information about each project to enable you to get an idea of the type of work that is being done. I have tried to point out that our research is closely linked up with National defense, and that we are pushing it as hard as we can in the hope that our contributions will help this country in our all-out fight for victory and freedom.