If you ask anyone “who was the most dangerous and destructive person in the history of the world?”, you are most likely to hear names such as Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, Genghis Khan etc. But that would be wrong. While these gentlemen indeed get the “honorable mention” on the list of most dangerous and destructive people in the history, they are far behind the one man who beats this collective lot by a mile.
Midgley was an employee of General Motors in 1921 where we worked on two projects that had catastrophic effects on earth’s atmosphere. Midgley was interested in the industrial application of chemistry. While working for the General Motors Research Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, he investigated a compound called tetraethyl lead (also known as lead tetraethyl), which when added to gasoline, significantly reduced the juddering condition known as engine knock. GM, along with Du Pont and Standard Oil Company, introduced it for public consumption in 1923. Almost immediately people who came in contact with the compound started experiencing health issues which eventually lead to deaths. Midgley furiously advocated the safety of the compound.
Chlorofluorocarbons – CFCs
After the success of leaded gasoline, Midgley focused his mind on another technological problem of the times: the use of toxic and inflammable gases for refrigeration. He started research to create a gas that was stable, nonflammable, noncorrosive, and safe to breathe and in the process invented chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. The CFCs went into production in 1930s and were found useful in more applications than you can think of. From refrigeration to paint and deodorant sprays cans; it was everywhere. It wasn’t until half a century later that their use was connected with the depleting Ozone in the stratosphere. By then it was too late. Ozone, in case you do not know, is a form of Oxygen with three atoms of oxygen in a molecule instead of the usual two. On ground level, ozone is a dangerous and is considered a pollutant. But up in the stratosphere, it shields us from the harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
And here is the ‘real’ bad news: ozone is not that abundant. If you take all the ozone on earth and distribute it evenly in the stratosphere it will only be one-eighth of an inch thick. CFCs are not abundant either, but they are seriously destructive – one pound of CFC can capture and destroy seventy thousand pounds of ozone in the atmosphere! And, it is a really, really stubborn gas. It stays in the atmosphere for about a hundred years. And as icing on the cake, one molecule of CFC is about ten thousand times more efficient at creating the greenhouse effect than a molecule of carbon dioxide.
Midgley died in 1944, but his inventions have left the planet in a serious condition that will take centuries to repair, if ever. A recent investigation discovered that the ozone hole is actually getting bigger despite the worldwide ban on CFCs. An accurate estimate of the damage caused by his inventions to animal and plant life (on ground and in the oceans), to the environment and to the stratosphere is impossible. But it is safe to say that Thomas Midgley has single handed reshaped the planet Earth.