From missing chemicals worth millions to a man chosen by the company president, Into the Air stands as a shocking scientific detective story.
Was it the chance of a lifetime? Or was it a trap? Ignoring the shadows of a high-stakes game of deception, a talented engineer tries to play it straight as a series of events lead him through every aspect of a polymer industry, from raw materials to finished products. He is stunned by the human cost of the business to which he has committed his life. Will it be fight or flight in the corporate jungle?
The gas alarm was blowing. Men were running out of Building 512. Was It more dangerous out here? He was standing on the cinder driveway looking at the root.
Whoosh! One of the vent pipes on the roof erupted like a Yellowstone geyser, blasting chemicals and sudsy water into the air. Another rupture disk had broken, and the reactor was spewing its contents into the hot Texas sky. The vinyl chloride gas would disperse instantly, falling below the explosive limit.
A seurity guard ran up. He told the guard to get the men away from the building. A snow of poly vinyl chloride (PVC) particles was already beginning to fall. The men should move upwind so that they would get as little of the white powder fallout as possible.
Most of the PVC particles were falling on the roofs of 512 and 510, the administration building. A gust of wind drove a cloud of the white dust across the parking lot near 510. The chemical blizzard would fill the crevices of the cars with white resin powder.
Splat! Another reactor belched into the air. The building foreman and the security guards had moved the men over to 514. Everyone was out of 512.
There were probably no gas leaks inside 512. Otherwise a concentration of vinyl chloride could build up that would fall within the explosive limits, the mixture range of air and vinyl chloride that could explode with devastating force, blasting 512 apart and levelling the entire plant.
The gas alarm was still sounding. He wondered if the voice-activated recorder in his shirt pocket was picking it up. C had congratualted him on his promortion, but she thought that his new assignment was risky and that he should keep a journal. He took her advice. He was transitioning from his position as PVC plant chief chemist to head up a new lab at the Experimental Station where she was employed.
He was still chief chemist for a few more days; and he wondered if P, the PVC plant manager, would try to lay some blame around. Recently reactors had been going out of control more often, and management was not pleased.
When the gas alarm first sounded, all feeds to the reactors in 512 had been shut off. He hoped there would be no solid charges. It would take days to chop the PVC out of a reactor that went solid. Only one man at a time could work inside a reactor. It was a hard, dirty job; but there were usually volunteers to do it. Were some of the guys hooked on vinyl chloride?
What was going wrong? P had appointed a committee to find out. The chief chemist was a member; but no one individual could be blamed for the lack of progress in solving the problem,
The gas alarm stopped blowing; and the men walked back to 512 laughing and joking. The wind had almost cleared the chemical aroma from the area. He could not smell vinyl chloride: his abilty to detect the sweet odor had been deadened a long time ago by constant exposure. He could smell the peroxide initiator and the hexane used as iniator solvent. He was grateful for the wind.
He thought P would blame the upset on a power failure. That would satisfy any inquiring City officials or newspaper reporters.
He walked into 512. The reactors were on the second floor; each had a separate vent pipe leading to the roof. The PVC plant buildings looked like junkyard birthday cakes.
Below the reactors, on the first floor, were the blowdown tanks. When a reaction was completed, the contents of the reactor were pumped down into its blowdown tank, where the unreacted vinly chloride was separated from the rest of the mixture and sent to storage tanks to be used again.
A year ago, he had suggested that the roof vents be connected to a header pipe leading to an emergency blowdown tank. When a reactor blew out, the chemicals would not go into the air. Instead they could be collected and maybe used again. This would also keep the PVC plant from looking as if had been permently dusted with snow. His suggestion had been indefinitely tabled, but it had given him a dubious reputation of being interested in environmental problems.
What had really caused the reactor blowouts? Was it an impurity in the vinyl chloride that had arrived recently from River City? Probably not. He had found no more than the usual impurities in this last shipment. Something new was unlikely because the gas chromatograph would have shown a strange peak.
It could be the water. The PVC plant used City drinking water in its processes. Until five years ago, the drinking water could be used without further treatment. Then trouble began with reactor blowouts, solid charges, and fisheyes -- particles that would not take up dye and plasticizer as easily as the rest of the polymer.
Extraction of the drinking water with organic solvents followed by gas chromatography revealed the presence of many strange organic chemicals. These chromatogram peaks had grown larger over the years, and some new peaks had appeared. More activated carbon columns were added, but organic chemicals in the drinking water were still getting through.
He wondered if new kinds of chlorine-resistant bacteria were growing in the water, eating the organic chemicals. These bacteria could interfere with the chemical reaction as the vinyl chloride monomer molecules joined together to form the long PVC polymer molecules.
What was to be done? The City cooperated by adding more chlorine to the drinking water, but that was limited by the taste of the water. It was not enough.
Was bacteria growing in the large drinking water storage tanks at the PVC plant? P had not been interested in experiments exploring this path; but the blowouts today might change his mind."
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