what’s whiter than white?

Here’s an article that is interesting for at least a couple reasons. First, the efforts of the Chinese (government? companies?) to steal the “trade secrets” of U.S. companies. For some types of knowledge, like how to program computers, a lot of the potential economic value to be captured exists inside the minds of people who have gained skills only through years of painful education and experience. Stealing a computer program written by one of these people doesn’t really steal that much of the value, because in order to reverse-engineer and use it you basically need someone just as knowledgeable and skilled as the person who created it in the first place. On the other hand, with a substance or material that has a “recipe”, like a chemical or drug, stealing the recipe does mean you have stolen most of the value. So you can understand why companies that develop substances and chemicals go to great lengths to protect their “intellectual property”. I still think there is a legitimate question though whether it is morally wrong to steal something like this. Developing countries can improve the lives of their people by quickly “catching up” to countries with more advanced technology. Is this wrong? Should they have to buy the knowledge? You can argue that if there are no protections for knowledge, there is less incentive for firms to take the risk of looking for new knowledge, and therefore progress will be held back. But I would ask whether if a country like China did not “steal” the knowledge, would it otherwise buy it or would it just go without. If it is the latter nobody benefits – neither the companies with the knowledge or the people that could benefit from it.

The second reason I find this interesting is that it is an example of an incredibly advanced industrial technology that really has no practical purpose, and yet seems to have immense economic value anyway. The value we place on useless and even harmful things could be a practical measure of our flaws as a species. I was shocked to hear that the filling of Oreos contains titanium dioxide just to make it appear more brilliant white. And whether the product is safe or not, the process involves toxic chemicals that have to be manufactured and trucked or trained around at some risk to the public. I really don’t think I want to be eating that. When a product is useful and there is no readily available substitute, you can justify taking some risk to bring it to market. When it is not useful, there is no risk justified in my opinion. Long-term we should be looking for 100% safe alternatives to toxic chemicals.

There’s white, and then there’s the immaculate ultrawhite behind the French doors of a new GE Café Series refrigerator. There’s white, and then there’s the luminous-from-every-angle white hood of a 50th anniversary Ford Mustang GT. There’s white, and then there’s the how-white-my-shirts-can-be white that’s used to brighten myriad products, from the pages of new Bibles to the hulls of superyachts to the snowy filling inside Oreo cookies…

The basics are public knowledge. First, the ore is fed into a large ceramic-lined vessel—the chlorinator. There it’s mixed with coke (pure carbon) and chlorine and heated to at least 1,800F. “The material inside here resembles lava. This is like running a big volcano,” Daniel Dayton, a former top executive at DuPont, told jurors about the chlorinator in 2014. (Chemours and DuPont declined to comment for this story.)

Hot gas in the chlorinator gets piped out and condensed into a new compound called titanium tetrachloride, or “tickle,” as engineers call it. The tickle is heated again, subjected to various purifying chemical reactions, and cooled. Now a yellowish liquid, the tickle is inserted into a second vessel, called the oxidizer. It’s again heated to very high temperatures and mixed with oxygen; the reaction knocks the chlorine molecule off the titanium, and two oxygen molecules attach to the titanium in its place. The resulting particles are so fine that the white stuff has the consistency of talcum powder.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *