Chemical Engineers who Changed the World

Profile: McKeen and Kane - Penicillin Production

This post is part of the 12 Chemical Engineers who Changed the World series.

Penicillin is one of the single greatest advancements in the whole history of medicine. And this is for good reason: penicillin is one of the most widely used drugs today.

It is a known cure for a wide range of critical illnesses, such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and staphylococcus and streptococcus infections, among others.

Prior to penicillin, many of the diseases it can cure now where then believed to be untreatable. It was, thus, one of the closest moments that humanity got close to an antibacterial panacea.

The discovery of penicillin—this story is quite popular and you might already know this—is actually a complete accident.

Its discover, Alexander Flemming, who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in left petri dishes of staphylococcus on his laboratory bench as he left for a holiday outing.

Upon his return on September 3, he found that one of the cultures had been contaminated by a fungus.

He noticed that it destroyed the colonies of staphylococcus that were in the periphery of the fungus mold. He later discovered that the fungus was Penicillium and that it released a substance that can kill different types of disease-causing bacteria.

And this was how penicillin was born.

There was much fanfare upon Flemming’s discovery, considering that penicillin showed much promise with its ability to cure then-untreatable diseases.

However, a much harder question came: how can penicillin be mass produced? After all, mass producing and distributing penicillin among disease-afflicted areas is the only way it can make true impact.

This is where McKeen and Kane came in.

Jasper Herbert Kane was born in in Brooklyn, New York, United States. After graduating from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in he first worked during his teenage years at Pfizer’s Brooklyn plant, where he served as James Curie’s assistant.

Much of Pfizer’s research then focused on manufacturing chemicals using fermentation. Specifically, they researched on creating citric acid from enzymes produced by Aspergillus niger, a type of mold.

Curie developed a system for fermenting sugar with A. niger enzymes and producing citric acid therefrom.

Kane improved on this design by inventing a deep-tank fermentation process that used molasses instead, thus freeing Pfizer from the need to buy the much more expensive refined sugar which Curie’s process used. More importantly, this reduced Pfizers dependence on citrus growers in Europe.

John Elmer McKeen also hails from Brooklyn. Born in he attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, where he finished a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.

He immediately worked for Pfizer after graduation. Thus, McKeen garnered much experience relevant to chemical fermentation during this time from the system that Kane developed. In fact, this is when he met Kane, who would also prove important in the mass production and commercialization of penicillin.

McKeen was eventually promoted to head one of Pfizer’s manufacturing departments in before he was made to leave for England to supervise the establishment of a fermentation plant there.

During this time, penicillin was still made exclusively in the laboratory. Thus, production was excruciatingly expensive, slow and minimal.

To stress this point, the first patient to be treated using penicillin—this was incidentally made by competing pharmaceutical Merck & Co.—was on March 14,. Upon treatment, half of the world’s penicillin supply was consumed. That was how little penicillin was being produced.

And mass production research progress was not speeding up either: by June there was only enough penicillin supply in the United States to treat ten patients.

It is important to take note that the United States was at war during this time, and there was huge demand for antibiotics; hundreds of Allied soldiers were dying from infections by the day. A race for mass producing penicillin and securing a generous U.S. defense contract among major pharmaceuticals was imminent.

Curiously, Pfizer was not a pharmaceutical at that time; it only produced industrial chemicals for the food and drink industry.

Regardless, Kane’s design for deep-fermentation tanks was later adopted by Pfizer in order to produce penicillin as it was found to be the most efficient method around. Meanwhile, McKeen for his part helped ensure that the pioneering penicillin plant went up and running. His ingenuity and hard work allowed Pfizer to procure materials needed for setup despite the widespread scarcity during the war time.

This and Pfizer’s profound knowledge of fermentation processes allowed it to overtake its competition. By Pfizer was producing almost half of the United States’ total penicillin supply.

After the war, McKeen was further promoted to executive vice president for the scientific contributions and managerial excellence that he has performed.

He would ultimately become Pfizer’s president in and chairman of the board in —both posts he would serve until his retirement.

He led the company to an era of innovation, producing more groundbreaking antibiotics during his tenure. His administration also saw drastic changes in how Pfizer marketed its products; whereas it only sold its chemicals to other companies before wholesale, Pfizer first sold retail drugs during his term.

McKeen was also an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering. He died.

Kane eventually became vice president and director of biochemical research at Pfizer. He lived a long age, dying due to natural causes in at the age of 101.

Profile: William Hampson and Carl von Linde - Liquefaction

This post is a part of the 12 Chemical Engineers who Changed the World series.

The Hampson–Linde cycle is process for liquefaction of gases that was independently invented by William Hampson and Carl von Linde in 1895.

Carl Paul Gottfried von Linde was born in June 11, 1842, in Berndorf, Kingdom of Bavaria (present-day Thurnau, Germany). Despite his father being a Lutheran minister, von Linde did not follow the path of faith as was expected during his time. Instead, went on to study the sciences.

After attending Kempten Gymnasium in Kempten, Kingdom of Bavaria, von Linde entered the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich in Switzerland in 1861, where he studied engineering. Interestingly, this then–newly founded institution would later produce the best minds of the Western world, including Nobel Prize laureates Albert Einstein and Fritz Haber.

Among von Linde’s teachers were Rudolf Clausius, who is known for his pioneering contributions in the field of thermodynamics; Franz Reuleaux, who is today lauded as the father of kinematics, a branch of classical mechanics that is concerned with describing motion; and Gustav Zeuner, who is the founder of technical thermodynamics, which is a discipline that deals with the engineering applications of thermodynamics.

Von Linde was never able to graduate, however, as he was expelled out of the university in 1864 for his participation in a student protest.

Nevertheless, his profound scientific education did not go to waste; he was able to land a job as an apprentice at a cotton-spinning plant in Kempten, through the recommendation of his ETH professor Reuleaux. He did not stay here for long, and soon enough he moved to the Berlin factory Borsig–Werke. Owned by German industrialist August Borsig, the factory produced steam engine locomotives.

Von Linde’s work experience here deepened his knowledge about gases and thermodynamics further. He finally moved to a Krauss Locomotive Works, a Munich factory which also produced locomotives.

In September 17, 1865, von Linde married Helene Grimm. They were married for 53 years until his death and had six children.

After learning that a new engineering university is to be set up in Munich, von Linde applied for a lecturer position at the present-day Technical University Munich in 1868. He was elevated to professor of mechanical engineering in 1872, and taught many future world-changing engineers, such as Rudolf Diesel who invented the diesel engine.

Von Linde was a very active researcher during his tenure, and produced several works on mechanical engineering, including refrigeration, a field he pioneered. Realizing the potential of his invention, von Linde sought to commercialized his innovative refrigeration process and set up the present-day Linde AG in Wiesbaden, Kingdom of Hesse. Despite the difficult German economy of his time, von Linde experienced lucrative business as his invention found various applications in Germany’s thriving brewing and slaughterhouse industries.

In recognition for his work, he was ennobled in 1897 as Ritter von Linde through his appointment to the Order of Merit of the Bavarian Crown. In and at 92 years of age, von Linde died in Munich out of natural causes.

William Hampson, on the other hand, was born on March 14, 1854 in Berbington, United Kingdom. He was the second son of William Hampson. As for his educational background, he attended Manchester Grammar School and Trinity College at Oxford University, where he was admitted in 1874 at the age of 20.

Surprisingly, he never got any formal education in the sciences and engineering; he took up classics during his stay at Oxford, leading many historians to believe that he was self-taught. And by the looks of it, it seems he performed another marvel: he was the first person to file a patent for gas liquefaction technology, doing so only 13 days ahead of von Linde.

Hampson’s machine used the same principle. For this reason, the process is usually dubbed the Hampson–Linde cycle. As with von Linde’s, Hampson’s invention was a commercial success.

His interests and scientific contributions were far-ranging. For instance, he published works for the public understanding of science on thermodynamics and radioactivity. He was also a licensed apothecary, and did practice in major London hospitals. He conducted research on the pacemaker and contributed minor improvements to the x-ray tube. He also published works on economics.

The Hampson-Linde cycle works by exploiting the Joule–Thompson effect which says that virtually all gases would cool down when expanded in a hollow container.

It starts by compressing the gas in question. This causes it to initially rise in temperature.

The heated gas is sent into a heat exchanger without changing the pressure, then to an expansion chamber where it drastically cools down due to the sudden loss of pressure. This cooled gas is passed through the same heat exchanger where the heated gas was passed earlier.

Hence, the cooled gas absorbs the heat from the heated gas. After heat exchange, the gas is put back into the original chamber for recompression. With the gas losing heat with each iteration of the cycle, this process is done multiple times until the gas cools down enough to allow for it to liquefy. This liquefied gas can then be collected from the expansion chamber (where much of the actual cooling happens).

Profile: Karl Bayer - Extraction of Alumina from Bauxite

This post is a part of the 12 Chemical Engineers who Changed the World series.

Aluminium was once so expensive that an aluminium bar was displayed next to the French Crown Jewels in Paris in 1855. Karl Bayer was an Austrian chemist who developed a process for extracting alumina from bauxite, and along with the Hall-Heroult process was able to reduce the cost of producing aluminium to drop by 80% from 1854 to 1890.

Bayer was born in 1847 in Bielitz, Austria. He studied chemistry at the University of Heidelberg before he began working for the Tentelev Chemical Plant.

He discovered a method for producing aluminium hydroxide as a dye for the textile industry in 1887 and patented it the next year. The process was made of three key discoveries:

  1. Adding aluminium hydroxide precipitation yield could be maximized if agitated in a cold solution with recycled seed. The solids can then be easily filtered and washed to produce a pure product
  2. Alumina within bauxite could be extracted by heating it in a solution of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda)
  3. The spent caustic soda could be easily recycled

The Bayer process is still used throughout the world as the primary method for producing smelter grade alumina. The first alumina refinery using the bayer process was at Gardanne in France in 1894 and is still operating today.

Karl Bayer made a huge impact on the minerals processing industry, as well as modern culture as a whole. The ability to produce aluminium at a much lower cost than previously boosted its use and popularity and is still used extensively throughout the world.



Profile: Henry Bessemer - The Man of Steel

This article is part of the 12 Chemical Engineers who Changed the World series.

The industrial revolution was a time when great men forged the modern world. Engineers played a vital role, and were able to provide long lasting solutions to the great problems of the day.

“I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.”

Henry Bessemer


Henry Bessemer was a British inventor, born in 1813, who in 1856 developed the Bessemer Process - a method of producing vast quantities of steel at a hugely reduced cost.

In a time when steel was only able to be made in small batches, and all major construction was done with iron, Bessemer set out to develop a process for mass producing steel.

The Bessemer process was simple yet extremely effective - cold air was blown through liquid iron, which burnt out any impurities, such as any excess carbon. This was able to produce high quality steel from low quality, local pig iron.

The cost of steel was reduced from £40 to £7 per long ton. This directly lead to the widespread use of steel as a substitute for cast iron, and allowed the production of:

  • Large bridges
  • Railroads
  • Skyscrapers
  • Naval ships
  • High pressure boilers
  • Large turbines

Due to the increased strength at reduced cost steel was able to produce machinery that was much more powerful than previously possible.

 Bessemer was a prolific inventor throughout his life, and was also involved in:

  • Created heavier artillery shells cut with spiral grooves to spin them and improve accuracy
  • Developed a method for embossing velvet
  • Invented a hydraulic machine for extracting sugar cane juice
  • Developed steam driven fans for ventilating mines
  • Designed a furnace for making sheet glass

Henry Bessemer earned over 100 patents throughout his life, and was knighted for his contribution to science. The vast number of designs for a huge number of applications show the depth and talent of Bessemer. His focus, and work ethic are admirable and his should be emulated.


12 Chemical Engineers who Changed the World

“It always seems impossible until its done”

Nelson Mandela

Chemical engineering is involved in nearly every industry, and is critical in processing products which change the world. As the industrial revolution was building the need for material in bulk quantities and low prices was growing. This was also before the term ‘Chemical Engineering’ was used with many of the people in this list considered to be a combination of chemist, engineer, and inventor.

Over the next few months we will be profiling 12 famous chemical engineers who have changed the world:

1. Henry Bessemer - Cheap mass production of steel

2,3. Carl von Linde and William Hampson - Gas liquefaction and refrigeration

4,5. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch - Mass production of ammonia

6. Karl Bayer, Charles Hall, and Paul Heroult - Cheap mass production of aluminium

7,8. Jasper Kane and John McKeen - Mass production of penicillin

9. Waldo Semon - Developed more than 5000 synthetic rubbers including PVC

10,11,12. George Rosenkranz, Luis Miramontes, and Carl Djerassi - Development of the contraceptive pill

All of these engineers developed methods for vastly changing not only the material world, but the way in which we perceive it. They succeeded in creating solutions that the rest of the world could not conceive, or thought to be outcome impossible. They overcame the odds and become truly great.

“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them”

Albert Einstein

These 12 engineers’ stories should be studied and their lessons remembered so that we can strive to emulate their achievements.