Georges Guiochon: Separation Science Innovator

Feb 01, 2014
Volume 27, Issue 2

Professor Georges Guiochon spoke to Fabrice Gritti about his pioneering contributions to the field of separation science.

Fabrice Gritti: How did you enter the field of analytical chemistry and come to specialize in gas chromatography (GC)?

Georges Guiochon: After graduating from Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, in 1953 with a Masters degree in engineering, I accepted a graduate student position to research why ammonium nitrate was unstable under certain conditions.

In 1947 ammonium nitrate had been the source of two devastating explosions on cargo ships, one in Texas, USA, and another in Brest, France, that resulted in numerous casualties and widespread devastation.

On 16 April 1947 in Texas, a cargo ship, The Grandcamp, was being loaded with bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer when a fire was detected in the hold. However, at this point 2600 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were aboard. The captain responded by tightly closing the hold and pumping in pressurized steam. One hour later, the ship exploded, killing several hundred people and setting fire to another vessel, The High Flyer, which was moored 250 metres away and contained 1050 tonnes of sulphur and 960 tonnes of ammonium nitrate. The Grandcamp explosion also created a powerful earthshock that broke windows as far as 40 miles away and knocked two small planes flying at 1500 feet (460 m) out of the sky.

The High Flyer exploded the next day, during the night, after having burned for 16 hours. A store of 500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in the nearby warehouse also burned, but without exploding, probably because it was less tightly packed. All but one member of the Texas City fire department died. An estimated 567 people died in Texas City and 5000 people were injured; it was the worst industrial disaster in US history.

On 28 July 1947 in Brest, another cargo ship, The Ocean Liberty, was loaded with 3300 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and various inflammable products when it caught fire. The captain also ordered the hold to be sealed while pressurized steam was pumped in. As this did not stop the fire, the vessel was towed out of the harbour at 14:00, and exploded at 17:00. The explosion caused 29 deaths on the quay side and serious damage to the harbour of Brest.

The objective of my research was to determine regulations required for the safe manufacturing, packaging, storage, and transportation of ammonium nitrate, which was growing in demand, particularly for agricultural applications. At around this time my mentor, Professor Leon Jacque, professor at Ecole Polytechnique, received a visitor who wanted research performed into a hypothesized phenomenon. He believed that strong ultrasonic vibrations from the ship hull generated by hoists uploading bags of ammonium nitrate aboard the ship could cause the transmutation of nitrogen into carbon monoxide (which has roughly the same molecular weight: 28).

The mixture of carbon monoxide and air would then result in an explosion. This hypothesis was far-fetched because nitrogen transmutation would require the input of a very large amount of energy. The mass of CO is less than that of N2. It would have been possible for a spontaneous transmutation to occur in the opposite direction.

On realizing that the visitor was the son-in-law of the French Prime Minister at the time, rather than rejecting the idea, my mentor answered that a powerful, highly sensitive analytical instrument would be needed to detect traces of carbon monoxide in air. This exchange took place shortly after the publication of the paper by James and Martin on gas chromatography (GC), when gas chromatographs began to be manufactured.

My mentor requested that the Office of the Prime Minister provide the funds to buy a GC instrument to research the hypothesized phenomenon. The decision was positive, fast, and we rapidly obtained this instrument, even though the purchase of American goods was tightly controlled at that time. Obviously, I did not detect any CO in the decomposition gases of ammonium nitrate, even under high-energy ultrasonic irradiation. This was not important because the French Prime Minister was replaced in the mean time. I soon put the instrument to good use by investigating other fields of interest of my mentor such as the compositions of natural essential oils, gasoline, and other petroleum distillation fractions. From then on I was hooked on GC, from which I was later attracted to high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and supercritical fluid chromatography (SFC).

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