Escapism Versus Heavy Industry
    By Enrico Uva | August 22nd 2011 03:09 AM | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Enrico

    I majored in chemistry, worked briefly in the food industry and at Fisheries and Oceans. I then obtained a degree in education. Since then I have...

    View Enrico's Profile

    Thirty years ago, my analytical chemistry professor who had ties to the metallurgical industry asked my lab instructor to select a student to work at a copper refinery for the summer. My friend Lionel had been their first choice, but he already had a summer job with Alcan----and I was next on their list.

    Initially, the prospect of applying what I had learned in my first year of chemistry while earning good money was exciting. But I let my bus ride to the work site put a damper on things. The plant was in the east end of the city, surrounded by several petrochemical refineries. It looked like I was traveling through the inner workings of a 1960's transistor radio. Emissions from the refineries easily diffused through the bus' open windows, and they reeked. It was not as if the owners could load up the copper refinery in the back of a truck and head for fresh meadows, but my unrealistic mind almost expected such a course of action.

    Copper ore goes through several processes before it can be turned into electrical wiring. At a different industrial site, roasting and reduction form sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, respectively. Once those reactions go to completion, so-called anodes arrive at the electrochemical refinery where the copper is purified to 99.7% or higher by placing the anodes in a a strong sulfuric acid solution with some CuSO4. After a small voltage is applied, the copper is oxidized and reduced back at the cathode with the impurities remaining behind in the slag.

    The interesting thing is that the slag contains gold, silver, tellurium and selenium. When the latter element was produced at a peak rate, some of it escaped into the atmosphere and ended up as a visible red residue on the leaves of neighbors' trees. To their credit, the refinery did use an electrostatic precipitator to recapture some of the selenium as it was being produced, but it was not 100% efficient. Rather than trying to look into a better filtration system, I became preoccupied with the negative aspect and with the way some engineers at the plant joked about it.

    The student who had my job the previous summer was not invited to return, as was customary. After quickly adding water to a jug of concentrated sulfuric acid , he had capped it and had shook it vigorously. The correct procedure involves mixing them in reverse order and adding the acid slowly. In his case, the strongly exothermic reaction had shattered the glass and the strong mixture had given him third degree burns. Partly because of this accident, a safety deputy had been appointed, and he lectured all newcomers on the importance of preventive safety measures in the lab. In my mind I beat the drum about how this was another example of what occurred when profits were priority when in reality it was just an isolated case of an inexperienced youth acting thoughtlessly after being pressured for a quick analysis.

    Before stepping into the lab, my blood was tested for all sorts of metals including lead to provide a background reference. Lab technicians in the fire assay department were using the traditional method of baking gold with lead and pounding the lead oxides out of gold to purify it. The problem is that they were inhaling the toxic metal and taking home a good deal of lead dust on their clothes. After developing high concentrations of the lead in their blood, they were subjected to a safer protocol. First they were given paid time off to lower lead concentrations, and when they were returned, they were provided with clean work clothes daily and had to work with masks.

    During my training period, several senior technicians in the lab bent over backwards to serve as good mentors for me, showing me proper wet chemistry techniques and how to operate various instruments. But I focused on stories of how they would occasionally meet emission standards by merely diluting the effluents with water before dumping them in to the St. Lawrence River.

    Sadly, I quit halfway through my 16 week term and headed for a rural part of Europe. In my warped mind I saw it as an escape, not seeing any irony in the fact that I flew there in an airplane with plenty of electrical copper wiring and fueled by a refined petrochemical on a trip made possible by money I had earned working at a copper refinery.