My Chemical Romance

If it weren’t for good old chemistry, where would New Zealand be?

Listener: 24 January, 2009

A background to this column is ‘My (Almost) Chemical Career’ at

Keywords: Education; Growth & Innovation;
I almost became a chemist. In the upper forms at Christchurch Boys’ High School I had an inspiring chemistry teacher, Alan Wooff. He not only treated chemistry as an analytic subject, preparing me for my approach to economics, but had a chemistry section in the school library, which I devoured, learning about RNA and DNA long before the double helix became well known.

I never became a chemist; the first-year university course was boring, and in any case, I was so clumsy I was a menace in the laboratory. I still read science for leisure, but have not followed chemistry as closely as some of its other disciplines.

My interests came flooding back when I read New Zealand is Different: Chemical Milestones in New Zealand History, edited by Denis Hogan and Bryce Williamson. I was chasing up bush sickness, which is more important in our economic history than is generally appreciated.

One of the reasons 19th-century Maori did not succeed in the key industry of sheep farming was because the animals were often kept on soils where they wasted away. Instead, the land was put into radiata pine, most notably in the great Kaingaroa Forest in the Central North Island.

Norman Clare’s chapter in the book describes the identification of a deficiency in many volcanic soils, which led to the sheep’s poor condition. Chemical techniques were primitive then, and mistakes happened.

At one stage chemists thought the missing element was iron, but it turned out sheep thrived when only some – but not all – iron ores were added, indicating an impurity was critical. The vital link turned out to be cobalt. Trace elements are now added to the soils and some of the Kaingaroa Forest is being converted into beef and dairy farms.

However, this essay is only one of several that describe chemists’ contribution to New Zealand’s economic development. Other topics include fertilisers, facial eczema, fires in wool cargoes, cheese, fish oils, lactose, frozen meat, pharmaceuticals, chemicals from plants, converting radiata pine into paper, turpentine, seaweed, recovering gold using cyanidation (a world first), geothermal power, ceramics, cement, synthetic fuels, steel and salt from seawater. I had no idea that chemistry had so many practical applications unique to New Zealand – certainly there was no hint of such possibilities in my Stage I chemistry course.

Gordon Leary writes a fascinating essay on the commercialisation of chemistry. It starts with 10 research projects of the Chemistry Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which has since been dispersed into various -sector-oriented Crown research institutes (CRIs). One by one, each of the commercialisations failed, until only skills in the ultra-trace organic analysis market turned in a private profit.

One successful innovation in 10 is not a bad record, but it is salutary to observe the reasons that others did not get through. Sometimes the research finding was never going to work commercially, sometimes it was bad luck, other times bad management. But all the areas, in this chapter and elsewhere, give a sense of the excitement of science, and the possibilities of prosperity that can come from good science.

Published 10 years ago, the book is hardly up-to-date. There must be equally exciting possibilities today. Chemistry is important in understanding the mechanisms involved in climate change.

At the more prosaic but related level, I notice Lincoln University is reporting success in nitrification inhibitors in soils – nitrous oxide emissions being a cause of global warming. Other universities and CRIs are doing as important and interesting work on reducing emissions, alternative energies and pharmaceuticals.

The book is the sort that should inspire some students to stick to science. I reckon the other disciplinary equivalents of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry, which published the book, should tell their stories, too.

Then Mr Wooff and his successors should put them in school libraries, encouraging their brighter students to read them, especially those with greater dexterity in the labs.