The American Chemical Society will recognize Thomas Edison’s botanical research laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark on Sunday, May 25, 2014, at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Fla. As early as the 1920s, Edison put green chemistry principles in the national spotlight in his search for a source of rubber that could be produced in the U.S.
Following World War I, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone became concerned about America’s dependence on foreign sources of rubber for its industrial enterprises. As a result, the three men formed the Edison Botanic Research Corporation in Fort Myers in 1927 to investigate a source of rubber that could be domestically produced. The following year, Edison built the botanical laboratory where more than 17,000 plant samples from the United States and the world were analyzed for their latex content. One group of plants—Solidago, commonly known as goldenrod—was selected as the most promising. Edison’s team crossbred species to increase their rubber content and tested industrial production.
Edison’s team employed sustainable practices in their search decades before the principles of green chemistry were formally established. They focused on renewable feedstocks that could be grown in the U.S. such as dandelion, guayule, and goldenrod. In their extraction process, Edison’s team recycled the solvents benzene and acetone used in their two-step, two solvent extraction method. This methodology is still used today by researchers in the field of rubber chemistry (although benzene has now been replaced with less hazardous solvents).
Additional celebrations of Edison’s work in chemistry will be held at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, N.J., on June 6, 2014, in partnership with the North Jersey Section of ACS, and at The Henry Ford, Greenfield Village, in Dearborn Mich., on September 20, 2014, in partnership with the ACS Detroit Local Section. Information about all three dedications can be found at the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program website, www.acs.org/landmarks.
The American Chemical Society established the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program in 1992 to recognize important achievements in the history of the chemical sciences. Subjects recognized through this program have included Bakelite, the world’s first synthetic plastic; the discovery and development of penicillin; and the work of historical figures such as Joseph Priestley, George Washington Carver and Rachel Carson. More information is available online at www.acs.org/landmarks.
Photo: Portrait of Thomas Edison in his chemistry laboratory in 1906. Courtesy the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
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