Concrete Evidence: September 1977

December 22, 2014

Concrete Evidence, Feature

The Cassells Part 1

Nancy Cassell wondered if the summer would ever end. New Orleans sweltered under a haze of chemical laden salt air that colored the short shadows cast by the relentless midday sun a pale yellowish gray. Out here in the east where everything seemed to settle, there wasn’t much in the way of Gulf breeze to disperse the brown layers of pollution. Light puff ball clouds floated slowly overhead, the air barely stirred at ground level. The hundred acres of shifting shell banks and soft sand that hosted Cassell Paints had resisted development from the time of the failed British campaign launched from the east against New Orleans in 1814 until Blain Cassell had cleared the brush and sunk pilings into the treacherous soil. He built his original paint manufacturing plant near the back bayou. Five years later he moved everything nearer the road after being wiped out by rising water from a hurricane. The new facility was protected by eight foot levees on the south and east and a new drainage canal on the north.

Nancy was dressed in a long sleeved blue blouse to protect the fair skin of her arms from the burning sun. To shade her face, she wore a wide-brimmed cotton hat that seemed vaguely French rather than American in its red, white, and blue spectrum of color. Light wool slacks emphasized a trim figure, especially for a woman in her mid-fifties with a grown son. Together, she and Blain had sweated to build the business, to subdue the encroaching waters, to drive back the mosquitoes and to hold control over a company that had gone into debt many times in order to grow and compete in the paint business.

The six foot ventilation fans on the roof of the production area alternately growled or whined as the direction of the light breeze changed and they tried to make headway against fumes escaping from some of the mixing tanks where a variety of resins were mixed with solvents and carefully calibrated portions of pigment mixtures to produce industrial paints of various grades and colors.  Some of the paint would go on ship’s hulls, some on helicopter decks, and some would be used on railway cars and construction equipment. Wherever the going was tough, Cassell Coatings were there to serve you.

She felt the circles of perspiration soaking through her blue blouse and the sweat running down the back of her neck as she held a bundle of important paperwork away from her body. She threaded her way around a stack of scrap steel that was as hot as a frying pan, avoided some black creosoted timbers that smelled like old railroad ties and piss, and looked carefully for snakes before she stepped out onto the service walk along the wall outside the last loading bay. She was determined that she wasn’t going to let her husband, Blain Sr., screw up the nuclear power plant project that she had launched despite a storm of protest from the board of directors. She saw the project as Cassell Coating’s last chance to redeem itself from the debacle over the antifouling coating business. They must succeed or else they’d have to sell out. She was afraid that Blain was already drifting down that path.

As if mocking her efforts, when Nancy Cassell turned the corner of the warehouse and continued on her short cut towards the laboratory building, she had to cross a path of brown grass littered with the skeletons of dead beetles and insects that led towards an abandoned corner of the property. One of the “hopes” for the future of Cassell Coatings used to be reached down that path, now hidden behind a screen of bushes out of direct sight.

Blain’s great project had done so well and had gone so wrong. Four years back, Cassell’s antifouling coating, their number one money making product, was going to be banned from U.S. ports as well as many marine facilities around the world as the environmental restrictions on old-formulation antifouling coatings for ships changed. In desperation, Cassell Coatings had started talks with Coastal Technical Associates in hopes of developing new coatings to replace the old ones.  Miraculously, CTA chemists had hit upon a unique solution that held considerable promise.  Cassell couldn’t afford the normal strategy of trying thousands of formulas, testing, moving into hundreds of coatings, testing, and then getting to the one or two formulas that held promise, so Blain had okayed a budget for a lab scale trial and gambled on an all-or-nothing approach based on CTA’s untried theory.

Even she could understand the chemistry. CTA proposed a laboratory scale test of the reaction of tri-butyl tin acetate—a compound qualified as an environmentally acceptable, known antifouling compound—with tetra-ethyl ortho silicate—a chemical substance that was a backbone ingredient in many existing coating formulations. The reaction would produce a monomer with new and unique properties.

Batches produced in the lab confirmed the theory that it was possible to replace the old TEOS material with this new molecule. The scheme had worked perfectly for two years of marine tests because the ingredient that prevented the growth of mollusks was distributed throughout the coating. The price would be highly competitive because Cassell wouldn’t have to add any other, more expensive ingredients.   In less than three years they had possession of a true “all-the-way” through coating with a slow release. Blain knew that they could revolutionize the antifouling industry.

They paid CTA for the list of chemical ingredients, the precise solvent information, and the data specifying reaction temperatures. Cassell received a list of relatively simple instructions: put a condenser on the reactor;  you are making ethyl acetate or fingernail polish-remover; stop the reaction when you collect the measured amount of the ethyl acetate from the reaction; above all, don’t get the reaction too hot.” CTA also proposed to design a scaled up reactor and do the testing for additional funding.

(To be continued)

This is a work of fiction. All references to real names and places are accidental or are used for fictional purposes only. 

About charles frenzel

I've been writing all my life. I've also painted, composed, sculpted, contributed to molecular research, advanced some mathematical concepts, lived on a sailboat, and worked for a Nobel Prize winner. Nothing in my life has pleased me more than to share my life with my wife and friend of over forty years.

View all posts by charles frenzel

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