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Quizzing the Anonymous
Ignoramus et ignorabimus
Mobile Dick 
20th-Nov-2011 01:54 pm
It was the familiar story of human cruelty and greed: the sperm whales were hunted to the oblivion. Then, in the 1970s, the better part of humanity led by good people - ecological activists - saw the error of their ways and stopped the murder. Good triumphed over evil. Amen.

The problem with such stories is that they leave a lot of questions unanswered. Why were people so cruel and evil? Why did they hunt whales eventhough there were so many other sources of vegetable and mineral oil? What was so special about the mid-1970s? Initially, the sperm whales were hunted mainly to produce stearin and lamp oil. In the 1870s, cheap paraffin oil became available, and the demand for sperm oil decreased dramatically. Around 1900, it started to increase very rapidly; never was it so high as in the early 1970s. How did it happen?

...Sperm oil is the oil from the head cavity of the sperm whale. Stearin and spermaceti may be separated from sperm oil at low temperature. Spermaceti is extracted from sperm oil by crystallisation at 6 °C, when treated by pressure and a chemical solution of caustic alkali. (Wiki)

The oil-filled cavity is used mainly for echolocation, but when the sperm whales dive, they pump cool blood into these cavities: the wax esters solidify at lower temperature and higher pressure and becomes dense, so it is another example of lipid-controlled buoyancy. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v228/n5274/abs/228873a0.html

The main component of spermaceti, cetyl palmitate, is a unique lubricant. It binds strongly to iron oxide on steel through its ester group. When the temperature and pressure increases, aliphatic arms go through a series of conformations, changing the friction coefficient between the steel and hydrocarbons contacting the lube. When sperm oil was replaced by petrochemicals in the 1870s, cheap hydrocarbon fuels became available. Very soon the engine using petrol was invented, but this is not enough to make a car: there are mechanical parts in the engine and gear box needing lubrication. Mineral oil based lubricants proved inadequate for such applications, but the sperm oil was perfect for lubricating heavily loaded gears. The demand started to grow and increased sharply in the 1940s when the automatic transmission was developed. Automatic shifting of the gears requires that the friction coefficient responds to sheer in a certain way, and only sulfurchlorinated sperm oil had the correct type of response curve in the required range of heat and mechanical loads.

As most cars built in America by the 1960s had automatic transmission, the demand for sperm oil became greater and greater. There is only one plant (jojoba) making similar wax ester, but it proved impossible to cultivate this plant on the required scale (they tried that in the 1950s). So there was huge automotive industry lobbying to keep the whale harvesting going, representing many millions of people. Chemical industry has been trying to make synthetic wax esters for many years, but nothing worked well for the automatic transmission fluid (ATF). In the 1970s, the car companies were required to develop engines working at higher temperatures to comply with lower emissions and improved efficiency and that changed the regime for the tranny fluids. Suddenly, the car companies did not need to lobby any more. The government stockpiled sperm oil for its own needs, and then the US banned whaling to no opposition. Tellingly, the car companies miscalculated: they did not have the replacement, resulting in massive transmission failures.

...By WWII development of automatic transmissions was well underway, utilizing the qualities of sperm oil. The torque converter's introduction right after the war gave the automatic transmission the technology required for acceptance by the driving public and by the 1950s automatics were the preferred transmission. By the 1960s up to 30 million pounds of whale oil were used each year, chiefly as the main additive to automatic transmission and locking differential fluids. It was whale oil that made these devices so reliable and efficient and it was primarily the auto industry's requirements that maintained the demand for whaling during the mid-20th Century. Automatic transmissions ran smoothly and reliably using whale oil in lubricating fluids, as long as engine coolant temperatures ran below 173 F.

...Fortunately for the whales, by the 1970s engines became subject to tighter emissions regulations and engineers had to design them to run hotter. Other demands such as front-wheel-drive and ever-increased emissions limits boosted the operating temperatures of engines to well over 200 F, forcing research efforts into synthetic lubricants. http://www.secondchancegarage.com/public/725.cfm

...For complex systems such as transmissions, synthetic and animal substitutes proved to be inadequate, leading to poor overall drive train performance, premature drive train failure and failure due to heat. Automatic transmission failures went from less than a million units in 1972 to over eight million units a year by 1975, due to the loss of sperm whale oil additives. Today, there are over 11 million automatic transmission failures per year (90%) are caused by the degradation of automatic transmission fluid due to heat. Heat promotes the oxidation of transmission fluid, and that compromises its performance and accelerates wear on the internal components of automatic transmissions. http://lubegard.com/news/?p=127

Needless to say that such failures translate into car accidents and loss of human life. It was true that increased heat load destroyed the modified sperm oil in the ATF faster. The problem was that its freshly developed synthetic analogs were performing even worse. Only in the 1980s, a chemical solution to this problem was found, and I highly doubt that it could have been found earlier. Now we have the pieces of the story:

Sperm whales use unusual rheological properties of wax esters in order to control buoyancy, and these properties also make such chemicals an ideal lubricant for extreme pressure applications. When the world relied on whales as a source of hydrocarbons, these were too expensive to use as fuels, and the demand was self-limiting. When the whales were “saved” by petrochemical industry, it was only a short respite. Petrol-powered machinery required new types of lubricants that increased rather than decreased the reliance on sperm oil. Petroleum was plentiful, the cars filled the world, and it is at that point that the whales began to disappear. Literally nothing was done to save these whales until the cars evolved to the point when the engines started to operate at a higher temperature; the latter was caused by the concern about human health and efficiency rather than the well being of these whales. The environmental activists drove their cars just like everyone else, and they consumed transported goods and benefitted from sperm oil based lubricants in a myriad other ways, sustaining the demand. It was not their attention grabbing activities that stopped killing whales, but the unsung efforts of chemists finding a synthetic replacement to sperm oil. Meanwhile, human lives were lost through multiple transmission failures.

The reason why so many whales were killed in the 20th century was the distant ramifications of replacement of whale oil by petroleum. It took another 100 years to find solutions to these ramifications, and only then it became possible to save the whales. Ecological activism did not play significant role in all of these developments; neither did the numerous well-meaning international treaties, moratoriums, and other chest beating displays.

A chemist who saved the whales has not merited a Wikipedia entry. His name was P. S. Landis and he was a researcher at Mobil Oil.

20th-Nov-2011 08:45 pm (UTC)
Wow. In the 'Futurama' cartoon the 31st century hovercars use whale oil. I thought this was just a joke.
20th-Nov-2011 09:05 pm (UTC)
No joke. We still have the national strategic whale oil reserve, and if you badly need it (and can prove that to the US government), you can obtain it from there. I've heard that the gears in the Hubble Telescope were lubricated with sperm oil, though I do not know if this is true. For applications at low temperature it remains unsurpassed. BTW, it still remains unknown what makes it such an exceptional lubricant, there are only theories.

By the 31st century, no fossil fuels will be left in the ground, so we'll be back to recycling atmospheric CO2 in the sustainable, socially responsible way, of which whale harvesting is an example. The Futurama guys get it right.
20th-Nov-2011 08:57 pm (UTC)
by the 1970s engines became subject to tighter emissions regulations

well, one can say that also was a chest beating display, which worked in the whale favour.

What you story seems to prove is exactly that activism does lead to change.
20th-Nov-2011 10:01 pm (UTC)
I do not deny that activism that targets human condition works. But the activism targeting whale conditions never worked.
20th-Nov-2011 09:03 pm (UTC)
BTW, I could not find what S. in Phillip S. Landis stands for. Do you know his full name?
20th-Nov-2011 09:06 pm (UTC)
No, I do not.
20th-Nov-2011 09:26 pm (UTC)
любопытно, на сколько автомобилей хватало одного кита? с точностью до порядка..
20th-Nov-2011 10:24 pm (UTC)

There was 25e6 cars and 2e4 sperm whales. This is about right: each whale yields three tons of sperm oil, and 10% is spermaceti, so you get a fraction of a kilo per car. Back then the transmission fluid lasted the entire lifetime of a car.
20th-Nov-2011 11:34 pm (UTC)
Is it that difficult to synthesize cetyl palmitate? Does not look like a very complex chemical to me.
21st-Nov-2011 04:19 pm (UTC)
...if you have synthetic cetyl alcohol and palmitic acid. Unfortunately, they do not grow on trees. Finding economic means for mass production of these chemicals is far from trivial.
21st-Nov-2011 02:11 am (UTC)
He is not in Wikipedia? Add him.
21st-Nov-2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
I know too little about him for such an entry.
21st-Nov-2011 03:08 am (UTC)
But hunting of other species was banned around the same time, even though they didn't have that kind of oil.
Also, it wasn't sustainable. At that rate the whales would go extinct pretty soon, and car manufacturers would have to learn to do without them anyway.
21st-Nov-2011 08:40 am (UTC)
Nobody cares about sustainability. No business goes out of business because they say "Uh-oh, our business model is not sustainable beyond N years". Our society and our human nature doesn't work this way.
21st-Nov-2011 08:43 am (UTC)
Good story, thanks! However, it seems that there is nevertheless some merit to the activism towards saving the whales. If not for this activism, would not the whales continue to be hunted?

I heard two things concerning the hunting of the whales:

- the USSR needed them for lubricants used in missiles. Therefore, the USSR produced huge ships for hunting the whales, and violated all kinds of regulations on a mass scale, killing about half of the world whale population.

- China continues to hunt whales because they think whales provide an aphrodisiac.
21st-Nov-2011 09:12 am (UTC)
My own only association with the sperm whales is the perfume making and cosmetics industry. Given the current explosion of the area, one could expect the whales to be endangered once again. Together with the jojoba, of course :-)
21st-Nov-2011 10:34 am (UTC)
It is a wonderful story, but it is about the demand only. What about the supply? The new efficiency regulations in the seventies surely were introduced as a result of the huge petroleum price increases, not just (or mainly) due to the "activism". Also, the cheap oil of the sixties and the car industry growth must have demanded more and more sperm whales - you say so yourself. It must have lead to some depletion and an increased difficulty of hunting them, which I guess was reflected in rising prices of the sperm oil. This must have added to the pressure to develop an alternative.

This Mobile Oil chemist deserves his praise. But much of our thanks must go to OPEC and personally to the Arab sheiks and ministers for their oil shock of 1973. Similarly, the current spur in the development of the various alternatives to the ME oil is driven by the high oil prices, not just by the scores of inventive engineers.
21st-Nov-2011 05:09 pm (UTC)
The alternatives to sperm oil were not developed overnight, it took about 20 years. It took about 12 years to develop catalytic converter from an idea to a prototype. Yet you cannot have an engine running at high temperature and nothing removing NOx, as you will end up polluting more. The companies were looking for a way to improve fuel efficiency long before the 1973 crisis and it was possible to change production quickly only because there were workable solutions, and still it was a traumatic transition. Our problem is that we do not really have such solutions. I do not see how a price shock can help. I am not alone: I know many scientists admitting the same and only hoping that stepping up investment in research can generate such solutions. I have my doubts about that, but it is a gamble worth taking. The markets also do not believe in these "alternative solutions."

You raise the issue of sustainability, but it is simply very difficult to be sustainable, even if no oil is used as fuel. All these technologies need materials, and many of these materials are C-based. Furthermore, if you have more energy and it is "free" then it will be used somehow, and a lot of this use will be producing C-based materials. Unless you recycle all of them and do not let them to end up as CO2 in the atmosphere, there is no sustainability, only a mirage of it. It is not enough to have "alternative energy" to "save the planet" or reduce reliance on fossil C - like it was not enough to use petrol as fuel to save the whales. This is a matter that needs be thought through. Life depends on sustainability, but in 3.5 Gyr it found only one way of achieving it. It may look pretty inefficient, but it strikes me that it might be the best that can be achieved, if you want to be truly sustainable in the long run. No one wants to think that, though.
21st-Nov-2011 08:51 pm (UTC)
Great article; but as someone who's always driven stick and would never buy an automatic car, I think it's important to point out that 'convenience'-- as defined by the ability to eat a burrito and brake smoothly at the same time -- played more of a role in this miserable saga than did necessity.
21st-Nov-2011 09:27 pm (UTC)
Perhaps there were objective reasons as to why the US went for automatic transmissions in the late 1940s: the distances travelled were longer and the roads were straighter. I've heard that pre-1950 Americans were terrible drivers putting their cars into the highest gear as soon as possible and staying in this gear as long as possible. The cars were very heavy and the grinding was bad. These first hydramatic transmissions were awful (it was not a smooth drive at all) but they preferred anything to shifting gear. It is hard to pass judgment, because neither you nor I have been driving these 1950s clunkers. I believe people know what they are doing (generally). My first car, a Caddy Eldorado, weighed like a tank. I cannot imagine driving it with a manual...
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