From Outer Space to Pacemaker Batteries
CHAPTER 17 - Lithium and the Iron Curtain
Happy New Year! The year 2011 is over and good riddance. I'm sure that view is shared by most people the world over, having suffered record breaking weather-related or ground-disturbance disasters of monumental proportions. Here in New Jersey, even today, we still see some piles of debris or hanging limbs tracing back to our October snowstorm, which resulted in our being designated a major disaster area by President Obama. Ironically, we had not a single snowflake in November or December!
In contrast, 2011 was a great year for science, especially for my favorite project, the search for places in the universe that might harbor life of some sort. The wildly successful Kepler mission found a planet some 600 light-years away from us that resides in a habitable zone around a star resembling our Sun. The temperatures on this planet, which is much larger than Earth, are apparently in a comfortable 70 degrees Fahrenheit zone. Even more impressive to me is that, very recently, NASA reported that Kepler found two planets, one a tad smaller than Earth, the other a tad larger. Although both these small planets are much too hot to support life, the discovery of such small planets is really cool. The chance of eventually finding our twin out there in space now seems much more likely.
In past years, I've mentioned Discover magazine's picks of the 100 most important scientific stories of those years. In its January-February 2012 issue, Discover selected as its number one story for 2011 the report that neutrinos have been found traveling faster than the speed of light. This, of course, violates one of Einstein's key conclusions and most physicists doubt the work is correct. But what if the report is true? The point Discover makes is just that - if true, the finding would create an upheaval in the world of physics. And wouldn't you know that in the same issue of Discover, the number 83 story is that the space mission Gravity Probe B has confirmed two of Einstein's general theory of relativity predictions on the warping and dragging of space-time. Einstein being my scientific hero, I'm betting those neutrinos were not moving faster than light.
Back to my memoirs, last month's column left me in 1972 transferring to the Battery Development Department at Bell Labs working on lithium batteries after being relieved of my position supervising a group on light-emitting diode materials. I mentioned finding a new rechargeable battery material, niobium triselenide, which would occupy most of my time for the next 17 years. However, in addition to the work on rechargeable lithium batteries, I also was involved with testing primary (non-rechargeable) lithium batteries or cells for use in the Bell System. (Strictly speaking, a "battery" consists of two or more cells; but we often used the term for a single cell.) One use of batteries is to maintain the memory of certain semiconductor devices in the phone if the power goes off. For example, you might store a directory of phone numbers in your cell phone; of course, back in the 1970s we didn't have the smart cell phones so prevalent today.
In this work, we tested lithium coin cells manufactured by the Japanese company Matsushita, which marketed them under the Panasonic brand name. (In 2008, Matsushita changed its name from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. to Panasonic Corporation.) In this project, we got to interact closely with the Matsushita people and I was quite impressed with them. At our meetings we would raise questions about the various performance characteristics of the batteries. A few months later they would return with reams of new data answering all our questions. They were good! It wasn't hard to see why the Japanese became the leaders in the manufacturing of lithium batteries.
We also considered the possibility that lithium-iodine batteries of the type then being used in heart pacemakers might also be useful for Bell System applications. You may have seen or read a report of the death in September of Wilson Greatbatch, the inventor of one of the earliest implantable cardiac pacemakers. More importantly, he then developed the sealed lithium-iodine battery used to power most of the world's pacemakers. Some of the batteries we tested were lithium-iodine pacemaker batteries from the Greatbatch Company in Clarence, NY. Unfortunately, I didn't meet Greatbatch when I visited the company but, if memory serves me correctly (?), I did meet one of his sons. Greatbatch was a most unusual fellow and I recommend reading his bio on Wikipedia or other Web sites.
I remember my trip to Greatbatch for another reason - it was the occasion for my first ride in a helicopter. We boarded the aircraft at Newark airport, stopped on top of a building in New York City and then continued to LaGuardia airport for our flight to Buffalo. Only a short time later, there was a helicopter accident on top of that building that involved some of the helicopter falling on the street below! It may have been May of 1977, when several people were killed when the landing gear of a helicopter collapsed on the Pan Am building, now the MetLife building.
An equally disturbing trip to a company in the pacemaker business was a trip on the Metroliner, the only time I've ridden that train. I was visiting the Catalyst Research Corporation (CRC) in Baltimore, Maryland. (CRC had licensed its technology to Greatbatch, who in turn licensed his technology to Medtronic.) On the trip back home from Baltimore I felt a slight thump and the engineer, apparently not knowing the loudspeaker was on, said "I just killed a man!" Years later, comparing notes with my brother, then a professor at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware, it turned out the victim was someone from the university who apparently committed suicide using our train. I still have a CRC lithium pacemaker battery from that visit.
With lithium batteries, the big concern is safety. What happens if a short circuit develops or there's a fire? We had a simple method of answering these questions. We would take a hotplate out in what amounted to a backyard at Bell Labs where we had an electrical outlet. Put the battery on the hotplate and heat it up near or above the melting point of lithium, which is about 180 degrees Centigrade. If you had a lithium-iodine pacemaker battery implanted in your body, you would have been disturbed if you saw one of those batteries explode and fly off the hotplate a hundred feet, nearly hitting one of our Bell Labs managers coming from his car in the parking lot! But not to worry. If you ever got anywhere near that temperature, you'd be dead long before the battery blew up!
I've talked about trips to visit battery companies. In 1973, my wife and I and our son Brian, then 15, took an Iron Curtain country tour that included the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary. I like to think that the experiences on that trip helped to spur Brian's interest in international affairs, which he discusses at great length in his year-ending column on this stocksandnews.com Web site. Starting out in Prague, we met my wife's cousin Eugene, who worked for Skoda and was also an artist. Eugene was very discrete, being careful to avoid any direct criticism of the Communist regime. The very attractive young lady who served as our interpreter was not so discrete, confiding in my wife that the Russians had taken her parents' home away from them without any compensation. We managed to visit the apartment where he and his family lived and were shocked at the accommodations. There was a bathtub in the kitchen with a curtain around it and to use the toilet you had to go outside on a balcony and thence into a what may have been an unheated (small) room containing the toilet.
After a short time in Warsaw we arrived in Moscow, where we were placed in the hands of a very pleasant and efficient tour guide while in the USSR. We assumed our rooms were bugged and but had a great time in Moscow. For me, seeing Yuri Gagarin's space capsule, in which he became the first human to travel in outer space and orbit the earth, was a highlight. Another highlight was a performance of the opera Faust in a theater in the Kremlin. We had attended a performance of that opera at the Met in New York the year before and the one in Moscow was even better, with dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet beefing up the production. On the other hand, we attended a performance of a Soviet style ballet at the Bolshoi that was not at all enjoyable. Another highlight was having dinner in a restaurant on Red Square and watching on TV Brezhnev being greeted by President Nixon at the White House! Incidentally, the caviar on brown bread was delicious!
In Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, we checked into our hotel, the Hotel Leningrad, where our room was so small that, with the cot in the room for Brian, we could hardly get around. When we complained to our tour guide, she had us moved to a new room, much more spacious, with a grand piano! The maid who helped us move into the new room asked if any of us played the piano. Brian, who could play, demurred and the maid sat down and played a wonderful classical piece without any music! It turned out she had studied at a musical academy of some sort. We suspect that she was the one who took a raincoat and a Russian decorated box purchased at a dollar store from my wife's luggage; we didn't discover the theft until on our way to Kiev.
I'll skip details of our stays in Kiev and Sofia. At our last stop of the tour, in Budapest, we met my wife's other cousin, Geza, the brother of Eugene. Geza was the opposite of Eugene, being totally indiscrete. He and his interpreter came to our hotel, the Duna Hotel, where he promptly knocked on the marble walls in the hallway, calling them Communist propaganda! The interpreter was quite upset, pointing to the walls, cupping her ear, implying they were bugged. Geza's forthright comments must have already gotten him in trouble with the authorities. Whereas Eugene was allowed to travel from Prague to Budapest to visit his brother, Geza was not allowed to leave Hungary because of something he had written in some sort of publication. While we all enjoyed the tour immensely, we breathed a sigh of relief when our plane took off from Budapest, leaving the Soviet-dominated airspace.
Well, so much for 1973. Last week I "celebrated" my 84th birthday and marvel at how I used to write a column a week. Hopefully, I'll manage once a month again this year. If so, the next column should be posted on or around February 1.
Allen F. Bortrum