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    The Volkswagen Affair: Chemical instrumentation’s half-century of scrutinizing auto emissions


    Just what was the software intended to “defeat?” The answer is chemical instrumentation that has been consistently deployed for a half-century to scrutinize automobile emissions and to control air pollution. And how was Volkswagen caught? By this very same chemical instrumentation.

    In the late 1940s, Los Angeles was beset by terrible, stinking and stinging brown smog. It caused eyes to water, chests to cough, skies to darken, and some of the most vulnerable to even die. It was a major scourge that residents, the government, and the business community recognized as imperiling the vitality and growth of the region. Through the efforts of local researchers, the cause of smog was identified: carbon-containing compounds emitted by automobiles, refineries and chemical plants, backyard trash fires, etc. The state created an air pollution control district in southern California to help enforce a set of regulations about these emissions, and to measure the ongoing state of affairs.

    One of the principal tools in the battle against smog was the infrared spectrometer, which measured various emissions like carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide by their characteristic absorption of infrared light. Arnold O. Beckman’s firm in the region, Beckman Instruments, produced an infrared analyzer that could be placed in an automobile and could measure its emissions as it motored about:


    The results stunned the instrument’s developer, Max Liston. The most poorly tuned and oldest cars were responsible for an astonishing amount of pollution.

    At about this time, but across the Pacific Ocean in Kyoto, Japan, a young instrumentation entrepreneur named Masao Horiba was moving into the production of this same form of infrared spectrometer. Horiba began his firm in the inauspicious conditions of Japan in the immediate postwar years, eventually finding success in the manufacture of electronic pH meters – the same product that had established Beckman’s business in the 1930s. During the 1960s, Horiba developed infrared instruments for use in medicine – monitoring the breath of patients during surgery and the like.

    At the end of the 1960s, Horiba’s colleagues convinced him to adapt their technology to the analysis of automobile exhaust. Not only was there a potential market for emissions testing, but the analysis of automobile exhaust could be an important tool for automobile manufacturers in their development of new engines and systems. As with many other instruments, once the US Environmental Protection Agency officially approved Horiba’s “MEXA” line of instruments for measuring automotive emissions, sales took off.


    Eventually, Horiba’s firm became the global leader in providing chemical instrumentation and systems for measuring automobile exhaust. In addition to infrared spectrometers, for measuring nitrogen oxides – of particular concern with diesel vehicles – Horiba adopted chemiluminescence detectors. In these instruments, the sampled gas is mixed at a high temperature with ozone. The nitrogen oxides in the sample react with the ozone, during the course of which they release light. From the amount of this light, the concentration of nitrogen oxides is deduced.


    When Masao Horiba died in the summer of 2015, at age 90, his firm continued to dominate the market for automobile exhaust measurement.


    Recently, engineers and scientists with Horiba Automotive Test Systems introduced their Horiba OBS-2200 instrument. Like Beckman’s early infrared instruments of the 1950s, the Horiba OBS-2200 is designed to measure and analyze automobile emissions while the vehicle is in operation, motoring about. While roughly the same size has the Beckman instrument of the 1950s, the Horiba OBS-2200 is actually a package of several different instrument and sampling systems, along with integrated computing systems for instrument control, data capture, and analysis. But the purpose is the same: to measure cars in real-world conditions.


    It was such real-world measurements with the Horiba OBS-2200 that led to the uncovering of the Volkswagen “defeat device” and the opening of the scandal. A team at West Virginia University was contracted to study the on-road emissions of several diesel-engine vehicles due, in part, by the team’s having the Horiba OBS-2200 instrument.



    Perhaps the interim moral of this story is that you can defeat some of the instruments some of the time, but not all of the instruments all of the time.

    CHF Fellow Ben Gross takes on noble gases. Read more about the man who discovered them on the CHF website.

    Once upon a time a small city in Massachusetts played an outsized role in plastics. From mundane celluloid dice to Disney’s all-plastic house, the plastics industry focused on the future. What happened when the future finally arrived?

    Find out in the latest issue of Distillations magazine.

    “Plastic Town” by Daniel Gross


    This is a wonderfully illustrated 3 volume set of the Holy Bible recently added to the Othmer Library collection.  My favorite illustration is of Daniel in the Lion’s den from the Old Testament.  Check out the expressions on those lion’s faces. Priceless.  I really doubt Daniel is in any real danger unless the lions decide to form an 80’s hair band or something.

    Why does the Othmer Library have a 1788 edition of the Holy Bible?  It’s quite simple really. This edition of the bible, while not attributed, is (according to a well known Joseph Priestley scholar) believed to contain commentary written by Joseph Priestley, a well known scientist and Unitarian minister.

    It’s Banned Books Week, which is the perfect opportunity to crack open your favorite tome. The Bible tops many lists of banned books; we like this version because of its connection to Joseph Priestley.

    (via othmeralia)

    In “Back to the Future II,” Marty outruns the bad guys on a hoverboard. The movie takes place in October 2015, but it’s not the 2015 we might recognize. We don’t have self-lacing sneakers, flying cars, or, really, robots in our everyday lives.

    You can explore more of what the movie got wrong at Dude, Where’s My Hoverboard? this week at CHF.

    What do you wish the movie had gotten right?


    A few minutes after the New Horizons space probe sped past Pluto, it turned and snapped this picture – a crescent of everyone’s favorite dwarf planet illuminated by the Sun. Just visible: the flat expanse of Pluto’s heart (”Sputnik Planum”) and the icy Norgay Montes mountain range. Pluto’s mysterious atmosphere shows up as layers upon layers of haze.

    We posted a downloadable wallpaper of the solar system’s eight official planets (plus Pluto), courtesy of CHF research fellow Ben Gross.


    The Fall issue of Distillations magazine is here! Check out the cover story about the healing powers of yeast by Catherine Price, author of Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection. Would you ever try eating raw yeast?

    Zest pamphlet. Walter O. Snelling Papers. CHF Archives. Food Engineering. Volume 26, p. 108. February 1954. Othmer Library. Food Industries. Volume 21, p. 151. July 1949. Othmer Library.


    Need a little “zest” in your life? Then check out the new Museum of Food and Drink opening in Brooklyn on October 28th! These advertisements from our library and archival collections will be featured in the Museum’s debut exhibition, “Flavor: Making It and Faking It.” Anyone fancy a road trip - fromschnitzeltosalsa, are you in?

    You can read more about MSG in one of our previous blog posts.

    When we think of comic book science, we might imagine Dr. Doom’s malevolent machines, or the mysterious cosmic rays that gave the Fantastic Four their powers. But these graphic novels tell amazing science stories set in the real world—a world stranger and filled with more wonder than any superhero origin tale!

    Comics and graphic novels are uniquely suited to tell complex science stories. Their blend of word and image makes it possible to zoom into microscopic detail, enter the chamber of a reactor, or take a voyage through a creative mind. All this week, we’re highlighting the ways in which comics have been used to tell stories of great discovery and innovation. Read along with us! Our recommendations will take you through the histories of atoms and space travel, and across the wilds to meet primates, beetles, and the origins of life itself.

    This month at CHF, our book club is reading Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, written and illustrated by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. Trinity tells a story of incredible invention and terrifying consequence, moving from the battlefields of WWII to the desert laboratories of the Manhattan Project. J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists succeeded in harnesssing one of the most powerful forces known to humankind—but their discoveries brought doubt and fear in their wake. A powerful story of creation and destruction, Trinity chronicles the first tests of the atomic bomb, flashes of light that forever changed our world.

    We also recommend:

    Last of the Sandwalkers by Jay Hosler

    Both entomologist and cartoonist, Jay Hosler weaves a “fantasy” adventure set in a remote ecosystem populated entirely by beetles. In the midst of this insect metropolis, one brave beetle sets out to discover scientific truth at any cost—are beetles alone in the universe? Or are they part of a great chain of existence? Funny and thrilling, with charmingly detailed illustrations, this book is perfect for the nature-lover (and even for the bug-averse!)

     Meanwhile: Pick Any Path by Jason Shiga

    An unusual visual experiment, Meanwhile tells an open-ended story that ends differently with every choice that the reader makes. It’s both an adventure tale and a lesson in quantum mechanics. With every choice, the universe becomes a multiverse of possibilities. Where will they lead? Success, or disaster? Only you can find the answers.

    T-Minus: The Race to the Moon by Jim Ottaviani, Zander Cannon, and Kevin Cannon

    The space race was not only run by nations, but by people: hundreds of thousands of individuals who worked to realize the dream of space travel. T-Minus tells the story of the space race at a human scale, focusing on their challenges, goals and dreams. Moving between command centers and laboratories in Russia and the United States, the graphic novel focuses closely on technologies and processes, demonstrating the authors’ extensive research.

    Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss

    Atomic energy isn’t the only thing that causes fallout. As Radioactive proves, love can be a creative force—or a destructive one. Redniss sketches the love song of Marie and Pierre Curie in a powerful series of painterly illustrations, focusing on their shared work and marriage, and the struggles that followed Pierre’s early death. Both moving and thoroughly researched, it’s an experimental vision of these two great minds.

    Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

    It was once believed that humans were the only creatures that used tools. But after spending time in the jungle with wild chimpanzees, Jane Goodall knew that they were more like us than we could have imagined. Primates profiles the courageous lives and brilliant discoveries of three leading primatologists: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. The illustrations are lively and sometimes border on whimsical, capturing these scientists’ love for and fascination with the natural world.

    Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler, Kevin Cannon, and Zander Cannon

    Meet Bloort-183! He’s an alien scientist tasked with understanding the evolution of life on earth. From the earliest primordial swamps to modern humanity, Evolution takes joy in unpacking the whys and hows of evolutionary biology. It’s crammed with more facts than a textbook, but the detailed illustrations and the humor of its alien narrators keep this a fun, delightful read.

    Follow us on Twitter and submit to our comics caption contest!

    Did we miss one of your favorites?

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