The Anonymous Widower

Building Scientific Models with Computers

This was the title of a lecture at University College London, that I attended yesterday lunchtime.

It was an excellent lecture and in some ways it was like going back forty years to when I worked at ICI Plastics in Welwyn Garden City. In fact two topics, that were discussed by Professor Catlow, were similar to problems I tackled all of those years ago.

The first was the problems of turbulent and other flows.  We had been interested in what happened inside an extruder as you used it to force plastics, such as polyethylene, polypropylene and PVC into moulds to produce the products needed.  It was an intractable problem then and I suspect it might be almost as bad today. Although computers are now bigger and can handle many more nodes than the hundred or so, we could handle on our PACE 231R or with IBM 360/CSMP.

I also found his discussion of the various forms of molecules and how they could be predicted fascinating and if we’d had someone with his knowledge, we’d have got a lot farther with another problem.

When you create polymers, you create long chains of molecules like ethylene and propylene etc. which lock together like a series of odd-shaped Lego bricks. These chains then bind together to form the items we need.

At the time, ICI were trying to create an engineering plastic, which would be stronger and have a greater temperature range. I won’t name it here, as I don’t want to break any confidentiality, but suffice to say that the monomer or polymer building block, needed to be created as a straight molecule for the integrity of the plastic. It was known that several forms of monomer could be created and that there was a rather complicated separation process to extract the straight ones.  Just as in Professor Catlow’s example yesterday, water in the reaction, was one of the factors, that  affected the proportion of desired monomer.

Now I’m not a chemist but I was asked to look at the physics and dynamics of the reaction, with respect to removing the errant water from the reaction vessel as soon as possible after its creation, to reduce the damage it could do.  In the end, I made myself very unpopular, as I often did, by finding a method that removed the water.  I can remember searching Chemical Abstracts and finally found the data I wanted in a paper published by a Chinese researcher working in Canada in 1909. We don’t know how lucky we are with Google and the Internet.

I left ICI soon after I completed this work, so I don’t know the final outcome!

But to me, the exercise proved the value of using dynamic computer models based on differential equations, to understand difficult systems.

In some ways, I was able to do this work, because I was properly taught calculus and how to form differential equations at school.  Would such an important subject now be taught to sixteen-year-olds  as was regularly done in the 1960s at schools similar to the one I attended?

January 21, 2011 - Posted by | Computing, World | , , , ,


  1. […] I worked in simulation using the PACE 231-R at ICI, I seem to remember reading in the literature about the problems British Rail were having […]

    Pingback by The Value of Research « The Anonymous Widower | May 30, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] my experience of chemical plants was in the late 1960s and we used an amazing PACE 231R. But that machine was the state-of-the-art computer of its day for solving differential equations. […]

    Pingback by Walthamstow Doesn’t Like Going Dutch! « The Anonymous Widower | November 7, 2015 | Reply

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