Kitchen research bears fruit: Lemons provide substitute for ozone-eating CFCs

January 26, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

FULLERTON, Calif. -- As with Newton, the apple and gravity, fruit again has played a big role in a scientific discovery: Ray Turner reached into his refrigerator for a lemon and came away with a startling solution to a daunting environmental problem.

After a few false starts one evening at his home, the longtime Hughes Aircraft Co. employee cooked up a citrus-based substitute for a widely used industrial chemical blamed for the erosion of Earth's protective ozone layer.

Mr. Turner's kitchen coup, backers say, should provide the defense electronics industry with a replacement it has long sought for the chemical, prove a cheap and reliable alternative for other high-tech manufacturers -- and put a healthy dent in the stubborn problem of ozone depletion.

In the months since his startling breakthrough, the aerospace manager and a team at Hughes have demonstrated that a simple brew of citrus juices and water can work in an industrial setting as a ready replacement for chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, the troublesome chemical used in the manufacture of most electronic circuit boards.

As officials at Hughes formally unveiled the discovery Thursday with dual news conferences in Los Angeles and Washington, the public spotlight finally shined on Mr. Turner, a native of Kansas City, Mo., who proved that sometimes there are low-tech answers to high-tech problems.

"I have a great deal of respect now for my refrigerator," said Mr. Turner, 62, a self-described "bumpkin" with silver-rimmed glasses and a penchant for an occasional one-liner.

"I was determined to find a simple solution to a complex problem," he said. "And I figured that if it failed, I could at least mix flour with it and make cookies."

W. Scott Walker, a Hughes senior vice president and chief of the company's Fullerton complex, called Mr. Turner "a delightful fellow" who keeps a low profile and is nervous about all the attention.

"He approached it from a citizen's view of the world," Mr. Walker said. "He really wanted to do something about CFCs."

Mr. Turner acknowledges that much of the motivation for his discovery stems from his love of the outdoors.

"I have a deep appreciation for the environment," Mr. Turner said during an interview in his cramped office. "I recognized we were polluting the ozone layer. I knew the direction the industry was traveling wasn't one we should be continuing."

His citrus discovery came on a Friday night in November 1989.

It had been a trying day. A regional air quality inspector had discovered a minor violation on a contraption containing CFCs, and Mr. Turner was troubled by the finding.

On the drive home, he decided to take a crack at the impossible. He would come up with a replacement for CFCs.

The chemical, which is also used in automobile air conditioners, has been a prime ingredient since the 1950s in the manufacture of electronic circuit boards, the graham cracker-sized wafers used to lace together transistors and other tiny components.

To prepare the boards for soldering, compounds known as fluxes are applied to clean off an oxidized film that covers metal. The CFCs are then used to remove the fluxes from the boards.

CFCs react in the stratosphere and eat a hole in the ozone layer, the shield that safeguards the planet from ultraviolet radiation, which can cause skin cancer and cataracts, and upset the world's ecosystems.

Mr. Turner decided he needed to find a natural, everyday ingredient that could be used instead of fluxes for cleaning the boards, eliminating any need for CFCs.

What better place to look, he figured, than his refrigerator. He gazed at the various foods on the shelves, determined to run through every one to find a solution.

First he tried vinegar. Mr. Turner put a drop or two on a corroded penny, then fired up his trusty soldering gun. It didn't work. The solder wouldn't stick, meaning that the vinegar had failed to clean off the film of oxidation.

Next his attention turned to a lemon. Mr. Turner ground up some peel and rubbed it onto the penny with a spoon. Once again, the solder stood was unable to grip the penny.

Then he put a drop of the lemon juice on, figuring that its acidity would eat away just enough.

"Bam! The solder flowed right out. I was jumping for joy," Mr. Turner recalled. "I was soldering everything that wouldn't move."

John Reiss, the operations manager who shepherded the development of Mr. Turner's concept, said his colleague was proud but a little sheepish when he brought the formula in to the office to show it off.

"He was like a little boy. He said, 'Look at what I have,' " Mr. Reiss recalled. "I was surprised how simple it was and how well it worked."

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