OBITUARY: Professor Derek Birchall

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Derek Birchall was struck by a vehicle on a pedestrian crossing in London on 30 November. After several days on a life-support machine he died without regaining consciousness on 7 December. So much for bare scientific fact; it would be impossible to describe Derek Birchall in such solemn or merely factual scientific terms.

He started as a chemist and lone inventor but later crossed the chasms between industry, academe and government. I shall remember him for his humour, vitality, inventiveness and great ideas. He was a person who would joke about gravitas; the opposite of the pompous scientist, but one who was also a committed family man and lay preacher.

It is ironic that Birchall's greatest concern over the past 20 years was the health of people connected to hospital machinery, especially dialysis equipment. He had known that certain kidney patients suffer health problems after dialysis, with severe pain in the bones and loss of memory leading to total brain damage. This was clearly dependent on the local water used to wash the blood in the dialysis machine because the problems disappeared when pure water was used. What was amusing to Birchall was the north/south divide: London's filthy water caused no problems whereas cleaner northern water led to damage.

Birchall was the first person to realise the importance of dissolved silica (i.e. sand) in the water. Although this mineral only dissolves in very small quantities, about 10 parts per million, London water is thick with it, whereas Scottish water has little. The enigma is that silica does not seem to have any biological function. It is not poisonous and is not used in drugs, a fact which Birchall had agonised over since the 1960s. It seemed bizarre to him that the most common mineral on earth had no role in life.

The ingenious, and controversial, idea he postulated was that silica is only one component in the problem. Some other chemical in the water causes the disease. This turned out to be alumina, the second most abundant mineral on earth, an all-pervasive slow-acting poison which is washed out of rocks by acid rain, killing plants, fish and ultimately humans. Birchall's deceptively simple reasoning was that the two most abundant chemicals on earth, silica and alumina, fight against each other to permit life. All the other common elements, such as hydrogen, oxygen, iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, can then play their role in our bodies.

Birchall knew that the tests and demonstrations required to convince the sceptics would take years. With his colleagues he showed first that fish could be poisoned by very small quantities of alumina dissolved in water. Then he added silica and the fish survived. When he arrived at Keele University as Professor of Chemistry in 1992 he devised the most beautiful and popular experiment to prove his concept. He asked for student volunteers to drink beer. Beer contains lots of dissolved silica which should pick up alumina in the body, and remove it in the urine. Birchall demonstrated this by analysing the student urine and seeing the alumina poison flush out. I cannot visit public houses now without feeling the curative effects.

This story illustrates Birchall's intense love of chemistry, of life and of his colleagues. He was not a conventional academic. He proved that night school in Wigan can lead to great scientific achievement. After National Service in the late 1940s he became interested in fire and the chemistry required to stop it. His first invention was a chemical which he made by stewing blood. This was added to the foam used for fighting fires and helped the foam to survive the flames. He was proud that the money received for this product allowed him to buy a motorbike, which he later sold to get married. It was amazing to him that he could follow his interests in chemistry, yet be paid to support his wife and two sons. Later, when he joined ICI, his continuing passion for fire led to his invention of "Monnex", a dry powder fire extinguisher which was more effective at dousing petrol fires than anything before or since. The demonstration of this is so dramatic that it has convinced many a young arsonist, including me, to turn to chemistry as a way of life.

Most of Birchall's working life was at ICI Winnington in the 1950s and 1960s, and then at Runcorn in the 1970s and 1980s. Although he rose to the top of the scientific ladder in Britain's largest chemical company, he recognised the intrinsic democracy of scientific ideas, and would enjoy any kind of scientific experiment or discussion around a blackboard. No one was excluded.

Birchall told hilarious stories about the chemical industry, not always complimentary to the management. Once he gave a lecture to the board with the message that ICI was doomed. Of course he was correct. Only the timescale can be argued, and Birchall argued on a long timescale. His paper on the unimportance of relevance should be read by all who govern industry. His contributions to science were recognised in his FRS election in 1982. His work for government was rewarded by his appointment as OBE in 1990.

Birchall will be most remembered by the porters, engineers and metal workers. Whenever they open a furnace door they will see his best-known invention, the woolly ceramic insulation now used in all high-temperature ovens. It was used in the space shuttle, and is found in cars, in pistons and air bags. He was the first to show how this wool could be made by spinning alumina into fibres by a chemical process, giving a superbly insulating blanket which would survive enormous temperatures. He was still enthusiastically pursuing these ceramic interests, as a director of Ceram Research and as Professor at Keele University, at the time of his death.

James Derek Birchall, chemist: born Leigh, Lancashire 7 October 1930; staff, ICI 1956-92; FRS 1982; OBE 1990; Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, Keele University 1992-95; married 1956 Pauline Jones (died 1990; two sons); died London 7 December 1995.