Did you know that Frederick Gardner Cottrell was born today in 1877? He was a chemist, inventor, and philanthropist. He is best known for inventing the electrostatic precipitator, which is a crucial tool used to clean air pollution. Many chemical processes produce tiny particles such as dust, smoke, or vaporized material, which pollute the air and water. The exhaust carrying these particles passes by wires that give the particles a negative charge. The exhaust and particles then flow by vertically hung metal plates; the statically charged particles are attracted to and stick to the metal plates, leaving the exhaust gas cleaner than before.
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Cottrell graduated from high school at the age of 16. He attended the University of California, Berkeley and finished in just 3 years. At the time American scientists usually attended graduate school at international schools. Cottrell taught chemistry at Oakland High School to earn money for his education abroad. He studied in England, France, and Germany under notable scientists such as Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff.
Cottrell’s electrostatic precipitator was invented to help clean up lead emissions from smelting activities. These emissions were harming vineyards in northern California.
During World War I, Cottrell made helium production feasible. Initially helium production cost $1700 per cubic foot, which was prohibitively expensive. Cottrell developed a way to recover helium gas mixed in with oil well gases, which brought the cost down to just 1 cent per cubic foot.
Cottrell used the money he earned from his invention to create a foundation called the Research Corporation for Science Advancement in 1912, which focuses on philanthropy in science. Scientists could donate their inventions and patents to the foundation, which would license them out to industry. Profits from these inventions and patents fund scientific research projects that have changed the world. So far the Research Corporation for Science Advancement has funded the early research of 40 Nobel Prize recipients.