Retiree's Lunch Update October 2021

Written by  Dr Richard Thwaites, FRACI CChem

Published 5 November 2021

Albright & Wilson:  How it Lost it's Shine and My Role in its Demise 

From simulated space research to bioreactors, via detergents, surface coatings and food ingredients, Richard Thwaites described his lengthy (5 decade) career in chemistry to the October Victorian RACI Retirees’ Group.  He also mentioned several notable identities he had encountered in his career and described some of the problems he had solved, and many more he had (usually inadvertently) created.  

Richard’s undergraduate tutor at Oxford was R J P (Bob) Williams, one of the father figures of inorganic biochemistry.  Richard’s doctoral supervisor was R P H (Robert) Gasser and his thesis was entitled: “The interaction of gases with clean surfaces under ultra-high vacuum conditions”:  the adsorption of gases on surfaces is the first step in many heterogeneous catalytic processes, but the ultra-high vacuum simulates conditions in outer space:  hence space research.  Robert Gasser subsequently gave up research and became Domestic Bursar at Brasenose College, Oxford, and played a significant role in arranging Oxford college locations for the original “Morse” series of TV programs and appeared as an “extra” in several.

Richard’s career with Albright & Wilson started in London in the late 1960s in the company’s head office at 1 Knightsbridge Green, conveniently located opposite Harrods.  He moved to Australia in 1970, and although the original appointment was for two years, he believes the company tore up the return ticket, and he has been here ever since.

Richard described aspects of his career in the Commercial Development and Project Development Departments of Albright & Wilson (Australia) Limited, before becoming Works Manager of the A&W(A) phosphates factory in Yarraville, and then moving to Sydney, becoming the inaugural Works Manager of the A&W(A) surfactants factory at Wetherill Park.

Stints in marketing and general management followed.  Richard recounted some of the technical problems which occurred when various coating systems promoted by A&W(A) didn’t work out quite as they should:  they peeled off when they should have stuck on.  He mentioned the advice given to him by a former General Marketing Manager, to never underrate the value of a good business lunch, advice well taken, and talked in detail about the problems faced by the Phosphates business even before he was appointed the Phosphates Business General Manager.  Imports of cheap Chinese phosphates were eroding A&W(A)’s market share and depressing prices, and although the company was able to demonstrate dumping by the Chinese, and that the company’s business was being materially injured, the bureaucrats in Canberra judged that the material injury was not caused by the dumping (the dumping was found to cause only some of the injury):  a finding that has mystified everyone for decades and resulted in no anti-dumping duties (unlike the situation in the USA).  On the technical front, a shipload of phosphate rock was found to be almost un-processible due to a slight variation in the silica to fluorine ratio, which differed from the pre-delivery sample;  this was unfortunate as 15,000 tonnes of the rock had already been delivered from overseas at the time.  Finally, the writing was on the wall for phosphate builders.  The company maintained that removal of detergent phosphate in sewage treatment plants was the way to stop eutrophication.  The legislators said that replacing phosphate altogether with other builder systems was the way to go.  Whilst the company view prevailed for many years, eventually the legislators won.

Richard’s next move was to look for new projects for the Company to undertake, particularly focusing on opportunities to commercialise new technologies, recognising that the future of much of the Company’s business was under a cloud.  A&W(A) became a core participant in partnership with Tridan Ltd (a small R&D company) in the Cooperative Research Centre for Industrial Plant Biopolymers, which subsequently received a second round of funding as the CRC for Bioproducts.  The company built a pilot plant at Yarraville and provided laboratory accommodation for some CRC research staff.  The two technologies which seemed particularly attractive were plant cell culture, and a novel process to produce pectin from domestic orange peel.  

Plant cell culture relies on the totipotency of undifferentiated plant cells:  in theory you should be able to produce any of the compounds like gums, flavours or fragrances that the plant would ordinarily produce in nature in a fermenter or bioreactor.  In practice, this was a bit more difficult to achieve, and the pilot plant at Yarraville demonstrated many pitfalls not immediately evident in the laboratory.  Richard explained that plant cell culture was not entirely novel technology, and other companies overseas were producing cosmetics and pharmaceutical ingredients, but despite the CRC’s best efforts, no technically or commercially viable processes were developed.  Ambitions to make food gums from various species of plant cells, resveratrol from grape cells, or a tobacco substitute from nicotiana plant cells came to nought.    

Richard explained his extensive involvement in the project to develop a pectin manufacturing industry in Australia based on discarded peel from the orange juice industry.  Extensive technical trials were conducted at Yarraville and overseas, detailed examination of the market, commercial aspects of pectin supply and demand, and financial evaluations were all rigorously undertaken.  In the event, the CRC was unable to convince investors to take on a commercial scale project.  In retrospect, the predicted cost advantage that the CRC process was believed to have over the traditional process may not have been quite as substantial as at first envisaged, and since so much of an Australian based plant’s output would have been exported, currency fluctuations would have significantly affected profitability.  Finally, the ongoing dumping of frozen orange concentrate from Brazil would have had a disastrous effect if local juice production dried up.

Richard told a number of largely unprintable stories about some of the famous (and infamous) people he had encountered along his journey, and briefly touched on his career as a football (soccer) referee, including officiating at a couple of FIFA sanctioned international matches in the 1970s.

He also mentioned the changes in Albright & Wilson worldwide over the past 50 or so years, including the numerous changes in ownership, the acquisitions and divestments, and the closure of many production sites (including two out of three in Australia, at Yarraville and Box Hill, which no longer exist), but said that the story of the overall demise of the company would be for another day. He noted the book written by Hugh Podger: “Albright & Wilson:  the last 50 years” which makes interesting but sad reading.

Although Richard admitted that he had enjoyed putting his reminiscences together, the enjoyment was only a fraction of the enjoyment of actually living through all the events.

The next meeting of the Retirees’ Group will be on Tuesday November 9th, hopefully (COVID rules permitting) in person at Graduate House, University of Melbourne, at 12 noon. 
Please register via the RACI website.

Hope to see you soon!

Go to back to Newsletter



Chemistry in Australia
Magazine free subscription

RACI Members can enjoy an annual online subscription to Chemistry in Australia, the RACI’s member magazine.

Join Now