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TECHNOLOGY

The Scientist Who Saved The Ozone Layer And Won A Nobel For It

Mario J. Molina Pasquel is the first and, to this day, only Mexican-born scientist to receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and he quite literally saved the world.

Mario Molina is one of those guys you’d never guess is a world-class genius and Nobel Prize-winning scientist when you meet him in person. He’s such a humble, unassuming man—far from the arrogant know-it-all you might except from a personage of his stature. He’s not intimidating nor does he ever try to be: he’s just a regular guy with a great sense of humor and a big heart. Far from a far-away and unreachable figure, his demeanor, his attitude, his whole personality cries “friend.” So it’s easy to forget that behind his easygoing manner lies one of the most brilliant minds in the world.

A dream born in a bathroom lab

Born in 1943 in Mexico City, Molina was interested in science from a very young age. As a child, he took some basic chemistry sets and built a laboratory in his home bathroom, engaging in experiments which awakened his imagination and increased his curiosity. His aunt, Esther Molina, a chemist herself, helped him in this early stage to discover the wonders of science and chemistry. He knew right then what path he would travel. And that was that.

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Over the next few years, Molina focused on nothing but his dream. He completed his basic education in Mexico City and at the Institut auf dem Rosenberg boarding school in St. Gallen, Switzerland, excelling in science classes. In 1965, he earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the most prestigious institution of higher learning in the country.
Dr. Molina celebrates his birthday in the early 1950s

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The path to greatness

But his plans went beyond the job security a bachelor’s degree provided. He was looking to delve into the highest levels of science in the world, and he could only do that within academia. So, he set his eyes on Germany. By 1967, he earned his postgraduate degree in polymerization kinetics at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg.

With a potent wind on his sails, not wasting time nor losing momentum, he traveled to the United States soon after. There he obtained a Ph.D in physical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972, and one year later joined the University of California, Irvine, as a postdoctoral researcher.

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There he worked in Professor Frank Sherwood Rowland’s lab. Sherwood was a fellow chemist and a brilliant scientist in his own right. Together, they would reach heights neither of them had ever imagined—literally.
Dr. Molina and F.S. Rowland at the University of California, Irvine, 1974.

A threat uncovered

Molina’s work at the lab soon led to research into chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), industrial gases that appeared to be harmless and were widely used in refrigerants, aerosol sprays, and the making of plastic foams. These industries were big and powerful, and through their products, humans were releasing tons of CFCs into the atmosphere, where they started to accumulate.

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So, Mario Molina asked a simple, scientific question. See, these gases were made of synthetic chemical compounds not found naturally in the air. What would the consequence be of society releasing something into the environment that wasn’t there before? Surely, we must always be on guard when that happens—but what are the actual, concrete, measurable consequences? Molina set out to find an answer.

Rowland and Molina quickly developed the CFC Ozone Depletion theory, which relied on well-known facts about the chemistry of Ozone, CFC, and computer modeling of atmospheric conditions. The results of their investigation were shocking. Sure, they expected something to be going on—but nothing near as bad as what they found. The ozone layer was actually dying.

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How we were killing the ozone layer

You see, Molina figured out how CFCs decompose up there. At lower levels of the atmosphere, they are inert—and, indeed, harmless. But, as Molina theorized, CFCs keep rising unopposed through all the atmospheric layers until they reach the upper levels, and there everything changes.

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The ozone’s main role is to block ultraviolet light from reaching us directly—it’s a sort of shield against UV radiation. But at the higher levels, this protection is weaker. And as they rise, the CFCs are suddenly exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet light directly.
Spray aerosols made heavy use of CFCs.

Molina knew that photons from UV light break down oxygen molecules. So, he theorized that they could also break CFCs, which would release all kinds of chemical products, including chlorine, flying into and across the stratosphere. That would be bad. As chlorine atoms are what is known in chemistry as radicals, they are very reactive and can destabilize things really quickly when suddenly introduced into a new environment. 

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These atoms react easily with ozone molecules, and ultimately break ozone down. The instability of these elements, Molina thought, could create a chain reaction in the stratosphere that destroyed the thin ozone layer in which we heavily relied for protection against the sun’s most harmful light. And he was right.

Searching for the planet’s void

Without the ozone layer, human life wouldn’t be possible. We would burn out due to the intense radiation coming in from the sun. UV light, as you may know, is the main cause for skin cancer, the very kind of radiation sunscreen products are supposed to protect us from. Without Earth’s natural ozone shield, no amount of sunscreen would save us—the radiation would be too intense.

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Molina and Rowland thus predicted that the chlorine atoms released from CFCs would act as an ongoing, unstoppable catalyst for a chain reaction that would end up destroying the ozone layer, killing us in the process. Their calculations suggested that already the amount of CFCs released up to that point could get the harmful reaction going. But they still needed to confirm their theory.

So, they led a team into the regions of the Earth where they would expect to find an ozone hole—portions of the ozone layer already destroyed by chlorine atoms. And lo and behold, there it was: a huge hole right over the Antartica, as predicted.

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Saving the world

Molina and Rowland published their findings in Nature, on June 28, 1974. They also took to activism, and announced the results of their work far and wide outside the scientific community in hopes for the world to react to the imminent threat. As their findings were confirmed by the whole scientific community, as well as independent studies, change began to occur. 

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In spite of violent resistance from the powers that be in the refrigeration and spray industries, laws were established throughout the world following the international Montreal Protocol in 1987. The ban came into effect in 1989. In a most literal fashion, the world was saved.

As a direct result of these actions, the ozone layer stabilized by the middle of the ‘90s and began to recover early in the 2000s. The layer is effectively healing now and will continue to do so over the course of next century. It will take a while—we won’t reach pre-1980 ozone levels until 2075. But it’s happening. As such, the Montreal Protocol is the single most successful environmental international agreement to date.

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The healing of the ozone layer is proof that environmental action works when nations work together. Hopefully, similar success stories will be told about other ongoing threats to the environment in the coming years, as climate change threatens to destroy civilization if we do nothing about it.
Dr. Mario Molina and Al Gore, World Economic Forum. Davos, Switzerland, 2015.

The Nobel Prize

For his discoveries, Mario Molina shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Rowland and Paul J. Crutzen (the scientist who popularized the term Anthropocene), one of the countless awards and honors he’s received in his illustrious career. He was also elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1993, the United States Institute of Medicine in 1996, the National College of Mexico in 2003, and is also a prominent member of the Mexican Academy of Sciences.

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His other awards include:

  • The Newcomb Cleveland Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1988),
  • The United Nations Environmental Programme Global 500 Award (1989),
  • The NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Advancement (1989),
  • The Esselen Award of the Northeast section of the American Chemical Society (1997),
  • The Willard Gibbs Award from the Chicago Section of the American Chemical Society (1998),
  • The American Chemical Society Prize for Creative Advances in Environment Technology and Science (1998),
  • The 9th Annual Heinz Award in the Environment (2003).
  • Oh, and he even has an asteroid named after him: the Asteroid 9680 Molina.
    Mario Molina receives the Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama, 2013.

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    Yeah, that’s an impressive career. As you can see, Molina is not only a genius scientist widely respected in the scientific community. He also, quite literally, helped save the world. And it all started in that small, modest bathroom in Mexico City, with a child’s curiosity and a makeshift lab. The limits of the human mind are boundless.

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