Research leader who bridged the gap between industry and academe
Dr Raymond Thompson, who has died at the age of 93, was a gifted inorganic chemist. His path to success was not easy but he did it by hard work, an intuitive feel for his subject of choice, chemistry, and outstanding practical skills in the laboratory.
In recognition of his services to chemistry and the chemical industry he was honoured with a well-deserved CBE in 1988.
When Ray was sixteen years old his father died and he had to leave school to help with the family finances, joining the British Potteries Research Association as a Laboratory Assistant, rising to Research Assistant.
However, without a Higher School-leaving Certificate the usual path to the necessary academic qualification he desired, was not available to him.
Nothing daunted, with the kindly help of several university and technical college staff and an understanding employer, he plotted his way through all the steps that were required to achieve equivalence and duly gained the Associateship of the Royal Institute of Chemistry by examination in 1947.
This lead on later to the award of Fellowship.
Along the way, he was conscripted as a Bevin Boy during WW2 and sent to work in a colliery, but he was much too tall to be a miner and was posted to the colliery laboratory where he learnt the analysis of gases.
The ARIC made it possible for him to register for an MSc at Nottingham as a research student under the supervision of Dr CC Addison, who had recognised Ray's high potential, and he gained that degree in 1950.
A year later he was appointed as Demonstrator in Inorganic Chemistry. His research proved fruitful, some dozen papers being published in the Journal of the Chemical Society, leading to the award of a PhD in 1952.
The publications of Addison and his school undoubtedly helped kindle a renewed academic interest in Inorganic Chemistry in the late 1940's and early 1950's.
One of Addison's major goals was to extend our knowledge of Chemistry into non-aqueous solvent systems that might be ionising and attention fell on liquid dinitrogen tetroxide as the first candidate. This posed many practical questions for the experimenters as it is difficult to prepare and very reactive, must be kept cold, and if allowed to boil, dissociates into the highly poisonous red-brown gas, nitrogen dioxide, now notoriously found in car exhausts.
Ray began a systematic examination of both the organic and inorganic chemistry of dinitrogen tetroxide, on the millilitre scale . To do this, he had small test-tubes, closed with ground glass stoppers, which were cooled in a freezing bath.
From his stock of cold dinitrogen tetroxide, he would introduce 2 - 3ml into a test-tube. If the compound to be examined was liquid, he took one to two drops in a capillary dropper, lifted the ground glass stopper, squeezed out a drop from the capillary into the dinitrogen tetroxide and immediately replaced the stopper, then looked to see if anything had happened.
Sometimes it did, and sometimes it didn't.
One day, on a hot summer's afternoon he invited a friend who was fellow research student to come to his lab straight away to see "something special".
Ray's laboratory was on the top floor of the main University building and looked down on the quad and the main entrance. It being so warm, Ray had the window wide open and had they looked out, they would have seen that there was a black limousine slowly approaching the University entrance, from which various senior members were emerging to welcome the visitors.
Ray explained that the demonstration was to see what effect diethylamine might have when added to dinitrogen tetroxide.
He followed his usual procedure but immediately the drop hit the dinitrogen tetroxide, there was a pop, the stopper flew out of the test-tube, straight through the open window, arced high in the air over the quad and landed about ten feet from the visiting party at the entrance, some 60 feet away from the window.
After a gasp of astonishment (and fear for the consequences), both onlookers burst out laughing, relieved that nothing serious had happened.
It was certainly "something special" to see! But it didn't stop there.
When his work was written up for publication, as a letter to Nature by Addison and Thompson, the reaction with diethylamine was described as "explosive".
Soon after their letter appeared, Ray had a phone call from the USA and the man at the other end said that he was interested in Ray's work and would like to meet him for a discussion. Professor Addison gave his consent and in due course a meeting was arranged.
On arrival, the visitor disclosed that he was from NASA and he required complete secrecy before he would say why he was interested. It then turned out that NASA were looking for a new rocket propellant and he thought that this could well be based on Ray's work as he had found one or two other hypergolic reactions as well as the diethylamine/N204.
The upshot was that Ray acted as a consultant in the early days and finally, yes, NASA had a rocket propellant based on N204. Notably, it was used on the Apollo 11 spacecraft programme that landed two Astronauts on the Moon and brought them safely back .
As Addison's senior research student/Demonstrator, Ray was mentor to new research students joining the group and these included some who went on to hold high academic positions. The most notable of these was Jack Lewis, later Lord Lewis, professor of Chemistry at Cambridge University, first Warden of Robinson College, Cambridge and member or chair of a number of government scientific committees.
In the year after award of the PhD, Ray joined Professor Briscoe at Imperial College for post-doctorate research and at the end of that time, gained the Diploma of Imperial College.
Ray's first employment after that was with Albright and Wilson and he had the highly unusual distinction of working in one of London's most superior hotels as their lab was in the basement!
From Albright and Wilson Ray spent some four years in research and development at the Willesden Paper and Canvas Works Ltd and associated companies before becoming Chief Chemist, Albi-Willesden, responsible for Research, Development and Technical Sales.
In 1951, he joined Borax Consolidated as Senior Research Chemist. His progress after that was impressive. He was appointed Research Manager, Borax Consolidated in 1961, Research Director in 1969, Managing Director from 1980 to 1986, and Director of RTZ Chemicals from 1986 - 1988.
He also held other Board positions, e.g. Business Development Director and Deputy Chairman, Borax Research Ltd (1986 - 1990).
After retirement, Ray did consultancy work.
Ray believed strongly in the need for much stronger links between industry and academe and all through his career spent much of his time developing ways in which this could be done. He gave lectures on industrial chemistry to University Chemical Societies and spotting that there were few texts giving an overall view edited "The Modern Chemical Industry" in 1977 which ran to 466 pages and was a Special Publication of the Chemical Society.
There were further publications that he edited or helped to write including Mellor's Comprehensive Treatise, Boron supplement, Part A 1079, Part Bl,1981; Speciality Inorganic Chemicals, 1981; Energy and Chemistry, 1981; Trace Metal Removal from Aqueous Solution, 1986; The Chemistry of Wood Preservation,1991; Industrial Inorganic Chemicals, production and uses, 1995; and other scientific papers on boron and nitrogen chemistry.
In addition, he held various patents for improvements to the machinery used in mining borax, a reflection that in addition to his other titles he was also a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
He forged especially strong links with his alma mater, Nottingham University, who recognised his outstanding efforts by appointing him a Special Chemistry Professor, while the University of Warwick honoured him with the title of Hon. Professor of Molecular Sciences.
Ray served as Governor of Kingston-upon-Thames Polytechnic from 1978 to 1988 and was appointed an Hon. Associate of Royal Holloway College, University London in 1984.
He gave much of his time to the activities of the appropriate scientific societies, being a member of the Council of the Royal Institute of Chemistry and later several senior positions in the Chemical Society, including the Council (1977-1980); Chairman of the Inorganic Chemicals Group (1972-1983) and when it became the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Vice-President of the Industrial Division (1981-1983) and President (1983-1985 and 1988-1989).
He was recognised by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 1976 with the Industrial Chemistry Award.
In the wider community he was delighted to become a Freeman of the City of London.
In his younger days, Ray played Badminton and enjoyed motoring. He was always a keen gardener and enjoyed visiting the Chelsea Flower Show.
Sadly, his later years were clouded with ill-health but ameliorated by the devoted care given by his long-term partner, Tessa, who survives him.