Donald Batesky shakes a small bottle to show off the chemical crystals inside.
To this 85-year-old chemist, shiny crystals of chemical compounds are a thing of beauty. Their formation signals that the chemical is pure, he explains, as he shows a visitor around a lab at the University of Rochester. Batesky waxes eloquent on the shiny eye-appeal a chemical should present as the consumer opens the bottle for the first time.
The search for new ways to create pure chemicals – whether for cancer-fighting medicines or other building blocks of science and industry – drove Batesky to rediscover an old technique used in a new way. His discovery led to a feature article in the Journal of Organic Chemistry (Online Sept. 18 and in print Oct. 6.) Being selected to write such an article is an honor for anyone, let alone a former Eastman Kodak chemist who passed the AARP membership threshold before many of his lab colleagues were even born. But this is not his first article in the journal. He also wrote one 58 years ago, when he was just a few years out of college.
All those years of experience may have led him to the discovery outlined in the Sept. 18 article.
“It tells people how to do something that hasn’t been done in a long time. With 63 years’ experience, I know a lot of tricks,” Batesky said. “I’ve made 3,000 chemicals. I can feel a flask and tell you the temperature. Unless it burns me and then it’s too hot.”
In a nutshell, here’s what Batesky did that captured the journal’s interest: He used zinc chloride to remove triphenylphosphine oxide from a solution. The zinc chloride binds with the other chemical and makes it precipitate out of the solution.
That’s a big deal because while triphenylphosphine is commonly used to purify other chemicals, it typically leaves behind triphenylphosphine oxide, which itself is an impurity. In pharmaceutical chemicals, impurities like this are a problem because they might cause unwanted side-effects.
This discovery was all in a day’s work for Batesky, who worked for nearly 40 years at Kodak and another 15 for a company that took on some of the chemical work Kodak used to do. More recently he has worked directly for the University of Rochester, making chemicals needed for research in pharmaceuticals.
“He had a lot of experience making certain types of molecules that were exactly what we needed,” said Daniel Weix, the UR professor for whom he worked for several years. “They are not trivial to make, but Don has tremendous experience making these.”
Weix said Batesky is not afraid to try new things and reach into his bag of tricks to try old things, too. Such was the case when he made the TPPO discovery nearly three years ago.
“I didn’t think anything of it at the time,” Batesky. He mentioned what he had done with zinc chloride to Weix, who recognized the potential of Batesky’s discovery, as many other scientists use triphenylphosphine.
“It’s a reagent that makes a lot of interesting reactions work,” Weix said. “But when it does its thing, it turns into something else; it turns into (triphenylphosphine oxide.) There’s a lot of reagents that turn into a side product. But this one, in the experience of a lot of chemists, is kind of a pain to get rid of.”
Indeed, Weix, who has since moved on to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, reviewed a reference manual Batesky described as a cookbook for chemicals. Batesky said Weix found 173 references to triphenylphosphine oxide in the book: “Every one of them says ‘difficult to remove.’”
Batesky had a history with TPPO. “When I worked at Kodak, there was a rash of people who wanted TPPO,” he recalled. “I made the stuff to put in the Eastman catalog.” One use for the chemical is to enrich uranium.
While pondering the problem of removing it, and considering the substances that have at one time or another earned Batesky’s moniker of “solvent of the month,” he was struck by something sitting on the lab counter next to him.
“The bottle of zinc chloride was sitting right there, oddly. I think God put it there,” he said. Long an advocate for old-school techniques that aren’t commonly used in labs anymore because of assistive technologies – who distills anymore? – Batesky thought trying precipitation would be a fine idea. Readers of his article online can see the reaction take place on video.
“This is my grizzly old hand,” he said, showing the video demonstrating the reaction. Batesky claims to be a “clumsy oaf” when it comes to computers, noting that when he graduated from Purdue University in 1954, that was not something in his skill set. But his actual facility with computers belies his self-deprecation. He checks the views of the article, which amounted to 13,575 at six weeks, more than doubling a colleagues’ for a much longer time.
This supposedly non-computer-savvy guy mentions that he used to help his grandson market sports memorabilia online, and after being widowed twice, he found a new girlfriend (sadly now also deceased) through Match.com.
“I’ve lived a charmed life,” Batesky said, alluding to the loss of his loves as the reason he continues to work in chemistry. He hopes to make a breakthrough that could help others. The Irondequoit resident works about 25 hours a week, which leaves him time to have frequent lunches and coffees with his daughter each week.
He did retire once and helped out with daycare for his grandson. But when his grandson grew too old for a babysitter (He’s now a father of four with one more on the way) Batesky looked for new challenges. “I didn’t want to go to Chase-Pitkin (a defunct home improvement store) or be a greeter at Walmart.” And he certainly didn’t want to tie on some golf shoes.
“A bad day in the lab is better than a good day at golf,” Batesky said, offering one of his oft-used lines. Chemistry was more attractive to him. He wrote to a fellow Purdue alum at what is now Sigma-Aldrich Co. and asked whether he could produce chemicals for them, helping to transfer technology for the work it was taking over from Kodak.
Aldrich rented laboratory space for this work at UR. “All I did was bring my brains with me and my hands,” Batesky said. This arrangement worked for about 15 years, until his Purdue connection retired and the company went in a direction Batesky didn’t want to follow. After a brief interlude, Batesky asked UR whether it needed someone to make chemicals, and he began a working relationship with Weix.
“He took me in and I had a circus,” Batesky said.
With Weix now working in Wisconsin, Batesky has been assigned to another chemist at UR for a few hours a week, but he expects to take on more work soon that will bring him back to the future. The UR Laser Energetics Lab has a need for someone to make liquid crystals. Batesky can tell you what he was doing – riding to the 1964 World’s Fair – when he first read about liquid crystals in Scientific American.
“I hope I’m still as enthusiastic when I’m Don’s age,” said Weix, who is 39. “I think for him, it’s the act of creation, kind of willing something into existence that maybe has never seen the light of day before.”
That’s almost exactly how Batesky puts it.
“The biggest thrill for me is to put something in a bottle that no one else has ever done,” he said. “I created matter – alakazam!”