The story of ‘Bung’, and your opinions on patent law, pollution and safety

Patently outstanding

Having recently moved from a catalysis lab into patent law, I was happy to see an article on Shanks v Unilever (Chemistry World, January 2020, p14).

As alluded to, the crux of the case was whether the benefit of the Shanks patents was in fact ‘outstanding’. The suggestion in the article that the licensing of the patents by Unilever rendered the benefit outstanding, however, is an unsound oversimplification.

The crucial issue was the reference against which to compare the benefit (approximately £24m) from the Shanks patents. This is detailed in section 40 of the Patents Act, which assesses whether a benefit is outstanding ‘having regard to the size and nature of the employer’s undertaking’.

Who then, was Shanks’ employer? Not, as stated in the article, Unilever, but a research subsidiary thereof (CRL). This was highly significant. The UK Intellectual Property Office and the earlier appeals had taken the size of the employer’s undertaking to be Unilever in its entirety, in which context £24m was unexceptional. The Supreme Court decided differently, stating that the relevant undertaking was that of CRL alone. Therefore, the benefit of the Shanks patents was to be measured against the income from other CRL patents.

In this context the Shanks patents clearly stood out. That the reward to Unilever was gained essentially risk-free from licensing is a subsidiary point.

Also, as you stated, no successful compensation claims had been made until relatively recently. This is partially due to the wording of section 40 before 2004, which required that the patent – not the invention – be of ‘outstanding benefit’. This can often be trickier to demonstrate.

Pip Hellier MRSC
Oxford, UK

Chemical connections

Not for the first time, Chemistry World has commented on connectivity (Chemistry World, January 2020, p68). What an eye-opener it was for me to enter industry as a trainee in 1954 and be introduced to Quickfit! The illustration of apparatus in the late 1940s reminded me exactly of my school chemistry lab in that period. Connections using rubber bungs were a normal part of the scene. Our nickname for Mr Rose the chemistry master just had to be ‘Bung’. Clearly ‘Bung’ succeeded in his task for at least one student, and, no doubt, many more.

Philip Fowler MRSC
Trowbridge, UK

Safety matters

I find it surprising and depressing to hear that lab safety is not taught in all chemistry training courses and is not implemented in all chemistry labs (Chemistry World, January 2020, p5).

As a practical chemist, I have always found that safety is an integral part of the day-to-day process of designing any piece of work. Just because it’s an untried reaction or process doesn’t mean it can’t be done safely. An unexpected physical change, be it an exotherm, colour or phase change, is often an early indication of an unexpected reaction pathway and can be dealt with if anticipated. It doesn’t even matter too much if a reaction unexpectedly catches fire if it occurs in a controlled environment, like a fume cupboard with suitable precautions in place.

Surely any reaction or equipment set up in a lab should always have a safety sheet nearby. As a minimum this should detail what should be done, and in what order, for a safe shut down of the process. A colleague can then safely intervene if something unexpected occurs and the principal worker is not immediately to hand; we all need to take occasional comfort breaks!

The need to write such a procedure does, of itself, force the participants to think about the possible outcomes and quickly becomes just another part of setting up the equipment.

Mike Clarke CChem FRSC
Halstead, UK

Pollution zone

The letter from Angeline Kanagasooriam (Chemistry World, December 2019, p4), which disparages the London ultra low emissions zone and blames aviation for London’s pollution problems, confuses two distinct although related issues.

The main purpose of the ultra low emissions zone in central London is to achieve compliance with the limit value for atmospheric nitrogen dioxide, whose main source in London is diesel road traffic. The zone penalises vehicles with high NOx emissions, and in the case of diesel passenger cars, incentivises use of those meeting the current Euro 6 emissions standard. These emit on average about 50% of the NOx of diesels built to earlier standards, and preliminary evidence suggests that the ultra low emissions zone is delivering cleaner air.

In this context, aircraft emissions are not a very major contributor to ground-level NOx, and most studies have shown that the road traffic attracted by airports is a far more significant source of this pollutant.

Where I would agree with Angeline is that the carbon footprint of air travel, which affects global pollution, is a very serious issue that needs to be addressed. However, restrictions on aviation, while having an important role to play in limiting global warming, are unlikely to have a major impact on local air pollution and the health of Londoners.

Roy Harrison FRSC
Birmingham, UK

I do agree with Angeline Kanagasooriam that aviation is being allowed both to pollute and produce carbon dioxide without restriction. No doubt this shows the power of the aviation lobby. There is no actual need for short haul aviation at all. During the 1970s oil crisis, package holiday companies had plans to run package holidays to Spain using sleeper trains. The world has existed without aviation.

The City of Bristol recently introduced a ban on private diesel cars. The ban does not apply to commercial vehicles. The most polluting diesel engines in use are old large commercial diesels, which the ban does nothing about. The cleanest are modern Euro 6 diesels with selective catalyst reduction, which are fitted in cars, yet these are the engines that are banned.

We have to be scientific about reducing pollution and carbon emissions, rather than just kicking the motorist and allowing vested interests like aviation to get off scot-free.

W P Edwards CChem FRSC
Great Bardfield, UK


The review of Antimony, Gold and Jupiter’s Wolf (Chemistry World, January 2020, p64) should have stated that phlogiston theory dates from the 18th century.