Snake Oil or Miracle Product?

- Source: PA Files

Martin Fairbank
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The use of “snake oil” as a derogatory phrase traces back to the late 1800s when "patent medicines" were often peddled by travelling salesman or on the back pages of newspapers, promising to cure a wide variety of ailments, with little proof of their curative powers.

MF 2feb21 2In the most infamous case, Clark Stanley, also known as the Rattlesnake King, advertised “Stanley’s Snake Oil”, which, when analyzed by US federal investigators, was found to contain primarily mineral oil, beef fat, red pepper and turpentine! He was eventually fined $20 for violating the Food and Drug act of 1906 and for "misbranding" his product!

At one time in my past, I became a kind of gatekeeper for evaluating new chemical products. At the time, I worked in the research and development centre of a pulp and paper company and was one of the very few employees with a Ph.D. in chemistry, a discipline that trained me well in the scientific method.

Chemical companies in those days often sent out salesmen with little or no scientific training, to try and convince mills to try their new products, promising cost savings or quality improvement (I’m happy to say that nowadays they have a much better technical knowledge base). Unlike the gullible customers of Clark Stanley, most paper mills asked for proof of these claims, and some of those vendors got sent to the R&D department to determine if there was any truth to their claims.

You probably learned about the scientific method in high school, but many of you will have forgotten the basics. This is how I typically use the scientific method to evaluate a new product:

  1. Background Research – Has anyone looked at this before, and what was learned?
  2. Question – What are the facts and what is unknown?
  3. Hypothesis – How does it supposedly work, and how could we prove that it works?
  4. Experiment – Design experiments to determine whether the hypothesis is correct
  5. Observe – Document the results of the experiments
  6. Conclusions – What do the results tell us?
  7. Communicate – Document all the above and plan the next steps.

Positive results in the lab don’t always lead to success in the mill, for various reasons. Over the years, I saw some successes and many failures. Many products I evaluated turned out to be “snake oils” – having no measurable effect or giving results only under unacceptable conditions, such as too high a cost, or requiring a major change to the process where it would be applied.

A successful product about 30 years ago was an organic opacifying agent. At that time, newsprint made with stone groundwood had problems competing with that made from thermomechanical pulp (TMP) due to a lower opacity, and printers complained of show-through (print visible from the opposite side of the sheet). The conventional solution was to add calcined clay, but this was expensive, required additional chemicals to retain the clay, and could be abrasive to paper machine equipment at high levels. The hypothesis was that this organic opacifying agent was a long-chain polymer with two cationic ends that could attach to two surfaces and hold them apart, creating air spaces between the wood fibres that lead to opacity. Although many suppliers offer similar products today for applications in other paper grades, it was a novel approach at the time. Newsprint today, however, is no longer made with stone groundwood, and its need for opacifying agents has disappeared.

An example of a partial success was bleaching with hydrosulphite in a TMP refiner. It’s very difficult to simulate this in a laboratory setting, but we had access to a 12-inch pilot plant refiner that was a good way to test the technique. The initial results were very promising, showing that bleaching could be achieved in just a few minutes compared to 60–90 minutes using a conventional bleaching tower or machine chest, and the efficiency was better because hydrosulphite is oxidized by air, and a TMP refiner does a good job of de-aerating the pulp. The first installation of the technology went well for several months, until a routine inspection discovered that the refiner shaft was being corroded by sulphuric acid, a byproduct of hydrosulphite oxidation. Fortunately, we were able to figure out an engineering solution to the problem, and refiner hydrosulphite bleaching is now used in many TMP mills around the world.

An important part of making scientific advances is using what we learn from our failures to design better products, and my name is on a 1997 patent for a hydrosulphite bleach formulation that prevents the corrosive acid from being formed in refiner bleaching – an alternative solution to the problem.     

Martin Fairbank, Ph.D. Martin Fairbank has worked in the forest products industry for 31 years,
including many years for a pulp and paper producer and two years with
Natural Resources Canada. With a Ph.D. in chemistry and experience in
process improvement, product development, energy management and lean
manufacturing, Martin currently works as an independent consultant,
based in Montreal. He is also an author, having recently published
Resolute Roots, a history of Resolute Forest Products and its
predecessors over the last 200 years.

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Martin Fairbank Consulting

Industry Experience

  • Pulp and Paper Technology
  • Materials Recycling
  • Biorefinery Development
  • Manufacturing
  • Government Subsidy Programs


  • Technical Writing
    . White Papers
    . Grant Applications
    . Explain technical concepts
  • Scientific Editing
    . Review of articles for publication
  • Project Assessment
    . Evaluation of Technologies
    . Project evaluation for funding agencies
  • Pulp & Paper
    . Conventional and emerging technologies