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Chemist ahead of his time created biofuel

Chemist ahead of his time created biofuel

Date Published: 27-May-16

An author’s request for a photo led to ChemCentre learning some fascinating history about a WA chemist’s involvement with hydrocarbons and biofuel. Motoring historian and author Graeme Cocks approached ChemCentre to see if the archives contained a photo of Harry Rowley (died 1919), who was the WA Government analytical chemist early this century – a precursor to what is now ChemCentre.
“Harry Rowley was a very interesting man,” Graeme said. “He was very keen on motoring sports and came up with the bright idea of making fuels out of native plants, so they could be made here and therefore easier to get.

“He and his Norwegian assistant Yngvar Ulrik Malthe invented a motorcycle fuel using grasstree pulp. Yes, very strange but true!

“They floated a company and for a time had a small manufacturing plant in Maylands, where the grasstrees were delivered by train.

“In 1914-15 motorcycles burning the fuel raced at Lake Perkolilli, near Kalgoorlie, which was one of the main racing tracks in the early days of motor sports in WA.”

Harry Rowley died suddenly in 1919 and Yngvar later returned to Norway.

The tale of Harry’s biofuel manufacturing venture is included in Red Dirt Racers, a book on WA motor sports history, which Graeme is in the final stages of publishing.

Graeme described Harry as a man clearly ahead of his time, but added that he it was probably as well that grasstrees had not continued to be utilised for biofuel, given their slow growth rates.

Harry was not the first government analyst to explore the chemical composition of grasstrees and other native plants, as this 1906 newspaper article attests. This tradition of seeking to understand the chemistry of the Western Australian environment continues today in the environmental chemistry services ChemCentre offers for industry and government.

ChemCentre did not have a picture of Harry, but Graeme was able to obtain one (shown above) from the City of Perth Archives.

Red Dirt Racers will be published in July 2016. Go to: www.motoringpast.com.au


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