One of the most dramatic thefts of the past thirty years was the decades-long attempt of Chinese manufacturers to steal the color white. You think white is easy, but white is actually extremely difficult to make, and is a multi-billion dollar product with one company alone making $2.6 Billion a year producing white! White is so valuable that DuPont, one of the largest companies in the world, spun off a new company, Chemours, that produces nothing but white.
Chemours is not exactly quick to let anyone know how they produce white; the factories are patrolled by armed guards, tall barbed wire fences surround the facility, visitors are not allowed to take pictures, and worker’s bags are searched before they can leave. Most workers are only involved in one part of the production so that almost no one knows the full secret in how to produce white. Confidentiality agreements are signed by anyone coming close to the factories, and regular drills are carried out to make sure no one learns the secret of white.
There are a lot of whites out there; all you need to do is look at the white shirts in your closet and you will quickly see that there are more than fifty shades of white. There’s the eggshell white painted on your wall, the glistening white adorning a Rolls Royce, the reflective white on the stripes down the middle of the road, the somewhat white pages of the book you just bought, and the hard to keep white of a winter coat. White is cheap, superwhite… not so much.
The whitest whites are produced using a chemical called titanium dioxide, or TiO2. TiO2 is a naturally occurring oxide (I’m just going to pretend we all know what an oxide is, and neglect to explain that. Perhaps it’s half of a dioxide?), which can be found in ilmenite ore, and was first used as a pigment in the 1800’s. But chemists searched for a long time for a way to produce TiO2 in the lab, (What does your father do? He makes white!) and when they found one, they guarded that secret like the multi-billion dollar secret it is.
Over 10 billion pounds of titanium dioxide is produced each year, and it is used in everything from the filling of your Oreo cookie, to the white lines on your tennis court, the paper in your printer, the French doors on your Kenmore Elite refrigerator, the hull of a superyacht, and the bottle of Tide Free and Gentle detergent in your laundry room.
There are different ways to make titanium dioxide, and while Chinese manufacturers are able to produce it, their method is much more costly and environmentally damaging compared to DuPont/Chemours process. Which brings us to a well-known Chinese business principle, if you can’t beat them, steal from them. According to a February 2020 statement by Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, the Chinese, our second largest trading partner, steals between $300-$600 BILLION dollars from the US companies through theft of intellectual property each year! We spend decades and billions of dollars developing new technologies, medicines, and industrial processes, and Chinese manufacturers, often backed by the Chinese government, come along and steal them. They then can produce the same things we produce with a fraction of the development costs.
Titanium dioxide is a perfect example. TiO2 is naturally found imbedded in rock. Up until the 1940’s it was removed from the rock and purified using a crude messy technique called the sulfate batch process, which you can research on your own time if you have a fascination for outdated chemical engineering processes. But starting in the 1940’s DuPont engineers began using a new method called the chloride route.
I’m not going to dwell on the chloride route, but it does involve mixing the TiO2 ore with chlorine and coke (pure carbon, an industrial product, not the pure junk, a soft drink product) in a massive machine known as the chlorinator, where it is heated to 1800 degrees. The gas coming out of that, titanium tetrachloride, affectionately known as “tickle” by chemical engineers, is piped through condensing tubes, and comes out as a yellowish liquid, liquid tickle. (Hey, what did you get for your Chanukka present last night? Um… liquid tickle…)
The liquid tickle is placed in another machine called an oxidizer, where it’s heated again and mixed with oxygen, which strips away the chlorine and replaces it with two oxygen molecules (hence dioxide). So far, I did not tell you any trade secrets, all that is available to anyone with a computer or smartphone. The devil is in the details. There are hundreds of variables, including but not limited to: the rate of oxidation, exact temperatures used, flow rates, and the diameter of each pipe. While I don’t know those variables, I know that Chemours spends $150 Million a year trying to perfect the process furthers, and I know that the outcome of this process is pure whiteness.
The Chinese government contacted Walter Liew, a Malaysian born, naturalized US citizen, and encouraged him to find out the trade secrets DuPont/Chemours used to produce their TiO2. Walter was an electrical engineer who received his master’s degree from University of Oklahoma. But he was not content to work as a mid-level engineer, so he opened his own industrial consulting firm. While he had some success advising companies on how to build various factories, the real money was in the white. Unfortunately, Liew was way out of his league in this area. But when he met with Chinese leaders, including Luo Gan, the secretary general of the State Council, China’s top policymaking body, they taught him the Chinese way of industrial success.
Liew came back to the US and began searching for current or former DuPont employees who might have knowledge of the exact chloride route. He focuses on two particular employees, Tim Spitler, a former DuPont engineer living in Reno, NV, and Robert Maegerle, an engineer who worked on TiO2 for thirty five years. Both of them harbored ill will toward DuPont which they felt treated them wrongly, and Liew was the perfect salve for their pain, he wanted to hear about all the ways they were mistreated. But he also wanted to hear about the chloride route.
Liew showered them with attention, took them out to lavish dinners, and even helped Spitler pay for the funeral of his daughter who committed suicide in 2006. He gave them money, but surprisingly small amounts, $15,000 here, $10,000 there. And with that, he was able to buy an enormous amounts of expertise in DuPont’s trade secrets, including the full blueprints to a TiO2 factory! What DuPont spent billions developing, Walter Liew bought for less than $100,000!
Liew ended up landing contracts worth about $30 million to develop TiO2 factories for Chinese companies using his stolen secrets. Many of these companies were state owned companies, part of the Chinese government’s massive industrial complex. Liew gave them the industry secrets he stole, enabling them to build advanced TiO2 factories for a fraction of what they should have cost.
But he also attracted attention. The Chinese companies wanted to make sure his stolen plans and blueprints were legitimate stolen material and not just something he cooked up at home. They contacted a respectable Australian consulting company, TMZI to look over the material. TMZI warned the Chinese that the material it was reviewing was stolen, but they were ignored. Finally a TMZI consultant contacted DuPont and warned them. This ended up landing Liew in jail for stealing industrial secrets, where he will spend the next 15 years watching cable TV and doing laundry in a federal penitentiary. Maegerle, who was convicted as an accomplice will sit for two and a half years, and Spitler committed suicide shortly after Liew and his wife were arrested.
That is the quiet story behind one of the greatest thefts in all of history. What was stolen is worth billions of dollars, yet almost no one knows about it. It doesn’t have the glamour of a highly publicized art heist, nor the violence and guns of a bank robbery, or even the publicity of a con artist outed. It probably doesn’t affect your bottom line unless you own stock in DuPont. But one thing you might notice in the coming years is that white is about to get cheaper.
What I found most fascinating about this story is that such extraordinary amounts of money are expended to create the whitest whites. There are indeed so many shades of white, and no one wants to eat Oreos with an off-white filling, and no one wants their printer paper to look aged as soon as it comes out of the printer. We like our white, and we want it superwhite.
In the moral and ethical world there are also many shades of white. I may give charity, but is my charity going to an organization that siphons off most of the money they make and only give a fraction to really help their cause, or am I giving to a responsible organization that gives the vast majority of the dollars they raise to helping the cause? After reading that the Cancer Fund of America raised $86.8 million dollars in the last decade but only gave 1% to actually helping families battling cancer, or that the International Union of Police Associations AFL-CIO only gave $330,000 of the $66 Million they raised to help families of police officers killed in the line of duty, you start realizing that there are many shades of charity.
I may help my elderly grandfather by going grocery shopping for him, but then I can just leave the grocery bags on the kitchen table, or I can unpack the groceries and put them all away. I can go to services, but I can spend my time there talking to friends, or I can spend my time there actually talking to G-d. I can give a dollar to the homeless guy on the side of the road, but I can give it with a smile and wish him a good day, or I can drop the money in front of him and scurry away. I may help my wife with putting the kids to bed, but did I ask my wife what she needed me to do, or did I wait for her to ask me? There are indeed so many different shades of white.
The Path of the Just, one of the most important Jewish works on personal self-development, talks about a trait called Cleanliness. This trait is where one examines all his actions, even his good ones and makes sure that they are not just good, but that they are pure good, not just white but superwhite. Using this idea as the metric, I fully understand that DuPont spends $150 Million each year honing and refining its titanium dioxide production, and appreciate that we too need to dedicate tremendous resources on an ongoing basis to hone and refine even our good actions!
White is cheap, superwhite… not so much! But then again, who wants to eat an Oreo with an off-white filling?
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha begins with the call for donations to build the first ever House of G-d. The Torah enumerates all the different items that were needed, a shopping list of fifteen items ranging from gold to purple wool, from acacia wood to red-dyed goat skins. Rabbi Chaim ben Moses ibn Attar (1696-1743, Morocco-Jerusalem) in his classic commentary, the Ohr HaChaim points out what seems like an anomaly in the order that Torah uses to list items that would be donated. Generally the list is ordered from the most expensive to the least expensive. The list begins with gold and then moves on to silver, copper, and moves all the way down to herbs and spices.
The anomaly is that the most expensive of all the items is listed last! The shoham stones were precious stones worn on the shoulders of the high priest, and they had to be big enough that the names of six tribes were engraved on each one of them. They were literally priceless, and should have been the first item on the list instead of the last! The Ohr Hachayim begins his answer with a statement from the Talmud (Yoma 75A), which says that these priceless stones which were impossible to find, were brought miraculously by the clouds (a whole new meaning to “airmail!”). Since no effort was expended in bringing this item to build the Tabernacle, they were the least important to G-d and were listed last.
When someone made a big sacrifice and donated a chunk of gold to the Tabernacle it was more meaningful that when someone made a smaller sacrifice and gave a chunk of silver. But the shoham stones, despite being priceless, did not come through someone’s self sacrifice and dedication, and were thus listed last. G-d doesn’t need gold, diamonds, or platinum. In a flash He could create mountains of gold. What G-d values is the love, dedication, and sacrifice of His people, and the times that required the most dedication were the one’s G-d counted first. Items that required no dedication were left to the end, regardless of their enormous price tag.
Rabbi Avraham Danzig (1748-1820, Poland- Vilna), in his classic work on Jewish Law, Chayei Adam, talks about general principles regarding the fulfillment of mitzvos. He expands the idea above by saying that if someone can afford it, they should pay for items that will be used for a mitzvah even if they can get it for free. For example, although someone can borrow a lulav and esrog to shake on Succos, they should buy one anyway, because when we invest in a mitzvah, it has more meaning to us (which is why it is more meaningful to G-d).
He supports this from King David’s acquisition of the Temple Mount, which would later house the First and Second Temples. The owner of the land, Aravnah the Jebusite, offered the whole thing to King David for free, but King David declined. “And the king said to Aravnah, “No; for I will only buy it from you at a price; so that I will not offer to the Lord my God burnt-offerings [which I had received] for nothing. (Samuel II 24:24)” King David didn’t want to give up the opportunity to invest himself personally in the great mitzvah of building the Temple. By derivation, the Chayei Adam says that we too should try to invest ourselves personally in any mitzvah we can.
For the past five years I have had the opportunity to lecture for Heritage Retreats, an organization that brings college students and young professional from all over the country together for a week of “learn hard, play hard.” As part of the program, we learn about many of the basic mitzvos, including tzitzis and tefillin. Often the guys are even given the opportunity to make their own tzitzis. It is not easy, and often takes two hours to complete a single pair of tzitzis. But reliably, when people invest in making their own tzitzis, they end up wearing them much more. The more we invest in a mitzvah, the greater the return we reap. As the mishnah in Ethics of Our Fathers proclaims, (Avot 5:26) “26. Ben Heh-Heh used to say: According to the effort is the reward.”
In this week’s portion G-d asks the Jewish people to build a physical dwelling place for the Divine Presence. The Sages tell us that the real goal is that we each build a Tabernacle inside ourselves, but that the building is the physical expression of that idea, and one we can relate to much more easily. The Jews were asked to donate the many different materials with which the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), its vessels, and the holy vestments for the Kohanim would be made.
The items the Jews were asked to bring were: gold, silver and copper, turquoise, purple, and crimson wool, fine linen, goat’s hair, red-dyed ram’s skins, tachash skins, acacia wood, oil, spices, and precious stones. G-d tells Moshe that He will show him a model of the Tabernacle and that the real one should be built exactly like the prototype.
After that, the Torah begins to detail the design of many of the vessels. The ark was made of three boxes, the outside and inside ones of gold, and the middle one of wood. On top of the box was a special lid that had two childlike forms with wings engraved onto it. There were four rings in which poles to carry the aron were placed and, specifically regarding the ark, the Torah stipulates that the poles were never to be removed.
The Table was a vessel used to hold twelve loaves of showbread that were placed there for a week at a time, from Shabbos to Shabbos. The table was made of gold-plated wood and had a small crown-like ornament rimming it. It had a special system of poles and supports so that the showbreads could be held up properly.
The Menorah had to be carved out of one block of gold. It was about 70 inches tall and had one central mast with three branches leading off to each side. It was heavily adorned with sculpted flowers, knobs, and decorative cups.
The building itself was made of dozens of wood planks covered in gold and held in place by silver sockets. There were also gold plated wooden bars that held them together. There were two heavy tapestries covering these planks. The inner one was made of twisted linen woven with turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool and was held together with golden hooks. The outer one was made of a more simple material, woven goat’s hair, and was held together with copper hooks. The Sages tell us that this teaches us that a person’s home should always be more beautiful on the inside than on the outside. (Please note: There are so many lessons taught from everything in the Tabernacle, but space doesn’t permit me to list all of them. However, please discover these gems for yourselves!)
The altar was a hollow rectangular cuboid (the width and length were the same, the height was not) made of wood and covered with copper. It was filled with dirt. It had protrusions at each of the top corners that were exact cubes, netting surrounding it like a belt, and a protrusion in the middle that was large enough to walk on. Leading up to it was a long ramp, as no steps were allowed on the altar (see the end of Parshas Yisro).
Finally, the courtyard was swathed in a white linen sheet which was held in place by wooden pillars with copper sockets. The pillars had bands of silver going around them, and they held up the material with silver hooks. If it sounds like a beautiful place, that’s because it was one. May we all merit to see the rebuilding of the Temple, and may we once again have a place on earth where G-d’s Presence can reside in all of its Glory!!!
Quote of the Week: The past is a guidepost, not a hitching post. ~ L. Thomas Holdcroft
Random Fact of the Week: Pumice is the only rock that floats in water.
Funny Line of the Week: I wondered why the baseball kept getting bigger. Then it hit me.
Have a Swell Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham