In order, however, to insure as a result a perfectly uniform and marketable article, the Professor uses various chemicals at the several stages of the process. These, however, are not administered haphazard, or by rule of thumb, as has been the case in some processes bearing in the same direction, and which have consequently failed, in the sense that they have not yet taken their places as commercial successes. The Professor, therefore, carefully examines the article which he has to treat, and, according to its nature and the character of its components, he determines the proportions of the various chemicals which he introduces at the several stages. All chance of failure thus appears to be eliminated, and the production of a fiber of uniform and reliable quality removed from the region of doubt into that of certainty. The two processes of M. Favier and M. Fremy have, therefore, been combined, and machinery has been put up in France on a scale sufficiently large to fairly approximate to practical working, and to demonstrate the practicability of the combined inventions.
The experimental works are situated in the Route d'Orleans, Grand Montrouge, just outside Paris, and a few days ago a series of demonstrations were given there by Messrs. G.W.H. Brogden and Co., of Gresham-house, London. The trials were carried out by M. Albert Alroy, under the supervision of M. Urbain, who is Professor Fremy's chief assistant and copatentee, and were attended by Dr. Forbes Watson, Mr. M. Collyer, Mr. C.J. Taylor, late member of the General Assembly, New Zealand, M. Barbe, M. Favier, Mr. G. Brogden, Mr. Caspar, and a number of other gentlemen representing those interested in the question at issue. The process, as carried out, consists in first treating the rhea according to M. Favier's invention. The apparatus employed for this purpose is very simple and inexpensive, consisting merely of a stout deal trough or box, about 8 ft. long, 2 ft. wide, and 1 ft. 8 in. deep. The box has a hinged lid and a false open bottom, under which steam is admitted by a perforated pipe, there being an outlet for the condensed water at one end of the box.
Into this box the bundles of rhea were placed, the lid closed, steam turned on, and in about twenty minutes it was invariably found that the bark had been sufficiently softened to allow of its being readily and rapidly stripped off by hand, together with the whole of the fiber, in what may be called ribbons. Thus the process of decortication is effectively accomplished in a few minutes, instead of requiring, as it sometimes does in the retting process, days, and even weeks, and being at the best attended with uncertainty as to results, as is also the case when decortication is effected by machinery.
Moreover, the retting process, which is simply steeping the cut plants in water, is a delicate operation, requiring constant watching, to say nothing of its serious inconvenience from a sanitary point of view, on account of the pestilential emanations from the retteries. Decortication by steam having been effected, the work of M. Favier ceases, and the process is carried forward by M. Fremy. The ribbons having been produced, the fiber in them has to be freed from the mucilaginous secretions. To this end, after examination in the laboratory, they are laid on metal trays, which are placed one above the other in a vertical perforated metal cylinder. When charged, this cylinder is placed within a strong iron cylinder, containing a known quantity of water, to which an alkali is added in certain proportions. Within the cylinder is a steam coil for heating the water, and, steam having been turned on, the temperature is raised to a certain point, when the cylinder is closed and made steam-tight. The process of boiling is continued under pressure until the temperature--and consequently the steam pressure--within the cylinder has attained a high degree.
On the completion of this part of the process, which occupies about four hours, and upon which the success of the whole mainly depends, the cementitious matter surrounding the fiber is found to have been transformed into a substance easily dissolved. The fibrous mass is then removed to a centrifugal machine, in which it is quickly deprived of its surplus alkaline moisture, and it is then placed in a weak solution of hydrochloric acid for a short time. It is then transferred to a bath of pure cold water, in which it remains for about an hour, and it is subsequently placed for a short time in a weak acid bath, after which it is again washed in cold water, and dried for the market. Such are the processes by which China grass may become a source of profit alike to the cultivator and the spinner. A factory situate at Louviers has been acquired, where there is machinery already erected for preparing the fiber according to the processes we have described, at the rate of one ton per day. There is also machinery for spinning the fiber into yarns.
These works were also visited by those gentlemen who were at the experimental works at Montrouge, and who also visited the Government laboratory in Paris, of which Professor Fremy is chief and M. Urbain sous-chef, and where those gentlemen explained the details of their process and made their visitors familiar with the progressive steps of their investigations.
With regard to the rhea treated at Montrouge, we may observe that it was grown at La Reolle, near Bordeaux. Some special experiments were also carried out by Dr. Forbes Watson with some rhea grown by the Duke of Wellington at Stratfield-saye, his Grace having taken an active interest in the question for some years past. In all cases the rhea was used green and comparatively freshly cut. One of the objects of Dr. Watson's experiments was, by treating rhea cut at certain stages of growth, to ascertain at which stage the plant yields the best fiber, and consequently how many crops can be raised in the year with the best advantage.
This question has often presented itself as one of the points to be determined, and advantage has been taken of the present opportunity with a view to the solution of the question. Mr. C.J. Taylor also took with him a sample of New Zealand flax, which was successfully treated by the process. On the whole, the conclusion is that the results of the combined processes, so far as they have gone, are eminently satisfactory, and justify the expectation that a large enterprise in the cultivation and utilization of China grass is on the eve of being opened up, not only in India and our colonies, but possibly also much nearer home.