Donald Eric Weiss [1924-2008]

By Colin WardMay 16th, 2012


Don Weiss joined CSIR in 1948 and worked for it and its successor organization, CSIRO, until his retirement in 1984. He was the Chief of the CSIRO Division of Chemical Technology from 1974 to 1979 and Director of CSIRO’s Planning and Evaluation Advisory Unit from 1979 to 1984. He was a highly imaginative and creative scientist whose work was always driven by his clear understanding of its application. He made important contributions to separation science but is best known for his contributions to technology for water and waste water treatment. His enduring legacy is the more than twenty MIEX plants that have been installed around the world.

Family Background

Donald Eric (‘Don’) Weiss was born on 4 October 1924 in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, and died in the eastern suburb of Blackburn on 30 July 2008. His parents were Herbert Vernon (‘Vern’) Weiss, a librarian, and Lillian Kate (‘Lill’) nee Le Lievre, a school teacher. They had married in 1914 and separated when Don was about 3. After the separation Don and his mother moved to Adelaide to live in the house owned by Lill’s older, widowed sister, Nellie Moyes. Also living in the house were Nellie’s son Owen (born 1906) and Lill’s younger sister Florence (‘Floss’) who never married. Don claims to have few memories of his childhood in this unusual household. He was not interested in sport but recalls an absorbing interest in his Meccano set. He attended Mitcham Primary School and remembers playing the fife in the school band, winning a competition in Renmark.

Secondary School

Don was educated at Scotch College, Adelaide, and completed his Leaving Certificate in 1941. He graduated from playing the fife to playing the flute and in 1941 was the first flautist in the school orchestra. He maintained an interest in the flute for the rest of his life. He was also a keen member of the school’s Model Engineering Group, where he learned how to use metal-working tools and machines. He was not very interested in studying until introduced to chemistry by the school. He was fortunate in having two first-class chemistry teachers, John E Smith and John Dow, who inspired his life-long interest in chemistry. Don decided at an early age that he was going to be an industrial chemist and set about visiting factories, even if they did not make chemicals. He had his own home laboratory and taught himself to use chemical glassware.

In his last year at Scotch College he won the Science Prize, shared the Mathematics Prize and shared the Special English Prize for Form VI B. He did not stay the extra year to do Leaving Honours and so was never eligible to win the Professor Rennie Chemistry Prize. He later won the Rennie Memorial Medal of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI), an award made to young chemists.

Tertiary Education

Given Don’s ambition to become an industrial chemist, it is not surprising that in 1942 he enrolled in the Diploma of Industrial Chemistry at the South Australian School of Mines and Industry (now part of the University of South Australia). In 1944 he transferred to a BSc course at the University of Adelaide was awarded the BSc degree in 1945. He was awarded a DSc from the University of Adelaide in 1960 for his thesis Adsorbents and Adsorption Processes.

Early Employment

Don had vacation employment at the Ewell Winery and Distillery, Glenelg, South Australia, and then at the Australian Pulp and Paper Manufacturers (APPM) mill at Burnie, Tasmania. Subsequently APPM employed him as a shift chemist at the Burnie Mill in 1945’46. (The mill closed in June 2010.) He wanted to be involved in research so, in 1947, he took a position as a development chemist at the Commonwealth Serum Laboratories in Melbourne. He was engaged in experimental laboratory and pilot’plant investigations of penicillin production. CSL was then a facility owned and operated by the Australian Government and while Don enjoyed the work on penicillin production, he found the bureaucratic restrictions tiresome.

Recruitment to CSIR/CSIRO

Don’s recruitment into CSIR was typical of the times. Early in 1947 he attended a meeting of the RACI where he met RG Thomas, the leader of the Minerals Utilization Section of the CSIR Division of Industrial Chemistry. They had a conversation about Don’s work and his tentative design of a device for carrying out continuous fractional precipitations and analogous processes. A few weeks later, Don sent Thomas details of the design. Thomas showed the design to his colleague Ian Brown who thought that it showed promise and might be patentable. In April 1947, Thomas wrote a note to his Chief, Ian (later Sir Ian) Wark, telling him about Don and his ideas and saying:

I have no hidden motive in bringing Weiss and his talents to your notice. I incline to the opinion that some day he may be a valued member of this Division but I am not rushing in with a request just yet.

Wark’s interest was evidently roused and after receiving a reference from WT Cooke, University of Adelaide, interviewed Don about his work. The discussion must have gone well because Wark asked for Don’s notes on his ‘Improvements for Fractional Precipitation’ so that he could show them to Keith Sutherland, the leader of the Physical Chemistry Section of the Division of Industrial Chemistry. Soon after that an advertisement appeared for a Research Officer in the Chemical Engineering Section” whose leader, DR Zeidler, was not included in any of the informal discussions”and Don duly applied, including with his application a cardboard model of his invention. There were seven applicants, including one supported by the Minister for Trade and Customs, Senator the Hon. B Courtice. Don was offered the position and the Minister in Charge of CSIR, JJ Dedman, advised his parliamentary colleague that his friend had been unsuccessful.

Don commenced duty at Fishermens Bend on 2 January 1948 as a Research Officer, Grade I, at a salary of £545 per annum. He spent the rest of his career in CSIR/CSIRO. Despite the interest of Wark and others in his cardboard model of a multistage centrifuge for the extraction of penicillin broth, the Division decided that developing the idea was inappropriate for a chemical research group. A similar device was later developed and sold by Westfalia Separator.

Career Progression

Weiss’s early work greatly impressed Wark who, in his note to the CSIR Secretary in February 1949 recommending Weiss’s reclassification to Research Officer, Grade II, wrote:

It seems necessary now only to state that he is one of the most brilliant recruits the Division has had.’ Weiss’s first paper was published in Nature and was entitled ‘New method for the preparation of adsorbents for chromatography’

Don was promoted to Senior Research Officer in 1953, to Principal Research Officer in 1955 and to Senior Principal Research Officer in 1959. In 1962 the Division of Mineral Chemistry decided to establish a Process Development Group and advertised for a Group Leader. There were twenty applicants, including eight from the UK and two from Canada, but Don was offered the position. The Chief of that Division, Ivan Newnham, noted:

His infectious enthusiasm should prove most stimulating to the senior members of this Division who, for their part, will exercise a critical appraisal of the many new ideas which Weiss is sure to disseminate.

Don commenced duty in the new position in July 1962 but there must have been too much critical appraisal because he returned to the Division of Physical Chemistry in August 1963, where he was promoted to Chief Research Scientist (I) in 1965.

In 1971, two sections of the Division of Forest Products were transferred to the Division of Applied Chemistry and placed under Don’s direction. He was designated Assistant Chief of the Division and simultaneously promoted to Chief Research Scientist (II). As outlined in more detail below, in February 1974 the Division of Applied Chemistry was split to form the Divisions of Chemical Technology and Applied Organic Chemistry, with Don being appointed Chief of the Division of Chemical Technology. He remained in that position until February 1979, when he was appointed the Director of CSIRO’s newly established Planning and Evaluation Advisory Unit. He retired from CSIRO in October 1984.

Research Approach

Don had a consistent approach to his work in CSIRO. In his notes for his family, he wrote:

Our work, with few exceptions, has always involved some form of collaboration with an industrial partner usually brought about through discussions with industry before undertaking any significant project. Since I believed it was our job to help industry financial support was only sought for major projects, notably SiroTherm and SiroFloc, which required large expenditure. A few times this resulted in CSIRO not receiving the credit due to a successful innovation. It has always been my belief that industrial-type research, in an organisation like CSIRO, should mainly aim to be long-term and highly innovative; only industry has the detailed knowledge of technology, markets and timing for devising most short-term improvements to existing products and processes although CSIRO can assist with specialist knowledge and/or technology.

Don’s appointment as Chief of the Division of Chemical Technology in 1974 gave him the opportunity to put this philosophy into practice. It was a new Division formed from parts of CSIRO with long traditions of working with industry and Don had a hand-picked group of colleagues to help put his ideas into action. He got down to it straight away. In the Preface to the first Research Review of his new Division, Don spelled out his approach as follows:

Chemical technology represents the major tool being used in scientific research, rather than the subject of study. The new Division will apply chemical and polymer technology to two major Australian resources – plants (particularly those with useful fibres), and water

He developed a concept to describe his approach termed the Integrated Photosynthetic Product Industries (IPPI) concept. In the same Preface, Don stated his view of the role of basic research in his Division:

In each of our programs we must become involved in basic research, either here or in other Divisions, to the extent necessary to solve our problems. Where necessary this will be supplemented by collaborating with universities and colleges of advanced education.

The Division under Don’s leadership is remembered by Tony Priestley as having great and creative times

Contributions to Science and Technology

Don devoted his entire scientific career to separation science. He was either trying to recover a valuable component from a dilute solution or mixture, or to separate impurities from a valuable solvent. His work was user-driven. He did not think that the work was finished until it was embodied in a plant operating on a commercial scale. This often was frustrating for him because the companies with which he worked often changed their direction before the technology could be implemented. For Don this frustration was only ever temporary. His natural enthusiasm always enabled him to move on to the next problem.

Some of Don’s many ideas did not survive the scrutiny of his colleagues, some ended as great contributions to knowledge, some as successful processes developed and commercialized by others, some commercialized by CSIRO but of limited commercial success and some, like the MIEX® water purification process, of significant commercial value. Most scientists are content to have made a contribution to knowledge. Don is one of a small group to have a lasting commercial legacy.

On 2 September 1992, the SCIV,RACI,AAS,AATS&EandAW&WA jointly organized a function to present Don’s SCI award to him. At that function he reminisced on his forty years of research and an edited version of that talk has been published by one of his collaborators, EA (‘Bob’) Swinton in 1993 (see Source below for details). Don himself left an expanded version of that talk in his notes to his family. In his detailed biographical memoir of Don Weiss (see Source below), Tom Spurling used extracts from both documents to summarise Weiss’ career. His research contributions included:

  • Foam fractionation for penicillin using a fatty acid absorbed with oleyl alcohol to produce an adsorbent that could be floated and which had ion-exchange properties.
  • A process for streptomycin production where oleic acid coated with activated carbon became an ion-exchanger which when incorporated into a foam could be used to extract streptomycin.
  • A process where instead of using a foam, the activated carbon was coated over the surfaces of discrete bubbles of air, which floated up a column against a rapid downflow of broth, thus achieving counter-current extraction. Further development replaced air bubbles by coarse quartz bubbles, coated with water-wet diatomaceous earth, held tenaciously by surface forces. While originally intended for penicillin purification, it was also developed as a continuous water softening system. This was shown to delegates at the Fifth Empire Mining and Metallurgical Congress, held in Australia in April and May of 1953. Some of the delegates saw that the system had potential for the direct recovery of uranium from a slurry of leached mineral ores. Consolidated Zinc Pty Ltd (now RioTinto Ltd) supported Don to develop a pilot plant which, when operated at Rum Jungle, demonstrated the ability to pass a desanded slurry counter currently through a pulsated bed of ion-exchange resins that extracted the uranium ion. The process was patented and licensed to the Permutit Co. of the UK (now Siemens Water Technologies).
  • The above work begun by Don continued in Russia and in Japan, where Asahi developed from it the first commercially successful continuous ion-exchange process for the treatment of boiler feed and industrial water. The power station built in the Melbourne suburb of Newport employs this equipment.
  • Don worked with Comalco (now Rio Tinto Ltd) to show that a slurry of lime passed through a pulsating bed of ion-exchange resin could produce a dilute solution of caustic soda without producing chlorine. Concentration proved too expensive for the process to be commercially successful.

Municipal water treatment research

In the early 1960s, Don decided to turn his attention to municipal water treatment. He studied the needs and markets carefully. He visited the municipal water authorities in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Sydney and Brisbane and came to the conclusion that the problem that was of most concern and the one to which he could contribute was the expected rise in salinity of municipal water supplies in Perth and Adelaide. This became his main scientific interest for the rest of his career and his achievements in this area are his greatest legacy to the nation.

A lost opportunity – His view was that ion-exchange technology had potential if chemical regeneration could be replaced by some physical means such as heat or electricity. Initially he could not see how to use heat and so decided on an electrochemical approach using activated carbon electrodes. In December 1948, the Minister for Postwar Reconstruction, JJ Dedman, had announced that Victor Garten, a German physical chemist, had arrived in Australia and would be working in the area of plastics and rubber research. Garten came to CSIR and worked on the mechanism for carbon black reinforcement of rubber. Don Weiss and Garten decided to work together on a study of the fundamental properties of activated carbon and carbon blacks. The collaboration was a scientific success, including the pioneering synthesis of electrically conducting polymers. However their polymers could not be applied to desalination and the line of work was abandoned. This was unfortunate because conducting polymers were ‘rediscovered’ in 1977 by Heeger, MacDiarmid and Shirakawa who were awarded the 2000 Nobel prize in chemistry for the discovery and development of conducting polymers

The SiroTherm process – In 1967 Don started thinking again about heat regeneration of ion-exchange resins which resulted in the concept of the ‘Sirotherm’ process, whereby salt is extracted from brackish water by a mixture of weak acid and certain weak base resins which are then rinsed with hot water. Heating the weak base changes its basicity causing the adsorbed ions to be released as a more concentrated effluent. The process worked in laboratory trials but with the resin bead sizes designed for fixed bed plants was far too slow. Finely grinding the resin did increase the rate but with impractical hydraulics. ‘Plum pudding resins’ overcame the problem. The active micron-sized resins were the ‘plums’, dispersed within a porous matrix bead of the standard size. In 1970, ICI Australia became the commercializing partner, in charge of manufacturing the resins. A pilot plant was built and operated in Perth for some months that showed that saline waters could be treated. In 1975, ICI operated the first commercial plant at its Osborne plant in South Australia, as a precursor for treating boiler feed. By this time, Don had become Chief of the Division of Chemical Technology and Brian Bolto was the leader of the group. He made significant new developments to the process by replacing the matrix with an amphoteric structure. In collaboration with David Solomon’s team at the Division of Applied Organic Chemistry, more efficient resins were prepared, leading to significant cost reductions.

An alternative to the plum pudding resins that were adopted in the early Sirotherm process was the concept of ‘magnetic resins’ that arose from a discussion with DL Ford, Chief Research Chemist at Union Carbide Australia Ltd (and the inventor of ‘Glad Wrap’). The idea was to achieve rapid reaction rates by using micro-beads of resins, each bead containing a proportion of gamma iron oxide. Unmagnetized, they dispersed readily, but when passed through a magnetic field, they flocculated and settled rapidly and could also be pumped around a circuit. Using such resins, and with finance from the Australian Government’s Department of Productivity, a demonstration plant was erected for the Perth Metropolitan Water Board at Leederville. Unfortunately, the weak-acid components of the Sirotherm resins were easily fouled by calcium and magnesium, and the commercial softening pre-treatment that had been installed was not reliable. Although desalination was achieved, ICI lost interest and the Isotherm project ceased.

SiroFloc – In the mid-1970s, Don realised that the removal of colour and turbidity from ground and surface waters was a problem. In some early work it was shown that gamma iron oxide could adsorb colour from acid waters and release it under alkali conditions. Gamma iron oxide was, however, difficult to demagnetize and was replaced by magnetite (Fe3O4), which could be easily magnetized and demagnetized. After experimenting with various resins, it was discovered that the magnetite particles themselves, if treated with alkali, would adsorb colour and turbidity. This led to the Sirofloc process,which was demonstrated on a commercial basis at Mirrabooka near Perth in 1981.Commercial plants were constructed in Tasmania, New Zealand, England and Ireland, while the SiroFloc concept was also applied to sewage treatment and the recovery of heavy metals from effluents frommineral processing. One Sirofloc plant is stilloperated by the EskWater Authority in northernTasmania. CSIRO awarded the Sirofloc team (NJ Anderson, BA Bolto, DR Dixon, LO Kolarik, AJ Priestley, WGC Raper and DE Weiss a CSIRO Medal in 1989.

MIEX® water purification process – The concept of magnetic ion-exchange resins was further developed by the CSIRO Division of Chemical Technology and its successors, the Divisions of Chemical and Wood Technology, Chemicals and Polymers and Molecular Science, and is now licensed to Orica. MIEX technology, as it is now called, has been successfully applied for the removal of dissolved organic carbon from potable water sources. The first commercial MIEX plant was built for South Australia Water at Mount Pleasant in the Adelaide Hills in 2000. More than twenty plants have been installed around the world.

The Planning and Evaluation Advisory Unit (PEAU)

In October 1976 the Australian Government established an independent inquiry into the CSIRO chaired by AJ Birch. This reported in August 1977with 122 recommendations, most of which were adopted by the Government. Recommendation 41 was that a Planning and Evaluation Advisory Unit should be established, responsible to the Deputy Chairman, to provide advice and assessment related to economic, industrial and social factors, to assist the Executive in its development of strategies and priority allocation of resources. To implement this and other leading recommendations required amending the Science and Industry Research Act. This was done by the end of 1978 to allow the new arrangements to commence on 1 January 1979. The position of Director of the Planning and Evaluation Advisory Unit was not advertised but offered to Don for an initial period of three years. He accepted the position, which required him to move to Canberra, and commenced in March 1979. He was in the position until October 1984 when he retired from the Organisation.

In his notes about this time he says:

My first task was very challenging. It was to create a directory of CSIRO’s research to show what was going on and why. At first that seemed quite straightforward since by then all CSIRO’s research was grouped within Programs the headings of which were intended to describe the scope and objectives of the work. The difficulty was that whilst most of the Divisions did this very well, and their purpose was well appreciated, in others this did not occur.

He did eventually succeed in producing a directory of projects and he considered this the most important achievement of the unit. GH Taylor, a member of the CSIRO Executive from 1982 to 1986, outlined how the work of PEAU had assisted the CSIRO Executive to select high-priority research topics for its manufacturing industry research. He reported that in 1982’83, PEAU carried out a major planning study for CSIRO’s manufacturing-industry research. The report was 1,500 pages long and had three main elements:

  • a series of industry studies, addressing such matters as economics, contribution to national wealth, technology needs and awareness, and future growth potential for each sub-sector of manufacturing industry;
  • a series of research studies surveying CSIRO’s current research for manufacturing industry and addressing future opportunities; and
  • discussion of a series of issues for manufacturing industry as a whole: for example, role in the Australian economy, structure, concentration, foreign ownership, technological change.

The unit did similar studies for energy, water resources and agriculture. This was a pioneering unit that did not survive Don’s retirement. In a letter to Don on his retirement, the Chairman of CSIRO, Paul Wild, acknowledged the difficult task he had been given:

In addition, it is now history that the Executive asked you to do a very difficult job in heading up the Planning and EvaluationAdvisory Unit from 1979. The Executive was aware of the stress it was placing on you because we were all in unfamiliar territory and you were asked to embark on a ‘trail blazing’ exercise.We believed that, at the outset, the Unit should be led by a research manager widely accepted and respected and that wewere grateful indeed that you took on the job. You completed a prodigious task in surveying economic and social interests relevant to all sectors of CSIRO’s research effort, and your work has provided the basis for the next phase of planning which is currently under consideration by Keith Boardman in his review.

That review recommended many changes to CSIRO’s planning activities. The 1984-85 CSIRO Annual Report noted that: A corporate planning system has been introduced. Each cycle will start with planning guidelines from the top management, giving managers at all levels an indication of the broad directions they should follow in formulating plans. Plans will be formulated at Division, Institute and Corporate levels. Research users will be involved in the development of plans and the evaluation of progress

A Corporate Planning Unit was established at that time but no senior appointment was made until the appointment of Don MacRae in 1987. Planning of research priorities became more formalized in the Organisation after the appointment of Dr John Stocker as Chief Executive in 1990. The elements of his National Research Priorities Framework had some similarities with Taylor’s description of Don’s study.


Don Weiss devoted his career to applying science and technology for the benefit of the Australian economy. This was his primary interest. On the way, he and his team made important contributions to separation science, carbon chemistry, polymer science and process engineering. The many MIEX plants that are operating around the world are testament to the strength of his ideas and to the value of perseverance. Don was a creative and enthusiastic scientist. A tall man, he was a towering presence in more ways than one, and never seemed to join in ordinary conversation; his brain was always employed elsewhere. His flow of ideas needed critical sorting and he was fortunate in having many collaborators who assisted him in bringing his better ideas into practice. Towards his colleagues and assistants, he was infallibly courteous, even when they lagged far behind in comprehension of his more complicated theories. He was not a bureaucrat and did not enjoy his time as one in the CSIRO Head Office in Canberra. He nevertheless was one of the first to recognize the importance of a multidisciplinary approach and the vital importance of involving end-users in the selection and management of projects in publicly funded research organisations.

Honours and awards

He received many honours and awards including being the only person to have won all four flagship medals of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.


1957 Fellow, Royal Australian Chemical Institute
1971 Fellow, Australian Academy of Science
1957 Fellow, Royal Australian Chemical Institute


1992 Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria award for Innovative Contributions to Ion-exchange Technology and its Application in Practice.
1981 Plant of the Year’ award, Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria – for the Mirrabooka Sirofloc Plant built for the Perth Metropolitan Water Board and based on Weiss’s technology.
1981 KL Sutherland Medal (RACI) for significant contributions to the development of, or innovation through, applied research or in industrial fields. This medal is named each year after a notable applied chemist.
1977 Leighton Memorial Medal, RACI’s most prestigious medal,awarded in recognition of eminent services to chemistry in Australia in the broadest sense.
1971 Archibald D. Olle Prize of the New South Wales Branch of RACI for his papers on Energy Transducing Mechanisms in Biological Membranes
1966 HG Smith Memorial Medal, RACI’s senior award for contributions to science.
1955 Grimwade Prize, University of Melbourne.
1950 Rennie Memorial Medal, to an RACI member under the age of 33 who has contributed most towards the development of some branch of chemical science.


1983 National President, RACI
1982 National Vice-President, RACI
1981 Member, ACT Branch Committee, RACI
1980 – 81 Chairman of the ACT Division, ATS/ATSE
1979 President, Australian Branch, International Association for Water Quality Pollution Research (now the International Water Association)
1978 – 80 Bilateral Activities with China committee, Australian Academy of Science
1978 – 80 Member of Council, ATS/ATSE
1977 Chairman of the International Relations Committee, ATS/ATSE
1976 Foundation Fellow, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences (since 1987, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering)
1973 – 74 President, Australian Water and Wastewater Association (AW&WA); now the Australian Water Association (AWA).
1972 – 79 Member, Water Quality Research Sub-Committee, Water Resources Council of Australia. the Ministerial Council, which, from 1962 to 1992,worked to further Commonwealth-State co-operation and collaboration on water matters.
1972 Vice-President, Australian Water and Wastewater Association (AW&WA); now the Australian Water Association (AWA).
1971 – 73 Member, Water Quality Technical Committee, Water Resources Council of Australia.
1971 President, Victorian Branch, RACI
1970 – 78 Executive Member, Australian Branch, International Association for Water Quality Pollution Research (now the International Water Association)
1970 Vice-President, Victorian Branch, RACI
1965 – 76 Member, Victorian Branch Committee, Australian Water and Wastewater Association (AW&WA); now the Australian Water Association (AWA).
1961 – 65 Member,Victorian Branch Committee, RACI
1959 – 60 Member of the committee of the Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria
1955 – 60 Chairman, Victorian Chemical Engineering Group


Spurling TH, 2011, ‘Donald Eric Weiss 1924-2008‘, Historical Records of Australian Science, 2011, 22, 152-170

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