International Chemical Industry History

“A History of the International Chemical Industry: From the ‘Early Days’ to 2000,” Second Edition, by Fred Aftalion, Chemical Heritage Press, Philadelphia, 2001. This 442-page paperback covers the global chemical industry in detail. Dual indexes list both individuals and companies, but not chemical products.

The book begins with a brief description of chemical science beginning with phlogiston theory and discovery of the elements. Many materials now treated as chemicals were known in the ancient arts. White lead pigment, tannic acid, linseed oil, vinegar, alcohol, gold, silver, iron, copper, zinc, lead, tin, and charcoal to name a few. Gradually science came to understand these materials and their chemistry. By about 1850 the science was reasonably well understood.

One of the first synthetic chemicals was sulfuric acid used to process metals. First production began in UK in 1736. Production in France followed in 1766. Alkalis were needed for glass, soap, and for dying and bleaching textiles. Textile beaching was an important development. Primitive bleaching methods were time consuming and costly. The bleaching power of chlorine (made from sulfuric acid, salt, and manganese dioxide) was recognized in 1785. Potassium hypochlorite made by dissolving chlorine in caustic potash began in France in 1796. Chlorinated lime soon followed.

In 1791 in France Nickolas Leblanc developed a process to make sodium carbonate (soda ash) from sodium sulfate (from salt and sulfuric acid), coal, and calcium carbonate (limestone). The Leblanc Process soon spread to UK. These processes became the basis of the British chemical industry.

The Incas used guano from Peru as fertilizer. In 1804, analysis found that guano contained nitrogen and phosphorus. Guano was imported as fertilizer in the UK and the US from 1840 to 1875. Then sodium nitrate from Chili was used. Superphosphates made by treatment of phosphate rock or bones with sulfuric acid was discovered in 1841. Potash was found in Saxony in 1856. An experimental farm found that wheat production increased by 50% with the use of fertilizer.

After 1850, major discoveries became the norm. The first synthetic dye, Perkin’s mauvre, was discovered in 1856 in England. A variety of colors soon followed. Germany became the leader. The Prussian system of universal education produced impressive results. Justus von Liebig at Geissen created a laboratory to teach chemical analysis and organic synthesis.

The dyes produced came from coal tar, by products of gas for gas lighting. This was the origin of German chemical companies including Hoechst, BASF, Bayer, and Kalle. Later these companies used their expertise to develop drugs.

Sections describe developments through World War I. That included paper made from wood pulp, soap based on vegetable oil, hydrogenation of vegetable oil to produce solid fats, margarine, sulfur, sulfuric acid, calcium cyanamide, synthetic ammonia, nitric acid, air liquifaction, and fermentation. Each section describes the technology and early producers.

Chemical engineering training began in Manchester in UK in 1888. It followed in the US at MIT in 1888, University of Pennsylvania in 1892, and University of Michigan in 1898.

In the US, the early chemical industry was limited to basics such as sulfuric acid, alkalis, white lead, gunpowder, and leather tanning. That began to change with the completion of the Niagara Falls power plant in 1897. Mathieson and Hooker (chlorine), American Cyanamide, Carborundum, and Union Carbide plants soon followed to use low cost electricity. Most other chemicals were imported from Europe. World War I blockades allowed early chemical operations to expand. Phenol produced for the war later led to phenolic resins and plastics. Nitrocellulose plants for smokeless powder were converted to use for paints and lacquers, especially serving the growing auto industry.

Between the wars chemical research was productive. Petrochemical processes were developed. Synthetic fibers like Nylon were discovered. Chemical companies saw research as the route to growth and bragged about the percentage of sales spent on research. Aftlion says that continued into the sixties, but diminishing returns set in. Companies over invested and excess capacity reduced profits. New environmental laws required capital investment and industry consolidation followed.

The book continues with nation by nation summaries of the leading chemical operations up to 2000. This makes for a useful introduction to leaders around the globe. A wealth of information is contained, but the indexes are limited to last names and company names. Lack of a product index limits utility. Company name changes also make following a bit of a challenge.

In the US, Chemical & Engineering News magazine published by the American Chemical Society is an excellent source of information on the US chemical industry. Coverage of international operations has been limited until recently. This book fills an important gap. We look forward to a third edition covering the industry since 2000. An appendix lists the worlds chemical companies by sales. Bibliography. Indexes.