First Steps: Synthetic Ammonia in the United States

From Firenze University Press Journal: Substantia

Anthony Stewart Travis, Edelstein Center, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Safra Campus, Givat Ram, Jerusalem

The 1920s were the take off years for science-based chemical industry in the United States. This is nowhere better illustrated than in the realm of coal based synthetic organic chemistry, in which American firms drew on German technology to master and even excel in the production of color-ants and, later, novel products, such as pharmaceuticals, derived from the dye intermediates. The need to catch up with Germany, and to invent new products for new needs, such as the automobile industry, stimulated unprecedented research and development. The growth and diversification of the US chemical industry was tremendous, and included development of novel polymers, and expansion at firms engaged in electrochemical technologies. Some of the most significant developments drew on catalyzed, high-pressure industrial chemistry, following introduction of the Haber-Bosch synthetic ammonia process by BASF in 1913. In this area of chemical technology, how-ever, the United States was a late starter. Relative to the synthetic dye industry, the parallels, particularly with imitation of German dye technology, are more difficult to discern.

This article will explore the several reasons, as well as the early development of the US synthetic ammonia industry. The extraordinary success of the Haber-Bosch synthetic ammonia process in contributing to Germany’s industrial effort in the production of munitions during World War I was widely acknowledged. After the cessation of hostilities, BASF was not prepared to license the process, preferring instead to use it as a bargaining tool in attempts to gain access to various international tie-ups and also to control the global market in nitrogen fertilizer. This pretention to world leadership, however, spawned imitators, and rivalry. Here we recount two related but distinct stories — insofar as they concern similar technologies and their transfers across the Atlantic from Europe — in the development of the large-scale American synthetic ammonia industry. One concerns the Allied Chemical & Dye Corporation, whose process originated with one of its predecessor firms, and was similar in operating conditions to the Haber-Bosch process. The other describes the Du Pont corporation’s entry into synthetic ammonia, based on the acquisition of the processes of Georges Claude (France) and Luigi Casale (Italy) that were worked at around four times the pressure of the Haber-Bosch pro-cess. It was the Casale process that enabled Du Pont to become an American technology and market leader in high-pressure chemistry.

For this reason I focus mainly on Du Pont’s entry into what was also a completely new venture, based on a novel technology that relied on sophisticated engineering expertise, and that was decidedly removed from synthetic dyes. The background involves the transfer in 1927 of Casale technology from an ambitious but struggling start-up to Du Pont, which planned a major scale up of ammonia manufacture, mainly for the fertilizer market, particularly of ammonium sulphate. At the outset, it should be pointed out that massive transatlantic technology transfer from Europe, whether of dyes or of high-pressure chemistry, by whatever means, was part of a pattern that impacted on the entire American chemical industry during the 1920s.

Much of this encounter has been well analysed, including the mergers and acquisitions, and the partnerships with Europan firms, that led to the rapid growth of major corporations. Shortages of vital chemicals as a result of the cutting off of imports from Germany during World War I provided the impetus for diversification, and for the foundation of start-ups that mastered many features of synthetic organic chemistry, often using information gleaned from sequestered German patents. In some cases, the war enabled the survival and expansion of struggling firms. In others, firms denied access to inter-mediates made in Europe drew on processes that under peacetime conditions were not economically viable.

What is absent in many cases from the historical record are accounts of the complexities of how this industrial transformation was achieved at a more detailed level. This account is an attempt to compensate for the lacunae in one specific sector, though it serves as an outstanding indicator of what was achieved overall by 1930. Its contemporary relevance to the historian resides in the oft neglected focus on the technologies involved; they are often overlooked in accounts that are more focused on business history. As is frequently the case in the pursuit of industrial history, archival sources are limited, often long ago lost in fires and explosions or discarded following mergers and acquisitions. Fortunately there is adequate mate-rial to guide us at the Hagley Museum and Library, in Wilmington, Delaware, in examining an important part of the early history of synthetic ammonia in America. We are aided by the few articles on developments in the United States published between 1930 and the early 1950s, particularly since records of technical progress at Du Pont are mainly absent. While the fragments of his-tory may not make a whole, they can certainly aid our understanding of how the synthetic ammonia industry evolved in America.Among the handful of novel, successful ammonia processes developed in Europe around 1920, the most widely adopted, and successful, was that of the Italian chemist and entrepreneur Luigi Casale, who requires a brief introduction.


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