Manufacture of chemical products from fossil fuels began at scale in the early 19th century.
The Industrial Revolution
Although chemicals were made and used throughout history, the birth of the heavy chemical industry (production of chemicals in large quantities for a variety of uses) coincided with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
One of the first chemicals to be produced in large amounts through industrial processes was sulfuric acid. In 1736 pharmacist Joshua Ward developed a process for its production that involved heating saltpeter, allowing the sulfur to oxidize and combine with water. It was the first practical production of sulphuric acid on a large scale. John Roebuck and Samuel Garbett were the first to establish a large-scale factory in Prestonpans, Scotland, in 1749, which used leaden condensing chambers for the manufacture of sulfuric acid.
In the early 18th century, cloth was bleached by treating it with stale urine or sour milk and exposing it to sunlight for long periods of time, which created a severe bottleneck in production. Sulfuric acid began to be used as a more efficient agent as well as lime by the middle of the century, but it was the discovery of bleaching powder by Charles Tennant that spurred the creation of the first great chemical industrial enterprise. His powder was made by reacting chlorine with dry slaked lime and proved to be a cheap and successful product. He opened a factory in St Rollox, north of Glasgow, and production went from just 52 tons in 1799 to almost 10,000 tons just five years later.
Soda ash was used since ancient times in the production of glass, textile, soap, and paper, and the source of the potash had traditionally been wood ashes in Western Europe. By the 18th century, this source was becoming uneconomical due to deforestation, and the French Academy of Sciences offered a prize of 2400 livres for a method to produce alkali from sea salt (sodium chloride). The Leblanc process was patented in 1791 by Nicolas Leblanc who then built a Leblanc plant at Saint-Denis. He was denied his prize money because of the French Revolution.
In Britain the Leblanc process became popular. William Losh built the first soda works in Britain at the Losh, Wilson and Bell works on the River Tyne in 1816, but it remained on a small scale due to large tariffs on salt production until 1824. When these tariffs were repealed, the British soda industry was able to rapidly expand. James Muspratt’s chemical works in Liverpool and Charles Tennant’s complex near Glasgow became the largest chemical production centres anywhere. By the 1870s, the British soda output of 200,000 tons annually exceeded that of all other nations in the world combined.
These huge factories began to produce a greater diversity of chemicals as the Industrial Revolution matured. Originally, large quantities of alkaline waste were vented into the environment from the production of soda, provoking one of the first pieces of environmental legislation to be passed in 1863. This provided for close inspection of the factories and imposed heavy fines on those exceeding the limits on pollution. Methods were devised to make useful byproducts from the alkali.
The Solvay process was developed by the Belgian industrial chemist Ernest Solvay in 1861. In 1864, Solvay and his brother Alfred constructed a plant in Charleroi Belgium. In 1874, they expanded into a larger plant in Nancy, France. The new process proved more economical and less polluting than the Leblanc method, and its use spread. In the same year, Ludwig Mond visited Solvay to acquire the rights to use his process, and he and John Brunner formed Brunner, Mond & Co., and built a Solvay plant at Winnington, England. Mond was instrumental in making the Solvay process a commercial success. He made several refinements between 1873 and 1880 that removed byproducts that could inhibit the production of sodium carbonate in the process.
Manufacture of chemical products from fossil fuels began at scale in the early 19th century. The coal tar and ammoniacal liquor residues of coal gas manufacture for gas lighting began to be processed in 1822 at the Bonnington Chemical Works in Edinburgh to make naphtha, pitch oil (later called creosote), pitch, lampblack (carbon black) and sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride). Ammonium sulphate fertiliser, asphalt road surfacing, coke oil and coke were later added to the product line.
Expansion and Maturation
The late 19th century saw an explosion in both the quantity of production and the variety of chemicals that were manufactured. Large chemical industries arose in Germany and later in the United States.
Production of artificial manufactured fertilizer for agriculture was pioneered by Sir John Lawes at his purpose-built Rothamsted Research facility. In the 1840s he established large works near London for the manufacture of superphosphate of lime. Processes for the vulcanization of rubber were patented by Charles Goodyear in the United States and Thomas Hancock in England in the 1840s. The first synthetic dye was discovered by William Henry Perkin in London. He partly transformed aniline into a crude mixture which, when extracted with alcohol, produced a substance with an intense purple colour. He also developed the first synthetic perfumes. German industry quickly began to dominate the field of synthetic dyes. The three major firms BASF, Bayer and Hoechst produced several hundred different dyes. By 1913 German industry produced almost 90% of the world supply of dyestuffs and sold approximately 80% of their production abroad. In the United States, Herbert Henry Dow’s use of electrochemistry to produce chemicals from brine was a commercial success that helped to promote the country’s chemical industry.
The petrochemical industry can be traced back to the oil works of James Young in Scotland and Abraham Pineo Gesner in Canada. The first plastic was invented by Alexander Parkes, an English metallurgist. In 1856, he patented Parkesine, a celluloid based on nitrocellulose treated with a variety of solvents. This material, exhibited at the 1862 London International Exhibition, anticipated many of the modern aesthetic and utility uses of plastics. The industrial production of soap from vegetable oils was started by William Lever and his brother James in 1885 in Lancashire based on a modern chemical process invented by William Hough Watson that used glycerin and vegetable oils.
By the 1920s, chemical firms consolidated into large conglomerates; IG Farben in Germany, Rhône-Poulenc in France and Imperial Chemical Industries in Britain. Dupont became a major chemicals firm in the early 20th century in America.
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- Kiefer, David M. (2001). “Sulfuric Acid: Pumping Up the Volume”. American Chemical Society. Retrieved 2008-04-21.
- “The Chemical Industries In The UK”. American Chemical Society. Retrieved 2013-04-21.
- Aftalion 1991, pp. 11–13
- Aftalion 1991, pp. 14–16
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- Aftalion 1991, p. 104, Chandler 2004, p. 475
- “Electrolytic Production of Bromine – National Historic Chemical Landmark – American Chemical Society”. American Chemical Society. Retrieved 2016-10-10.
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- Jeannifer Filly Sumayku (22 March 2010). “Unilever: Providing Enjoyable and Meaningful Life to Customers”. The President Post.
Originally published by Wikipedia, 06.21.2002, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.