||Technology in Australia 1788-1988
Table of Contents
II The Australian Chemical Industry
IV Chemists In Other Industries
V The Dawn Of Modern Chemical Industry - High Pressure Synthesis
VI The Growth Of Synthetic Chemicals - Concentration, Rationalisation And International Links
VII Australian Industrial Chemical Research Laboratories
VIII The Plastics Industry
IX The Paint Industry
The Dawn Of Modern Chemical Industry - High Pressure Synthesis (continued)
In 1926, Sir Lennon Raws, Chairman of ICI Australia, had samples of Australian brown coal evaluated in the UK. Others became interested. Under his chairmanship, ICI Australia, BHP, Howard Smith, BHAS and EZ formed a joint company 'Synthetic Coal Oil Products' and had a number of Australian coals tested in the UK. The world at that stage had little experience in large-scale petrochemistry; naive optimism almost led to a project that far exceeded Australia's resources. Negotiations and mainly technical evaluations dragged on. Progressively, cost estimates escalated, both in the UK and in Australia. The Bergius-I. G. Farben process had looked less complex than it was; at high pressure and high temperature solids handling of vast quantities of solids posed major difficulties. In addition, the process had to be adapted from German brown coal to UK black coal. Australian brown coal really looked best. Yet, re-estimated in 1936 for Australia, synthetic petrol was to cost three times the market price and 'Synthetic Coal Oil Products' abandoned the project.
Finally, it was the political climate which tilted the balance. With the clouds of German rearmament under Hitler on the horizon, the British Government decided to subsidise the process. This proved to be a wise decision; soon, during the Second World War the high aromatics from the process were vital to aircraft fuel for Britain's fighters. Germany accelerated the process for its war effort on an unprecedented scale, with thousands of forced labourers brought from all over Europe to work on the liquefaction plants. After the war, with availability of cheap petrol restored, the German and English coal liquefaction plants were shut down. Only South Africa, wary of its political isolation, persisted with the conversion of coal to petrol and revived and perfected the Fischer-Tropsch process and operates it to this day, at marginal economics.
A number of young Australians learnt valuable lessons in techno-commercial assessments and process investigations in these years. In the late twenties, optimism and ambition very nearly led them into an adventure which would only have been an economic disaster; they learnt to draw the line between scientific enthusiasm and sober techno-economic evaluation. ICI's technologists readdressed their interest to ammonia.
Technological development in small countries usually -not always -follows a pattern of backward integration, i.e. the reverse of the original growth process overseas. Because the market is often too small to carry the research and development cost and, particularly, major plant investment, new products are first imported, then formulated locally; progressively intermediates are produced, and finally, often decades later, the case can be made for integrated manufacture. While this is an inevitable economic reality, it has caused Australian scientists much heartburn and even resentment. Creative ambition finds the constraint of scale oppressive; indeed, realistic assessment of technical capacity has often been labelled uncritically as 'scientific cringe'. The rational way of overcoming scale problems is technical market development and backward integration from the end use. Technical service researchers have made many a fundamental development possible by first developing new uses: Formulations of agricultural chemicals and drugs before synthesis; plastic film and fibres uses before the polymer; and surfactants before the manufacture of ethylene oxide, are examples of this pattern. Ammonia in this sense, too, was the precursor of petrochemistry.
Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Broken Hill Associated Smelters Ltd (B.H.A.S.); Electrolytic Zinc Pty Ltd (EZ); Howard Smith; I.C.I. Australia Ltd; Synthetic Coal Oil Products
People in Bright Sparcs - Raws, Sir Lennon
© 1988 Print Edition page 669, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher