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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 9

I Introduction

II The Australian Chemical Industry

III Pharmaceuticals

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
i Australian instrument inventions
ii Plant protection - overseas and in Australia
iii Successes in the laboratory but . . .
iv Drugs for sheep and cattle revisited Tetramisole - international success and local manufacture
v 'Promicide'* 'Grenade'* to control ticks
vi Technical service R&D
vii Industry/CSIRO/university collaboration
viii Australian entrepreneurs in modern chemistry

VIII The Plastics Industry

IX The Paint Industry

X Acknowledgements



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Plant protection - overseas and in Australia

In 1940 ICI UK laboratories at Jeallott's Hill discovered an entirely new kind of weed-killer which did not sterilise the soil, left grain and grasses undamaged and destroyed unwanted competing weeds by excessive growth -the selective growth hormone weed-killer 'Methoxone' (4-chloro-2-methylphenoxyacetic acid).{91} It was the first selective plant control agent and was widely acclaimed after the war as one of the new 'wonder' biologicals. For some decades it has greatly assisted farm productivity particularly in extensive agriculture. A number of derivatives were developed and as a result of this success ICI UK intensified their research on plant protection.

Diquat and conservation tillage

The development suited ICI Australia well because of the dominant importance of Australia's agriculture and its great potential for improved productivity. Manufacture of several compounds of this family was commenced in Australia in the mid-forties, not only by ICI Australia but also by Monsanto, Timbrol and, later, by a West Australian entrepreneur, a former employee of ICI Australia. In spite of ICI's strong patent position in the UK, ICI did not dominate the development overseas, particularly opposite American Chemical (AmChem) in the USA, since wartime legislation had prevented ICI from filing patents of strategic value overseas.

In the late fifties ICI UK made another key invention in this field or -more correctly, two -paraquat ('Gramoxone') and diquat ('Reglone'). These compounds, very similar in structure and collectively referred to as bipyridyls, are broad spectrum herbicides with the remarkable property that they act on weeds within thirty minutes, hence are rain-fast, yet are rapidly inactivated on contact with the soil. Their potential was clearly immense, provided they could be made cheaply enough. Pyridine, however, a heterocyclic compound, was not particularly cheap and its condensation to the appropriate bypyridyls was difficult. One, paraquat, could only be made by a process involving sodium (highly reactive with moisture) and complex plant and safety engineering; for the other, diquat, according to reports of the time 'no industrial process was in sight'. As ICI Australia's chemists had access to ICI's reports and unpublished patent applications they were aware of the target. Just then they (the late K. H. Pausaecker and G. Varcoe) noted a publication by two South Australian scientists, Badger and Sasse,[92] describing the catalytic dehydrogenation of pyridine over Raney nickel yielding o-bipyridyl, an important intermediate for diquat. They verified the work but found that the reaction quickly died off with very low yields. Catalyst poisoning was suspected but removal of all impurities did not remedy the problem. Varcoe[93] solved the problem by elegant chemical engineering, by continuous displacement of the reaction products after minimal contact with recycled pyridine vapour and liquid; the concept -at the same time -provided the basis for design of the full scale plant. ICI UK colleagues, working on the project with a much larger team, had to agree that their Australian friends had solved the problem of an industrial scale synthesis, but the Australians' understandable euphoria was soon dampened when they did their costs. A plant was economic only on the basis of the much larger European market and its much cheaper raw materials. A great deal more R&D was done in the UK on the bipyridyls over the years -some 30 million dollars worth[94] -and a plant for the European markets and some exports was built. The bipyridyls were established as one of the world's great biologicals and the ICI Australia process is still in operation.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - I.C.I. Australia Ltd; I.C.I. Australia Ltd. Central Research Laboratories; Monsanto Australia

People in Bright Sparcs - Badger, G. M.; Pausaecker, K. H.; Sasse, W. H.; Varcoe, G.

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 683 - 684, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher