Page 663
Previous/Next Page
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

VIII The Plastics Industry
i Plastics processing
ii Phenol - basis of the first plastic
iii Plastics - the first generation
iv Plastics - the second generation - from petrochemicals
v Styrene monomer - the West Footscray petrochemical complex
vi The Botany petrochemical complex
vii The petrochemical complex at Altona
viii CSR - from sugar alcohol to petrochemical OXO alcohol

IX The Paint Industry

X Acknowledgements



Contact us

Phenol - basis of the first plastic

The early history of Monsanto Australia's phenol production[117] was associated with war-time pharmaceuticals and has been described on pp 656, 659-60. The plant was a conventional sulphonation plant, using benzene from BHP, oleum from Commonwealth Fertilisers and caustic soda from ICI Australia. Later industrial uses and particularly Monsanto's own phenolic resins became the main outlet and by 1959 the plant ran out of capacity. Monsanto had been involved in petrochemistry for some time and was aware of the advantages which recent advances in petrochemical processing offered. Just at that time Scientific Design (SD), of the USA, had announced a brand new process of direct catalytic oxidation of cyclohexane; another option was the cumenephenol process, but that produced by-product acetone in excess of market demand. The third option was to stick to the obsolescent but safer sulphonation route. The Scientific Design route had previously been tested on pilot plant scale only; to pioneer a process from that stage involves risks, but often favourable terms can be negotiated from licensors at that development stage because they need the credibility of proven full scale plant performance. Scientific Design had grown from small beginnings to a successful process developer. They had excellent credentials. ICI UK had licensed their xylene to terephthalic acid patent; ICI Australia had licensed their ethylene oxide process (before ICI UK did) and their carbon-tetrachloride process and both plants, after some initial problems, operated well. Monsanto Australia took a calculated risk and elected the pioneering option, the SD process.

Construction began in August 1963 and in November 1964 the plant came on stream. The process started with benzene, which was hydrogenated to cyclohexane. The cyclohexane was air oxidized to cyclohexanol, which was in turn dehydrogenated in a vapour phase reaction over a platinum catalyst to phenol. An elegant process, that would have suited Monsanto needs well. The SD phenol plant was, however, a dismal failure. Phenol production reached only 50 to 60 per cent of the design rate and the best phenol yield achieved was in the low 90s. After several years of concentrated technical effort to bring the plant up to its design parameters, it was finally shut down in 1968. When it became clear that economic operation would not be attainable the decision was taken in 1966 to revert to a process which had been well established world-wide, the cumene-phenol process. It required a further capital investment of $6 million. By that time the Australian market for the co-produced acetone had grown sufficiently to absorb it; the plant started up in 1968, came up to performance specification in a few weeks and has operated satisfactorily ever since. It is the first cumene-phenol plant of this type in the southern hemisphere and the only source of phenol and acetone in Australia.

The case history of the SD phenol plant merits historic record because it demonstrates the inevitable risks of pioneering; every now and then such failures must occur. Yet when industry insists on weighing risk carefully, assessing and re-assessing technical and commercial risks before major investments, only too easily it is labelled 'risk-averse'.

Monsanto persisted with the development because they were committed to corporate business and know-how based on phenol, particularly phenol-formaldehyde.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - I.C.I. Australia Ltd; Monsanto Australia; Moulded Products

Previous Page Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering Next Page

© 1988 Print Edition pages 695 - 696, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher