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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

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



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Plastics - the first generation

Phenol- and Urea-Formaldehyde

The plastics industry began with L. H. Baekeland's invention (1909) of the reaction of phenol with formaldehyde, providing a cross-linked polymer which could be made from moulding powder under pressure and heat. For some decades, phenol-formaldehyde was the main synthetic polymer for small practical objects and electrical switches. The moulding powder was first produced in Australia by Monsanto Southern Cross Company and Beetle Elliot. The intermediates were phenol, extracted by Timbrol from the coal tar of gas works and later (1940) made synthetically by Monsanto, and formaldehyde first imported and later made (1944) by both Monsanto and ICI Australia.

Demand for phenol-formaldehyde grew slowly at first, but by the end of the Second World War over a hundred small moulding companies operated in Australia. ICI Australia produced a 'natural' polymer, nitrocellulose based on nature's own polymer, cellulose, and in 1947/8 converted its war-time sulphamerazine plant into a ureaformaldehyde factory; urea was imported and formaldehyde was made readily by catalytic oxidation of methanol produced on the nearby synthetic ammonia plant. These were by then conventional plants and processes and, apart from the usual difficulties with technology transfer and start-ups with small teams, few significant innovations are recorded during this phase. It was polystyrene, PVC and polythene, the mass products of the fifties, which really established plastics as a new, man-made material. Only the first three evolved as fully integrated processes in Australia; the manufacture of nylon polymer was too complex and capital intensive to be viable in the Australian market.

Vinyl Chloride and PVC

PVC, (polyvinylchloride) invented by a Frenchman and developed first largely by Germans, was imported in the late thirties and early forties by enterprising plastics processors. It was the first of the sophisticated polymers manufactured in Australia from locally made monomer on a fully integrated, but small plant built by ICI Australia at Botany in 1950. The initiative was not entirely ICI Australia's; the first request had come from Government. The process was by no means simple, but suited the configuration of the Botany factory. It produced chlorine and acetylene could be made from carbide based on Tasmania's cheap electrical power. The technology could be imported from ICI UK; the additive reaction of acetylene and hydrogen chloride was fairly straightforward; the suspension polymerisation, although difficult to control to close specifications, was a batch process and more suitable as a first venture into this new field than continuous polymerisation processes.

Polystyrene and Polyethylene

The second modern polymer produced in Australia, polystyrene, was made in a mass polymerisation process from imported monomer on a plant built by Monsanto in 1953. Again, conventional technology established overseas by Monsanto could be used.

Polyethylene (or polythene) was in a different class. Its process was more complex, but it was based on a single monomer, not a co-product of several intermediates as PVC or polystyrene. Its growth rate was phenomenal and for a small market -to ICI Australia -it had the great merit that it was still under patent protection. Polythene was probably the greatest British chemical invention and was treated as such by the chemical majors of the world, Du Pont, Union Carbide and -initially -I. G. Farben and later Hoechst and BASF, all of whom sought licences from ICI. Under the pre-war Du Pont/ICI information exhange agreement, ICI had in fact licensed Du Pont and, compelled by the Ryan anti-trust judgment in the USA, also had to license Union Carbide. Both Du Pont and Union Carbide then developed polythene uses faster than ICI and even had their own processes.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Beetle Elliot; I.C.I. Australia Ltd; Monsanto Southern Cross; Timbrol Ltd; Union Carbide Australia Ltd

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© 1988 Print Edition page 697, Online Edition 2000
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