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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

IX The Paint Industry

X Acknowledgements



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The Dawn Of Modern Chemical Industry - High Pressure Synthesis

Agriculture and mining, which had been the stimulus to early chemical manufacture, also led to the next phase, large volume synthetic chemicals. In Australia, however, entry into the new era almost occurred through an unexpected excursion into a field that was revived again fifty years later, and perhaps even then was premature -synthetic petrol.

Two German fundamental inventions had launched the new age of large scale synthetic chemicals: The Haber-Bosch process for ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen, and the Bergius process for synthetic petrol by hydrogenation of coal and coke. Both processes started from abundant and cheap raw materials -air, water and coal/coke. Both processes led to major economic and political consequences in the key countries -and in Australia. The differences in developments between the key countries bear repeating here, in the context of Australia, because they illustrate the effects of scale, raw materials and ultimately, politics.

In Germany the importance of the synthetic route to ammonia and its derivatives, nitric acid and nitrates, was primarily political. It sustained the German war effort during the First World War, when Germany's ammunition industry was cut off from supplies of Chile's guano and the process was perfected at government expense. It was highly competitive by 1930 and displaced Chile from about half the world markets.

In the UK ICI, with an interest in ammonia for agriculture and nitric acid derivatives for explosives throughout the Commonwealth, had adopted the process successfully at Billingham and developed an analogous process for methanol, which the company converted later into a most successful petrochemical process and catalyst business throughout the world.

In Australia, too, the opportunities of the ammonia process were recognized very early. B. J. [E.] Todhunter, a New Zealander who was a member of both the ICI UK and the ICI Australia Boards imaginatively foresaw a major potential market in Australia for ammonium nitrate based fertilisers. His prediction that synthetic ammonia for fertilisers would be a major market was right -but predictions are no better than their timing; it took another twelve years before an ammonia plant could be supported by the market, but it was the explosives market, not the fertiliser market; it took almost forty years before the latter grew to the extent that it could support major synthesis plants (Eastern Nitrogen Ltd., 1969 and Austral-Pacific Fertilisers).

In 1926 another, much bigger market caught ICI's imagination -petrol. The Australian price for petrol was almost double that of the UK. Most geologists had expressed the view that the continent was too old to be promising for petroleum and oil from NSW shale was uneconomic. ICI UK had seen the opportunity for synthetic petrol very early and had secured exclusive patent rights to the I. G. Farben process for the Commonwealth. Indeed, Sir Alfred Mond's Imperial outlook served the development of the Australian chemical industry well on many occasions. Not only did ICI UK offer ICI Australia access to its inventions and automatic rights to manufacture in most fields of interest in Australia, but ICI UK also systematically surveyed the world for promising discoveries and whenever possible secured rights from its licensors for Australia. This did much to stimulate the technical ambitions of the Australian managers and to impress them early on with the need for skills in research, development and know-how trading.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - Austral-Pacific Fertilisers Ltd, Gibson Island, Brisbane; Eastern Nitrogen Ltd; I.C.I. Australia Ltd

People in Bright Sparcs - Todhunter, B. E.

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© 1988 Print Edition page 668, Online Edition 2000
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