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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 (continued)

Originally, it was produced in Australia as a by-product of the destructive distillation of coal in gas and coke works. When this source was no longer sufficient, some of the more enterprising Australian gas companies began to explore the synthesis of ammonia. ICI Australia put up its first proposal for a synthesis plant in 1934; when cost estimates proved this to be uneconomic, an intermediate step, the oxidation of ammonia was considered; it failed for lack of ammonia supplies. The Australian Government slowly became more sensitive to the need for independence of foreign explosives, and banned Japanese imports.

In 1937, the proposal for a synthesis plant was sanctioned by the Board. As in the case of the synthetic petrol plant in the UK, the timing was propitious; by the time the synthetic ammonia and ammonia oxidation plants had been erected at Deer Park in Victoria (1940), war had broken out. Technical staff were extremely scarce overseas; supplies became short; the project represented a new level of technological sophistication in local chemical industry. The processes involved were complex by the standard of the time, even by today's standards: The catalysis of water gas (hydrogen and carbon monoxide) from coke and water; the separation of the resultant carbon monoxide by conversion to dioxide; the catalytic high pressure Haber-Bosch conversion of nitrogen and hydrogen to ammonia: and, in a separate plant, the catalytic oxidation to nitric acid. These were step changes in chemical and high pressure engineering, complicated by the differences in scale and design. Norman Taylor, the technical director of ICI Australia displayed great foresight in grasping the opportunity of staff shortages in the UK to have a whole contingent of Australians trained in the UK: indeed a strong Australian contingent took part in the start-up of the new South- End 2 plant in Glasgow. Nevertheless, not unexpectedly the eventual start-up in Australia was not easy. There were months of teething troubles before design capacity was reached. Clive Turnbull, the doyen of Australian journalists, wrote in 1942: 'Of all the industrial establishments in Australia I should count this one, in some ways, the most impressive.' The strategic importance of this achievement became clearer as the war went on.{73} In 1941 the Australian Government, aware that the ammonia process based on carbon monoxide and hydrogen, could also be directed to the synthesis of methanol, requested ICI Australia to build an additional plant for the manufacture of methanol. This was required for a war-time ammunition product, 'tetryl'. The strategic importance of the ammonia project, initially driven by the spirit of enterprise and technological ambition became soon apparent. Both processes, ammonia and methanol synthesis, were key elements in Australia's defence industry, as indeed they were in Britain. Ammonia, nitric acid and their reaction product ammonium nitrate provided the explosive for ammunition, mining of coal and metal ores, construction of roads and airfields, and fertiliser for wheat and sugar. Methanol enabled Timbrol to produce dimethylaniline which ICI Australia, in turn, converted to 'tetryl'.

The history of methanol is a fascinating example of the oscillating fate of industrial innovation in small economies. When ICI UK, in years of concentrated research and development produced a new methanol process based on petrochemicals it was so efficient that ICI could boast that it would produce methanol more cheaply than the old plant supplied with coal at no cost. The new process, in plants ever increasing in scale, was adopted throughout the world; plants in smaller markets with long transport lines such as Australia could no longer compete. Australia reverted to import.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - I.C.I. Australia Ltd

People in Bright Sparcs - Taylor, Norman; Turnbull, Clive

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