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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
i Phenothiazine for Australia's sheep and cattle
ii Some innovative organic syntheses
iii Factory R&D

VII Australian Industrial Chemical Research Laboratories

VIII The Plastics Industry

IX The Paint Industry

X Acknowledgements



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Factory R&D

A major area of R&D to which justice cannot be done in a historical account is factory research. It comprised a myriad of incremental advances which were crucial to increased productivity and international competitiveness. They were particularly important in Australian processes which almost always involved scaling down and where plant lives had to be long because of low throughput rates. Again, only illustrative examples can be mentioned.

Long-lived electrolytic cells

The Yarraville caustic chlorine cells had been installed after the First World War. They were performing well in terms of energy efficiency but vast capacity increases were needed to meet demand. Development staff simply doubled and trebled the electrodes in the existing cells to achieve this. Prolonged investigation was needed to meet performance and safety standards. While this involved no fundamental advances it trebled capacity and cell life was extended well into the 1970s.

Safer insecticides

Benzenehexachloride, an ICI discovery, was one of the most effective insecticides known. For many years it was indispensible for the control of insect infestation in sugar cane. Long before Rachel Carson's concern, its toxicity was recognised: ICI UK workers had found that only one of the several isomers in the compound, gamma, amounting to 13 per cent, was active against insects. Isomers are compounds of identical composition but different in configuration, in this particular case in spatial configuration. In such cases separation often presents considerable difficulties. If the active isomer could be isolated this would reduce toxicity by a factor of 6 or 7. ICI UK therefore developed a separation process based on differential solubilities of the isomers in several solvents to produce the pure gamma isomer, 'Lindane'. ICI Australia did not have access to these expensive solvents; a factory R&D team therefore substituted a process based on a two-step metastable crystallisation from aqueous methanol. A plant was built and after some difficulties with the corrosive solvent local 'Lindane' replaced imports from the UK. A few months later, however, Government policy changed; import restrictions were lifted and German 'Lindane' could be imported at less than production cost. It was another lesson on the impact of policy changes and of the scale effect of overseas plants.

Brodie purifier

Similar combined developments between factory and research teams took place throughout the chemical industry. In the late 1960s Union Carbide,[85] looking for an alternative to expensive distillation for the purification of organic chemicals, evolved a new process and equipment for large scale fractional crystallisation, the 'Brodie Purifier' including a sophisticated system for crystal washing. The process yielded surprisingly high purities (up to 99.99 per cent) and was applied to several products and plants with substantial cost savings over the alternative, fractional distillation. It won the 'Plant of the Year' award of the Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria in 1971.

Tripolyphosphate process

Albright and Wilson are Australia's[86] principal producer of sodium tripolyphosphate, the main ingredient of laundry detergent powders and a widely used industrial chemical. In the conventional process the product is made in a two step process; the first step produces sodium orthophosphate from soda ash and phosphoric acid in a spray drier; in the second step the reaction product is calcined in a rotary kiln at 400 to 500C. The concept of the Australian factory R&D team was to combine the two steps in a single reactor with simultaneous injection of the reagents and fuel and high speed quenching of the finely dispersed droplets of reaction product. Although the concept was invented in the 1950s it was implemented in several steps, each with significant advances, in plants built in 1955, 1964 and 1973. The process was patented and licensed in the Philippines.

Organisations in Australian Science at Work - A.C.I.; Albright and Wilson (Australia) Pty Ltd, Yarraville; Colonial Sugar Refining Company (C.S.R.); Society of Chemical Industry of Victoria (S.C.I.V); Union Carbide Australia Ltd

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 677 - 678, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher