West Virginia Department of Commerce The Birth of Petrochemicals

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The Birth of Petrochemicals

The Birth of Petrochemicals

This cracker story starts with a dash of salt. Salt was West Virginia’s first coveted mineral. Near present-day Malden, W.Va., salt solutions naturally flowed to the surface. The Great Buffalo Salt Lick earned its name because deer, elk and bison frequented the site. So did the Native Americans who gathered the solution and boiled it down to cure meat. Legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone built his cabin near the salt lick, too.

In 1797, Elisha Brooks built the first salt furnace and, within 20 years, the Kanawha Salines had become one of the largest salt manufacturing centers in the United States.

Chute the Works
Illustrating the uses of West Virginia-made nylon for both stockings and parachutes, renowned female artist Zoe Mozert’s 1943 “Chute the Works” was featured in calendars for the men fighting overseas in World War II.

“In the 1800s, people learned you could do electrolysis of brine to make chlorine, hydrogen and caustics. These are very basic products for the chemical industry,” explained Warren Woomer. He owns a chemical industry consulting firm and serves as a senior chemical engineer with MATRIC, after retiring from a long Carbide career.

“These salt-based chemicals led to the development of other industries in our region,” Woomer explained. “Warner-Klipstein Chemical Company, South Charleston, was world-renowned for its fabric dyes. It shipped brine down the Kanawha River to make the chlorine for dyes and bleach. They sold off the hydrogen and caustics to other nearby companies.” So, already this nascent industry had companies shipping feedstock and servicing one another.

Then, moving upstream to a small town on the Elk River, “Willing management, a brilliant chemist and luck all came together in Clendenin, W.Va., to deliver the birth of the modern petrochemical industry,” Keller said.

In the 1920s, Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Corporation wanted to make cheap acetylene to light coal mines. Meanwhile, a researcher named George Curme at the Mellon Institute, Pittsburgh, Pa., was experimenting with producing acetylene in the lab, from petroleum using high temperatures. As a byproduct, Curme’s process made ethylene, which had no known commercial uses at the time.

“But Curme was enough of an entrepreneur to figure out that ethylene could become the basis of other chemicals,” Keller said. And within its various companies, Carbide had the expertise to capitalize on the discovery.

As it happened, Carbide owned a small company that made gasoline from natural gas in Clendenin. Leveraging techniques from the region’s glass industry, Carbide engineers devised a furnace to heat gases to Curme’s specifications. From Linde Air Products Company, Carbide licensed the technology for using cryogenic temperatures (nearly 100 degrees below zero) to separate air and, in turn, other chemicals like hydrocarbons. Finally, another Carbide company made metal tubes in which to heat the ethane and “crack” it into ethylene.

“No one planned it. It was a coming together of all of these different disciplines,” Keller said. “And when the company commissioned a study to see where in the country was natural gas with the highest percentage of ethane in it… Guess what? It was right here, in West Virginia!”

Once you have ethylene, you can make 40 to 60 percent of the world’s chemicals. Soon, Carbide needed more land to expand. It moved to South Charleston. Opening in 1927, Carbide’s Blaine Island plant was the world’s first true petrochemical plant. “The plant grew like crazy – and so did the industry,” Keller said.

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West Virginia Knows Chemicals

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West Virginia’s Chemical Valley contributed to winning World War II . Its chemistry kept planes in the air, jeeps rolling on the ground and allowed paratroopers to jump behind enemy lines.

»Carbide made synthetic lubricants for the fighter planes and solvents for paints to prevent rust. Many are still used today.

»When Japan invaded Indonesia and cut the Allies’ rubber supply, the federal government paid Carbide and U.S. Rubber Company to invent the process and build a plant in Institute, W.Va., to develop and make synthetic rubber. Institute produced 60 percent of the country’s rubber during WWII . Later, B.F. Goodrich hit the U.S. roads with this product.

»DuPont’s Bell, W.Va., plant was the world’s first nylon plant. They made all of the nylon for parachutes during the war – and all the nylon for stockings and new fabrics in peacetime, too.