1950s: The petrochemical boom

18:51 PM | September 15, 2014 | —Clay Boswell

Rock around the clock: Workers arrive for the night shift at DuPont's Sabine River Works at Orange,TX. Photo courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library.
Petrochemicals took off in the 1950s. Coal had long been the primary source of organic chemicals, but the growing petroleum industry offered alternatives, and World War II accelerated their development. This trend was particularly evident in the United States, which finished the war with a strong, young petrochemical manufacturing base clustered on the Gulf Coast. By 1950, the industry had found its feet and, propelled by growing demand for synthetic resins and rubber, quickly spread around the world to supply the materials of modernity.

A few figures suggest the speed of the transformation. In 1940, worldwide plastics production totaled 360,000 m.t., according to Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. By 1950, the figure had increased to 1.62 million m.t., and by 1960, to 6.70 million m.t.—a 300% increase in 10 years. The production of synthetic elastomers grew from 43,000 m.t. in 1940 to 540,000 m.t. in 1950 and 1.94 million m.t. in 1960. The production of synthetic fibers grew from 5,000 m.t. in 1940 to 69,000 m.t. in 1950 and 700,000 m.t. in 1960.

Prologue: World War II

The boom occurred when and where it did because of World War II. In 1940, petrochemicals were a small, if promising, segment of the chemical industry. Companies had been developing chemicals based on oil and natural gas since the 1920s, but market opportunities were limited, and while many potentially useful polymers had been discovered, commercialization was very risky.

Everything changed with the war. Demand for fuel and raw materials soared as production ramped up to match the pace of destruction, and the United States, with its bounty of natural resources and relative geographic isolation, became the Allies’ manufacturing hub. As traditional raw materials became scarce, synthetic polymers became an important alternative, and the US government threw its weight behind their development. US production of vinyl resins increased from just 2,300 m.t./year at the start of the war to 100,000 m.t./year at its end, and production of acrylic polymers increased 10-fold, notes historian John Kenly Smith. Even unusual new products, such as polyethylene (PE) and Teflon, found their ways into important niche applications.

The war effort had its greatest impact on the production of synthetic rubber. Plantations in Southeast Asia had supplied most of the world’s natural rubber, but the Allies lost access to this strategic material after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. To solve the problem, the US government and chemical producers pooled resources and created, practically from scratch, a giant industry dedicated to making synthetic rubber from styrene and butadiene. By the war’s end, the United States had produced 2 million tons of synthetic rubber, consuming half of the country’s total petrochemical output in the process, according to Fred Aftalion, author of A History of the International Chemical Industry.

Most of the required butadiene was produced by oil refiners, such as Standard Oil, and chemical companies, such as Dow Chemical and Monsanto, made styrene from ethylene and benzene. The ethylene came from refinery gases. The benzene was produced from coal, but a purely petrochemical alternative emerged when refiners aimed at increasing the supply of octane-boosting benzene, toluene, and xylenes for aviation fuels. The result, fluidized-bed catalytic cracking and catalytic reforming, would become key contributors to the petrochemical industry’s supply of aromatic feedstocks.

The boom begins

The foundations of the US petrochemical industry were in place, and by 1950, half of the country’s organic chemical production was already based on oil and natural gas. Europe, still recovering from the war, had no petrochemical industry aside from two plants in the United Kingdom. Europe would later surge forward, but US producers dominated the petrochemical market of the 1950s.

Dow inside: Dow Freeport in 1951 photo. Courtesy of DeGolyer Library,SMU.
It may even be fair to say that the petrochemical market was dominated by producers in Texas. Most wartime petrochemical capacity had been built on the Gulf Coast of Texas near Houston, and the region solidified its place at the center of US petrochemical manufacturing during the 1950s. The area offered several advantages: ample oil and natural gas for feedstocks and fuel, water for cooling, easy access to waterborne shipping, and an established inorganic chemical sector based on chlor-alkali production. No petrochemicals were being produced in Texas in 1940, but by 1956, the state was home to 70 petrochemical plants comprising 85% of US petrochemical capacity, half of them located in the Houston-Beaumont area, according to a 1965 article in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly.

This new capacity targeted surging demand. In 1950, synthetic resin and plastic production in the United States totaled 976,000 m.t; by 1960, the figure had increased to 2.48 million m.t. Two of the biggest gainers were vinyl resins and polystyrene (PS). Vinyl resins were already the largest-volume product in 1950; over the next 10 years, production increased by 177%, to 530,000 m.t. PS production, third-largest in 1950, increased 190%, to 405,000 m.t. However, the most stunning gain belonged to PE. In 1950, production volume was too low for PE to warrant its own category in the Survey of Business Conditions. By 1960, PE production had soared to the top spot, with 1.22 million m.t.

New products build the market

PE was not an immediate success. Although ICI first produced it commercially in 1939, demand grew slowly until the early 1950s, when the market recognized the product’s usefulness in packaging applications.

Demand received another boost in the mid-1950s, when a new type of PE became available. The two products were chemically identical, but they behaved differently. The original PE was soft and waxy, easily stretched and deformed. The new PE was strong, stiff, and more resistant to heat.

Reaction conditions accounted for the difference. Production at high temperature and high pressure with an oxygen-based initiator gave a polymer backbone with light branching. Production at low temperature and low pressure—conditions made possible by new transition-metal catalysts—gave PE an essentially linear backbone with no branching, allowing molecules to pack more densely. The new product was therefore called high-density PE (HDPE), and the original type became known as low-density PE (LDPE).

Paul Hogan and Robert Banks of Phillips Petroleum were the first to synthesize the new material. In 1951, the two were looking for a way to turn propylene into gasoline components when a chromium catalyst  yielded a surprise: crystalline polypropylene (PP). Turning to ethylene, they soon found that the same catalyst could be used to make HDPE. Each product has since become a keystone of the petrochemical market.

Karl Ziegler, a chemist at the Max Planck Institute in West Germany, separately discovered in 1953 that titanium-based catalysts yielded HDPE. Giulio Natta, working for the Italian firm Montecatini, took Ziegler’s discovery one step further, using similar catalysts to make crystalline PP.

The road to HDPE’s commercialization was not smooth. Phillips brought HDPE to market in 1954 as Marlex, producing it in a new $50-million plant at Houston. According to chemist Charles Carraher, expectations were high, but the company had trouble keeping the material within specifications, leaving buyers unimpressed and product piling higher and higher. However, Phillips got a reprieve in the form of Wham-O’s hula hoop, the must-have toy of 1958. Wham-O thought Marlex was perfectly adequate for its new product, and the toymaker bought everything the plant could produce for a year and a half, giving Phillips time to work out the kinks in its process.

By 1957, several other producers were also employing transition metal catalysts. Making HDPE were Celanese at Houston; Hercules at Parlin, NJ; and W.R. Grace at Baton Rouge. Making PP were Montecatini at Ferrara, Italy; Hoechst at Frankfurt; and Hercules at Parlin. Before the decade was up, chemists created yet another form of PE, linear LDPE. DuPont took the lead and began producing it at Corunna, ON, in 1960.

The 1950s were particularly busy for DuPont. The company in 1950 began producing polyester fiber, which it called Dacron, in a 1.5-million lbs/year plant at its Seaford, DE, facility; and in 1953, the company started up a $40-million plant at Kinston, NC. DuPont introduced Mylar polyester film in 1952. The company began producing Orlon acrylic yarn in 1950 and Orlon acrylic staple fiber in 1952. DuPont began producing polyacetal, which it called Delrin, in 1959.

Another important polymer, polycarbonate, became available in 1958, when Bayer and GE Plastics began production.

Global expansion, growing competition

As the decade wound down, the United States’ dominance of petrochemicals began to wane. Coal remained the leading basis for organic chemicals in Europe, but the switch to petroleum was well under way. International oil firms took the lead, Peter Spitz writes in Petrochemicals—The Rise of an Industry. Standard Oil of New Jersey built production centers adjacent to its refineries in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. BP pursued joint ventures with established local players, creating Naphtachimie in France with Kuhlman and Pechiney, Erdölchemie in Germany with Bayer, and British Hydrocarbon Chemicals with Distillers Corp. in the United Kingdom. Other companies mixed the strategies.

By 1960, 40% of the total volume of organic chemicals produced in Germany was derived from oil or natural gas compared with 80% in the United States. Petrochemicals also comprised a greater share of French production, spurred in part by natural gas discoveries. In the United Kingdom, almost $280 million was invested in petrochemicals between 1948 and 1958, Spitz notes, and between 1953 and 1959, the country’s petrochemical output tripled.

Beginning in 1954, Japan made a deliberate effort to create a petrochemical industry of its own based on imported technology. Four petrochemical complexes were built centered on steam crackers and managed, respectively, by Mitsubishi Petrochemical, Mitsubishi Chemical, Sumitomo Chemical, and Nippon Petrochemical. By 1960, Japan had 18 petrochemical plants with a production capacity of 300,000 m.t./year.

In the United States, meanwhile, industry leaders were beginning to worry. Herbert Doan, then president of Dow Chemical, described the situation in a 1967 speech. He had not come “to paint a bleak future for US petrochemicals,” he told the audience—but he did, and the picture would prove to be remarkably accurate.

“As recently as 1959, we had 90% of the worldwide petrochemical capacity. We had the lowest-cost raw materials, the cheapest power, and the world’s leading technology in our field,” Doan noted. However, he added, the widespread availability of technology, the trend to very large plants, and the global availability of feedstocks such as naphtha were equalizing petrochemical economics from country to country. “Along with the growth of foreign economies, they have helped to reduce American share of world petrochemical capacity from 90% eight years ago to less than 50% today,” he said.
Feedstock costs had been low between 1945 and 1960, but they were going to rise, he continued. The “rapid growth of natural gas has tapered off, [and] demand for natural gas liquids will exceed supply by the early 1970s,” he warned. “In the not very distant future, the US petrochemical industry will no longer be competitive unless conditions change.”