Industrial Advances

National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program

The dawn of the 20th century brought fundamental changes to the way Americans lived. Entrepreneurs wedded scientific knowledge and business savvy, extracting metals, minerals, and motor fuels from natural resources to advance industry and revolutionize our nation's way of life.

Acetyl Chemicals from Coal Gasification

Prompted by the oil embargoes of the 1970s, the Eastman Chemical Company was the first U.S. plant to make acetyl chemicals—important building blocks in the production of a wide range of consumer products such as plastics, textile fibers and photographic film—from coal, a secure, domestic resource, rather than foreign petroleum. The plant came on stream in 1983 following eight years of research and process development in coal gasification and related technology. By substituting locally available, high-sulfur coal, Eastman’s plant conserved petroleum previously required for the production of these high-volume chemicals. Learn more.

Charles Herty and the Savannah Pulp and Paper Laboratory

When Georgia chemist Charles Holmes Herty found a way to make quality paper from pine trees in 1932, he also founded an industry that brought much-needed jobs to the depression-crippled south. Herty wrote a new chapter in the ancient craft inspired by insects who built paper nests while dinosaurs still roamed the earth. At its root, however, the papermaking process remained the same: the bonding of cellulose, a polymer whose long chains support plant cell walls. Learn more.

Commercialization of Radiation Chemistry

Founded in 1957, Raychem Corporation was the first company to successfully apply the new science of radiation chemistry to commercial use. This accomplishment led to the creation of tough new materials and high-performance products such as irradiated polyethylene insulated wire and heat-shrinkable tubing through the crosslinking of polymeric materials. The success of this enterprise established radiation chemistry as a practical, safe, cost-effective use of ionizing radiation and helped make the United States the world leader in the development of commercial radiation technology and equipment. Learn more.

Development of the Beckman pH meter

When Arnold Beckman, a professor of analytical chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, was asked to devise a way to measure acidity in citrus fruit, the resulting “acidometer” revolutionized chemical instrumentation. The rugged and portable "acidimeter," which had all necessary components housed in a single unit, allowed scientists to measure acidity accurately and rapidly. The innovative features of the pH meter, including its use of integrated electronic technology and all-in-one design, were the basis for subsequent modern instrumentation developed by Beckman and his company. Learn more.

Development of the Pennsylvania Oil Industry

In Pittsburgh in the 1850s Samuel Kier, who originally marketed petroleum as a medicine, built the first still to refine oil into kerosene to burn in lamps. But the usefulness of using petroleum to light homes and businesses was limited by the difficulty of getting it out of the ground. That changed on August 27, 1859, when Colonel Edwin Drake’s struck oil at his newly drilled well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Within three years Pennsylvania was producing three million barrels of oil a year. Learn more.

Discovery of Helium in Natural Gas

When University of Kansas chemists Hamilton Cady and David McFarland analyzed a natural gas sample in 1905, they solved a local mystery and showed that helium—once thought to be a rare element—was abundant on Earth. Cady and McFarland subsequently analyzed more than 40 other gas samples, showing that helium was available in plentiful quantities from the Great Plains of the United States. Helium-filled blimps were vital to the United States in World War II, and helium is still considered a national strategic reserve material. Learn more.

Discovery of the Commercial Processes for Making Calcium Carbide and Acetylene

In his search for a more economical way to make aluminum, Canadian inventor Thomas Leopold Willson accidentally discovered the first commercially viable process for making calcium carbide, which is used for production of acetylene gas, at a location in North Carolina. First used for lighting and then for welding, this chance discovery produced a series of products, from improved lighting in remote locations to the synthesis of a host of organic substances. Learn more.

Electrolytic Production of Bromine

In the late 1800s, Herbert Dow was one of many would-be entrepreneurs striving to transform America's vast, untapped natural resources into commercial products that could compete with those of Europe's chemical manufacturers. Dow dreamed of finding an efficient way to make chemical products from the plentiful deposits of brine just beneath the surface of his native Midwest. In the years that followed, the processes developed by Dow and the company he founded led to an increasing stream of chemicals from brines. The commercial success of these endeavors helped to promote the growth of the American chemical industry. Learn more.

Fluid Bed Reactor

The first commercial circulating fluid bed reactor, PCLA #1 (Powdered Catalyst Louisiana), went on stream on May 25, 1942, in the Baton Rouge Refinery of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil Corporation). This first use of powdered catalysts in continuous operation allowed the efficient cracking of heavy gas oils to meet the growing demand for high-octane fuels. Today, fluid bed reactors are in use worldwide for the manufacture of fuels, chemical intermediates, and plastics. Learn more.

Hall Process: Production and Commercialization of Aluminum

On February 23, 1886, in his woodshed laboratory at the family home on East College Street, Charles Martin Hall succeeded in producing aluminum metal by passing an electric current through a solution of aluminum oxide in molten cryolite. Aluminum was a semiprecious metal before Hall’s discovery of this economical method to release it from its ore. His invention, brought into commercial-scale production by the Pittsburgh Reduction Company (now known as Alcoa), made this light, lustrous and nonrusting metal readily available and was the basis of the aluminum industry in North America. Learn more.

High Performance Carbon Fibers

Since Roger Bacon discovered “graphite whiskers” in 1958 at Union Carbide’s Parma Technical Center (now GrafTech International), carbon fibers have been used in high performance applications from airplanes to automobiles and from satellites to sporting goods. The textile's strength and flexibility has truly revolutionized the world of materials. Bacon’s research, along with a host of other scientists at Parma over the years, set the stage for the exploding field of carbon fiber-based composite materials technology. Learn more.

Houdry Process for Catalytic Cracking

The first full-scale commercial catalytic cracker for the selective conversion of crude petroleum to gasoline went on stream at the Marcus Hook Refinery of Sun Company (now Sunoco, Inc.) in 1937. Pioneered by Eugene Jules Houdry (1892-1962), the catalytic cracking of petroleum revolutionized the industry by conserving crude oil by doubling the amount of gasoline produced by other processes and improving the gasoline octane rating, making possible today’s efficient, high-compression automobile engines. During World War II, the high-octane fuel shipped from Houdry plants played a critical role in the Allied victory. Learn more.

Norbert Rillieux and a Revolution in Sugar Processing

Norbert Rillieux (1806-1894) revolutionized sugar processing with the invention of the Multiple Effect Evaporator under Vacuum. Rillieux’s great scientific achievement was his recognition that at reduced pressure the repeated use of latent heat would result in the production of better quality sugar at lower cost. Rillieux’s invention is widely recognized as the best method for lowering the temperature of all industrial evaporation and for saving large quantities of fuel. Learn more.

Penicillin Production through Deep-tank Fermentation

In the early 20th century Pfizer developed innovative fermentation technology, applying it first to the mass production of citric acid. In subsequent years, under the direction of James Currie and Jasper Kane, Pfizer perfected deep-tank fermentation, an aseptic process for growing large quantities of microorganisms which require oxygen for survival. When scientists in England were unable to produce penicillin on a large scale during World War II, Kane suggested trying deep-tank fermentation. In a major feat of chemical engineering, the company rebuilt an old ice plant, which had the refrigeration machinery required for submerged fermentation, and opened the world’s first large-scale penicillin facility on March 1, 1944. Learn more.

Polypropylene and High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, entered the plastics business in 1951, following a discovery by researchers J. Paul Hogan and Robert L. Banks. The two researchers found the catalyst that would transform ethylene and propylene into solid polymers. Today, billions of pounds of polypropylene and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are used each year in packaging of every shape and size, from milk jugs to large chemical drums; in toys, tools, furniture, and fibers; in water, sewer and gas pipes; and in auto parts. These polymers have become an integral part of our everyday lives. Learn more.

Sohio Acrylonitrile Process

You may not know it by name, but acrylonitrile touches nearly everyone in some way every day. Acrylonitrile is the key ingredient in acrylic fibers used to make clothing, in plastics used to make computer, automobile and food casings, and in sports equipment. The material used in these and many other products was made by a process discovered and developed in the 1950s by scientists and engineers at Standard Oil of Ohio (Sohio). Learn more. Learn more.

U.S. Synthetic Rubber Program

When the natural rubber supply from Southeast Asia was cut off at the beginning of World War II, the United States and its allies faced the loss of a strategic material. With U.S. government sponsorship, a consortium of companies involved in rubber research and production united in a unique spirit of technical cooperation and dedication to produce a general purpose synthetic rubber on a commercial scale. These companies, in collaboration with a network of researchers in government, academic, and industrial laboratories, developed and manufactured in record time enough synthetic rubber to meet the needs of the U.S. and its allies during World War II. Learn more.