The Historically Important Industry Chemist Few Will Recognize

Mark Jones profiles the mystery chemist, and his notable accomplishments
Industry Matters Newsletter
 Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee
Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee

Miskel Spillman is a name my 27-year-old son recognized. His memory for trivia is nothing short of amazing, blessed as he is with an occasionally eidetic memory. I was only mildly surprised he recognized a 44-year-old pop-culture reference from my late teens. When confronted with the name George Curme, his memory failed the test.  

It saddens me so few know George Oliver Curme, Jr. He is arguably one of the all-time most important industrial chemists. Yet, even most reading this industry focused newsletter will fail to recognize his name. I couldn’t find a single list of famous scientists or famous chemists containing his name. Yet, all of us are impacted by his contributions.  

Ethylene is the number one feedstock for the modern organic chemical industry. In excess of 90% of all organic chemistry is derived from just seven petrochemicals with ethylene being the largest primary petrochemical. It alone is the feedstock for 1/3 of the global industry, an industry with global sales of over $4 trillion. Ethylene serves as the feedstock for PET, PVC, polystryrene, polyethylene, in all of its various flavors, and more. It is in products we all, most assuredly, touch daily.   

Everything starts somewhere. The somewhere for the modern chemical industry is Clendenin, West Virginia. It was there a team led by George Curme first reduced light-gas cracking to commercial practice. They developed the process that today makes most of the ethylene produced globally. He and his team didn’t discover ethylene, that was done 250 years earlier. What Curme did was to develop a workable production process for ethylene and the processes to make products from it.   

Illustration of steam crackling
Image credit: Mark E. Jones

Curme patented a process for cracking natural gas liquids that were readily available in West Virginia. Rapid heating of ethane to over 500°C in an empty tube at a low pressure, only slightly above atmospheric, produced high yields of ethylene. The effluent gas also included hydrogen and methane that were burned in the furnaces to fuel the process. Ethylene was distilled to produce pure ethylene and to separate it from unreacted ethane, which was recycled. A hydrocarbon separation plant to make pure ethane and the ethane cracking plant were completed in the summer of 1921. The Clendenon plant was first petrochemical plant that could separate light hydrocarbons and manufacture ethylene from light hydrocarbons. By 1923, Union Carbide was building a larger version of the cracker.  

Curme began publishing articles that describing production and use of ethylene derivatives. He went on to produce ethylene dichloride, ethyl oxide, ethyl glycol, and ethylacetate, and Cellosolve, the trade name for ethylene glycol monoethyl ether, a solvent ideal for nitrocellulose lacquers used for painting automobiles. Glycoldinitrate, a cost-effective substitute for nitroglycerine used in dynamite was made from ethylene glycol. New chemistries and new products continued to roll out.

Thermal cracking scaled well and the list of products derived from ethylene continued to grow. Multiple ethylene-derivative plants came to surround ever larger crackers. Large integrated sites became the norm, driving down cost as crackers became bigger and bigger.

While the modern cracker looks much different than Curme’s, with improved separations and compression, the cracking technology pioneered by Curme remains at the core. The world’s desire for the products derived from steam cracking may be starting to wane. Polyethylene and polypropylene, the two largest products derived from steam cracking, are both under scrutiny as the world addresses greenhouse gas emissions and environmental plastic. Recycling more plastic will reduce virgin demand. Some are predicting another steam cracker will never be built. The world added unprecedented cracking capacity in recent years. Dow just announced yet another, with new technologies added to make the cracker operation zero carbon emissions. The large installed capacity will continue to be improved and to operate. A century after Curme’s start, the cracker appears destined to remain the foundational technology of the industry for the foreseeable future.  

On September 10, the ACS recognized Clendenin, WV as the site for a National Historic Chemical Landmark, the first landmark in West Virginia. It recognizes Clendenin’s role in the development of the modern chemical industry, highlighting the pivotal role Curme played.

Miskel Spillman’s impact on my son’s life is minimal at best, yet he knew her. She won a contest to host Saturday Night Live, the only non-celebrity ever to host. Curme’s advances continue to impact my son and everyone else on the planet, yet few people recognize his name. The National Chemical Heritage Landmark in West Virginia will shine a brighter light on this important industrial chemist. Hopefully, my son and many more will learn of his contributions.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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