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Industrial Chemistry - It Meets Demands of War
March 23, 1942 Life Article

March 23, 1942 Life

March 23, 1942 Life Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early technology. See articles from Life, published 1883-1972 . All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

In 1942 and throughout the War Years, Life magazine (and many others) ran many articles promoting industries, services, organizations, and individuals who contributed toward our ultimate victory. Of course no one knew for certain that we would prevail in the end, but if it hadn't turned out that way, it wouldn't have been for lack of effort and sacrifice. Part of the objective was to inform the populace about how the country was pooling its resources - physical, labor, and mental - to defeat the Axis Powers that sought to takeover the world. This particular issue of Life focused on the chemical industry, with the raw materials and processes used to produce needed products both for fuel and for the base components of other finished goods. Sulphur, potassium, and coal mining and processing, along with petroleum, common table salt, and air and water were some of the most fundamental ingredients of every other item needed to aid the effort. Ever hear of Ameriopl rubber?

Industrial Chemistry - It Meets Demands of War

Industrial Chemistry - It Meets Demands of War, March 23, 1942 Life - RF Cafe

This mountain of coal at a DuPont plant is not fuel but a storehouse of 150,000 different chemical compounds.

To keep the U. S. forces fighting, industrial chemistry must for the duration produce 5 lb. of explosives for every soldier every day. The filling of this order has brought none of the agony of retooling and conversion that has beset other items of war production. To fractionate toluol from coal for TNT requires only an adjustment of pressure and temperature controls on the towers that distill the raw materials for dyes, drugs and plastics. The nitric acid that turns cotton into smokeless powder is the same nitric acid that turns cotton into plastics and paint.

But the biggest job of industrial chemistry is now, as always, to supply other industries with the materials it has taught them to use. Without sulphuric acid, compounded from gleaming plateaus of brimstone pumped up from beneath Gulf Coast swamplands (see opposite), ten major U. S. industries would find their operations in confusion. If to sulphuric acid are added the acids, bases, salts and solvents that chemistry assembles out of water, air, salt, limestone, potash, coal and petroleum, there is involved the whole fabric of technology by which modern civilization lives at peace and fights its wars.

Brilliant golden sulphur, the brimstone of Scriptures - RF Cafe

As sulphuric acid, it is crucial in the production of fertilizers, explosives, paint - RF Cafe

Brilliant golden sulphur, the brimstone of Scriptures, is the quintessential element of all modern industry. As sulphuric acid, it is crucial in the production of fertilizers, explosives, paint, in the refining of metals and petroleum, and in almost all chemical processing. The consumption of sulphuric acid is a reliable and sensitive index of all industrial production. Biggest single source is the deposit on the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana and Texas, mined by a unique process. Through a system of pipes reaching down under 1,500 ft. of quicksand and cap rock, super-heated water is forced into the sulphur-bearing stratum. The sulphur, melted, is pumped to the surface and, as shown here at the works of the Freeport Sulphur Co., spewed out into deep bins. When it has cooled and hardened, the bins are taken down, leaving rectangular mountains of sulphur, ready to be blasted down for shipment.

Potassium, called potash in its useful compounds, and nitrogen - RF Cafe

Potassium, called potash in its useful compounds, and nitrogen (below) are two major props of modern agriculture provided by the chemical industry. Both are essential to life. and both tend to disappear from cultivated land. Of the 500,000 tons of potash to be spread on U. S. soil in 1942, not one ton will be imported, in contrast to 1913 when Germany supplied almost all our potash. Potassium, sodium and calcium (below) are the most active metals, ranking just ahead of magnesium and aluminum and too explosive to be used as pure metals. Like sodium. potassium is found in compounds with chlorine and, like most of our common salt, is mined from the beds of ancient seas. Shown here is the rosy-pink potash ore mined by the Potash Company of America, in the Permian Sea deposit, 1,000 ft. below New Mexico's soil. Industrially, most potash goes into matches, a little into percussion explosives.

fixation of atmospheric nitrogen - RF Cafe

Air & Water
This pyrotechnic display is a by-product of one of the most vital peace and wartime chemical processes, the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. Because it tends constantly to return to its free state as a gas, nitrogen must be restored in synthetic fertilizers to the soil, where it is essential to life. In war, nitrogen is the ingredient that makes trinitrocellulose and trinitrotoluene (TNT), our chief explosives. This gas generator in a du Pont plant is performing the first step in the fixation of nitrogen with hydrogen in the form of ammonia. Into a coke-filled furnace below are shot alternate blasts of air and steam. The oxygen content of both blasts goes into combustion, leaving nitrogen and hydrogen to be later clamped together by heat and pressure. Excess gases of the air blast flare in yellow and red flame (top); excess water gas (below) burns in vivid blue.

Sooty smog that blankets soft-coal-burning industrial cities - RF Cafe

The sooty smog that blankets soft-coal-burning industrial cities is made of the same chemicals that go into the collection of objects shown above. When roasted in a by-product coke oven, bituminous coal yields gases, oils and tars that are even richer than petroleum in hydrocarbon compounds. Black coal tar is. first of all, the exclusive source of our full spectrum of dyes (in retorts and swatches). Closely related to these dyes are the coal-tar drugs, including the miraculous five sulfa compounds (brown) bottles). In the field of plastics, coal tar is a universal raw material, providing bonding plastics for plywood and impregnated cloth gears and miners' helmets (left); molding plastics for, among other things, Bakelite telephones; and surfacing plastics for automobile enamel (green bottle, right); and finally nylon stockings. Pure carbon from coal pitch makes arc-light electrodes (left). Coke ovens also produce fuel gas (right).

By the tragic irony that links the release of man's creative energies to his impulse for destruction, the history of chemistry is the history of war. Modern industrial chemistry dates from the British blockade of Napoleon's Europe in the first years of the 19th Century. To supply gunpowder for the Grand Army, French chemists treated salt with sulphuric acid, and therewith launched three fundamental chemical commodities, chlorine for bleaching, soda ash for the manufacture of soap and glass, and sulphuric acid for all its infinity of uses. To World War I must be credited the next great advance in industrial chemistry. It is a fact that Germany went to war as soon as its supply of nitrogen for explosives was assured by German chemistry's invention of a process for artificial fixation of nitrogen from the air. That process, now again diverted to war production, stands between man and starvation. Via synthetic fertilizers it restores nitrogen to the soil whence it goes into proteins, the stuff of life.

To the U. S. in the third year of World War I, Germany twice sent a submarine loaded with the most precious cargo it could carry - drugs and dyes distilled from coal tar. These had simply disappeared from consumption in the U. S., where coal coked for the steel industry spewed its riches through the roof ports of beehive coke ovens. The same crisis held throughout the U. S. chemical economy, which produced no potash and only part of our needs of such vital elements as chlorine and nitrogen. Fortunately the U. S. lacked neither chemical brains nor resources. By the war's end, because we needed it to fight, we had an almost self-sufficient chemical industry. Today its independence of foreign sources is complete.

In 1940 U. S. industrial chemistry was supplying its heavy chemicals to other industries in tonnages far in excess of the production peak of World War I. This is an index not only of the expansion of U. S. industry but of its mastery of chemical technology. It is no longer possible to define the limits of the chemical industry. The metals industry, with its alloys, and the petroleum industry, with its synthetic fuels, have notably ceased to be mere refiners of natural materials and have become chemical creators of new materials. Wood products are being revolutionized by coal-tar resins that bind plywood into sheets stronger than steel. To textiles, chemistry has brought synthetic fibers that compete with nature's whole line of silk, cotton and wool. From four of its most inexhaustible raw materials, air, water, limestone and coal, industrial chemistry has compounded its own industry, producing in sheet and molded plastics materials that have no precedent in nature.

Already in World War II, U. S. industrial chemistry has begun to project the lines of its future progress. Its first major triumph is magnesium, heretofore an incendiary curiosity, now to become, in light, high-strength alloys, the most efficient aircraft metal. Because it must provide more powerful aviation fuels and replace lost sources of rubber, it is distilling and cracking an ever longer list of the rich hydrocarbons locked in coal and oil.

On the following color pages are shown the raw materials of industrial chemistry. Next, in color (pp. 74-75), the principles of the science of chemistry are diagramed. This is followed by demonstrations of basic industrial processes which, as any high-school student can see, are his own experiments many times magnified.

Common table salt - RF Cafe

Common table salt, here pumped in a brine from a natural well into purifying tanks at the Westvaco plant, is composed of two violent, poisonous elements, chlorine and sodium. Separated from each other by electrolysis, each has its own important use. Chlorine is not only a battlefield gas; it is a powerful germicide and bleaching agent. Sodium compounds into household lye and is essential to glass, paper and textile manufacturing.

Compound of the element calcium, limestone has long done duty in cement - RF Cafe

A compound of the element calcium, limestone has long done duty in cement, mortar, plaster and quicklime. Here, in a Union Carbide furnace. limestone is roasted with coke to incandescence to produce calcium carbide. Mixed with water, calcium carbide yields the hydrocarbon acetylene gas that burns in welding torches and is an ingredient in nylon and a synthetic rubber.

Jug of crude petroleum - RF Cafe

Central object in this display is a jug of crude petroleum. With it is shown a sampling of the products which chemistry has begun to distill, crack and synthesize from its green-black and evil-smelling collection of hydrocarbon compounds. Most spectacular is the Plexiglas bomber nose housing the display, which is made from a resin compounded from the highly reactive ethylene fraction of crude. Far more important, however, are the new synthetic 80- and 100-octane motor fuels, dyed red and blue respectively. It is 100 octane fuel that gives U. S. warplanes their supreme range and altitude. The jugs of fuel stand on a yellow sheet of crude Ameripol rubber. whose crucial ingredient is the butadiene fraction. When the higher fractions and the lower waxes and oils have been distilled off, there remains solid black "petroleum coke," a cheap industrial fuel.



Posted April 14, 2022

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