World War I and the formation of ICI

By Ken Smith
Member of Northallerton area community

In the 19th century, the chemical industry of the UK was based on salt, glass, textiles and explosives.

Delivering the goodsSalt, glass and textiles were using products of the LeBlanc process, which produced terrible pollution in three centres, Glasgow, Tyneside and Cheshire, partly curbed by the Alkall Acts of 1868. However the LeBlanc process was overtaken by the Solvay process from 1870. Ludvig Mond and John Tominson Brunner built a new works in Winnington in Cheshire using the Solvay process in 1873.

Explosives up to 1850 were based on Blackpowder or Gunpowder mixtures of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal but in 1843, Schonbein in Basle, Switzerland, produced Guncotton from cotton reacted with sulphuric and nitric acids. Both were highly dangerous to handle but were tamed by the 1870's. Nitroglycerine was created by Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) by absorbing nitroglycerine onto Kieselghur, a porous clay, to form Dynamite. Nobel also invented a suitable detonator with Charles Tennet in 1871 and they formed the British Dynamite Co.Ltd. Two other inventions were Blasting Gelatine and Smokeless Powder.

Nobel cooperated with other British, American, German and other European companies to regulate and corner the world markets. Thus by the 1870's, the chemical industry had changed from old, empirically-conducted technologies to science-based world businesses. By 1889, a General Pooling Agreement was the key to Anglo-German cooperation and led to the Nobel Dynamite Trust in 1914.

By 1914, the governments of the great European powers had been preparing for war for many years but the war that was fought, was not the short, sharp, mobile campaign that had been expected but a 4-year deadlock to be decided by the balance of industrial power.Munitions build up

By 1915, the British government had decided to take charge of munition industries by the Munitions of War Act. The ministry was under Lloyd-George and by 1918 had a staff of 65,000, employing 3 millions.

To increase production of Nitric and Sulphuric acids further, plans for a 60,000-ton facility at Billingham on Teeside, using Haber/Bosch high pressure process, were hatched. 266 acres of land were bought. Good supplies of coal, water, salt and steel were available and a plentiful supply of electricity from a new power station at the Newcastle Electric Supply Co.

By the end of the war, over £1 Million had been spent on the Billingham site. Some in the Ministry wanted the nitrogen fixation via the Haber process to continue and to keep the Billingham site.
By 1919, H.A. Humhries Ast, Director of the Dept of Explosives Supply obtained permission to sound out private partners to take over the site. It is not thought that the presence of a huge deposit of Anhydrite was known to the Ministry but it was not needed for munitions production. It is thought however that Brunner-Mond knew as they were locally-known deposits to be exploited. So Brunner-Mond were the recipients of a free, much-needed supply for their new fertiliser factory.A good source of research

Brunner-Mond wanted to see the German factory that would be their competitor in peace time, so they sent two experts, a chemist and an engineer to look at the BASF German plant. After three weeks there were convinced, even though the Germans tried to frustrate their efforts, that the project had great potential. But with two BASF plants in production, they needed BASF's secrets to give them the technical edge.

The site was bought for "£715,200 more or less" and licenses granted under government patents. The Ministry gave help to acquire German-owned British patents. On 3rd June 1920, the company registered as Synthetic Ammonia and Nitrates Ltd. Two ex-BASF employees sold most of the secrets of Oppau-Merensburg to the new company. This helped enormously in their discussions with BASF who thought they had a huge technical advantage.

Brunner-Mond set up a first-class research lab and semi-tech facility at Billingham on a Greenfield site. Number 2 plant came on stream in 1923/24 and by 1925, the site was producing 200tpd of Ammonia and 800tpd of Sulphate of Ammonia.

ICIIn 1925, an amalgamation of six large German chemical companies forced the fusion of British interests. Nobel Industries, United Alkali Company, British Dyestuffs Corporation and Brunner-Mond merged in 1926 into Imperial Chemical Industries. The decision about who should be ICI's first Chairman was taken on a voyage from New York to England to form a conglomerate to rival anything in the world. The British government saw this as a further reach of imperial power.