Schematic of Products from ICI Billingham, 1939

The sketch shows an outline of what was being manufactured at ICI Billingham in 1939. But the same processes would have been used up to the 1950s. As originally set up, Billingham ‘synthesised’ ammonia using the Haber Bosch process, in which a key feature was the production of hydrogen and nitrogen from water and producer gas units. Billingham at this time was a glorified gasworks. The ammonia was mainly used for fertiliser as ammonium sulphate, by reacting it with sulphuric acid. The sulphuric acid came from the use of anhydrite, that had been fortuitously discovered to lie beneath the ICI site. But the ammonia could also be used to make nitric acid and urea. Drikold was solid carbon dioxide, or dry ice, which was a byproduct from making the hydrogen and nitrogen.

More complex fertilisers could be made by bringing in potash and phosphate rock. I would guess that these would need to be imported at the time. The chalk would have come by rail from the south. And as mentioned recently Billingham was making petrol from coal, but creosote was also being used as it greatly increased the output. Some of this probably came from the gasworks on site.

Every pupil at Richard Hind Boys in the 1950s will remember the chemistry master, Mr Dee, explaining how the Stocktonian name for ICI Billingham, the ‘Synthetic’, had come about from its use of the Haber Bosch process.

Image and details courtesy of Fred Starr.

9 thoughts on “Schematic of Products from ICI Billingham, 1939

  1. I was an apprentice Fitter at the Billingham plant in the 60s. My dad Harry Appleton was General Foreman in Oil Works and my uncle, Cliff Appleton was a research chemist in the research department. After a year in the merchant navy, I went back to ICI Billingham and converted to Instrumentation. I was an Instrument Tech. on the Old Ammonia plant and then on the new, Methanol Plant until I left to work in Tobruk, Libya. Loved working for ICI.


  2. It took a lot of time to get the ammonia plant running during the 1920s. The Germans who had developed the Harber Bosch process went out of their way to prevent information being “transferred” to ICI. Giving over this data and experience would have been part of WWI war reparations.

    Huge losses were also made during the 1930s in developing the coal hydrogenation process for making aviation grade petrol. Judging from the history,it looks like so much money was expended in building the hydrogenators that Billingham could not afford to give up. I think the final price was about ten times the initial estimate. The only real supporter was Sir Hugh Dowding who was responsible for the RAF research budget and programmes. He realised that 100 octane fuel was vital to improved fighter performance. It was Hugh Dowding who got the money for investigating the potential of radar and then paying for the radar network.


    • Fred, ICI got Government money to develop many chemical processes, never enough for the complete project but enough to cover research and development. None of Teessides many industries ever made a profit or if they did it was very small. Ropner built ships at a loss Dorman long made losses all their working lives including wartime, without government money usually secret most would have gone the way of Whitwells in 1929. My Uncle Raymond Tighe went up through the ranks of Teesbridge then Dorman’s and wrote a book when he was on the main Board, a history of the steel industry, it was a story of loss or barely breaking even through out the whole history of those massive projects.
      The writing was on the wall and the short sighted one man one job Union approach did nothing to lighten the load. We finally got Multi trade in my time although the damage was done, Poland Korea Japan had beaten us to it and the big conglomerates went where the costs were cheapest.
      The joke being they are now all coming back because we are cheaper and more efficient than those Countries that took our work in the first place. Live long enough and the circle closes.


  3. As an apprentice at Head Wrightsons we used Drikold to reduce the temperature of the water in which our charpie (I think that’s how it is spelt?) impact test pieces were immersed.
    But how about this for a reminder of my age. I was in a shop and asked for the measurement in imperial. The assistant said, “What’s imperial?” And she wasn’t young. Is it really that long ago? It could have been worse, I could have asked for it in chains and perches.


    • Roy, Drikold was so versatile, my lads would freeze low pressure pipes with it to cut and fit valves as well as other uses. A full train of rail wagons would leave every day for use in many industries and I remember the Stop me and Buy One ice cream tricycles with drikold packed around the ice cream drum plus those ice lollies that made your tongue bleed. That was another old ICI plant that vanished and all part of the first Ammonia complex.
      You walked along those Avenues, Ammonia and Nitrates and it was all throbbing pipes errant steam and the odd whiff of gas, now long gone. Progress I suppose.


  4. Thank you for the schematic, sir. As an ICI apprentice in the early 40’s I learned more about the mechanics of the many processing units there and the diagram today explains quite a lot of the intricacies and relationships of the many chemicals utilised and created there. My ten adult years after apprenticeship were passed in (what later became) the Heavy Organic Group, namely the US Plant and then the Refinery.
    Richard Hind Boys was my Alma mater too, and there I met my future wife, Doris.
    The staff at that school, which was dispersed somewhat by war service requirements, can be partially recalled: (Slasher) in deference, Mr. Pierce, Wilmot Webster, head master and music teacher (also organist at the Weslyan Church down Yarm Road) (Ma) Miss Rowbotham, French language teacher, (Ali) Mr. Tony Barber, Sciences and Lab., Mr Goodier, math, Mr Dodd, English language, Miss Westmacott, succeeding the French language teacher – “Jamais”, “Jamais”, “Jamais” when she wanted to emphasize a point, (Sandy) Mr. Dobin, art, Mr Wanford, shop skills, Mr. (Tommy) Rosser, the succeeding head master, Mr. Sid Williams, former Egyptian national diving champion and our gymn. instructor, Mr. Charlton, Gegraphy. There were one or two others whose names, regretfully, escape me.
    What life-skills, knowledge, and values those great people instilled in my generation through their academic careers!


    • Ronald, Mr Rawlings came after Mr Webster then Mr Rosser who was there many years after i left R.H. Many of the lads and some of the girls went to ICI and when I worked at ICI many years later quite often met old R.H. Boys and even some of the Girls.
      Mr Eggy Plummer, Miss English, Miss Duffney, were some of the other names and we also had a few fill in Teachers, I do remember a Miss Harding because I danced with her, she was only there a few weeks and was actually married but they were all Miss to us boys.
      The Schematic is for the heavy chemicals which made the ICI but in my time the exotic chemicals were the money makers. Light fuel oils and petrol were virtually waste products they were after the Ethylenes from the top of the distillation columns. We spent a lot of time maintaining Phillips North Tees Refinery and could see the way things were going as they old processes were closed down.


  5. My father worked on the Ammonia Plant until his retirement in 1978. Thomas (Tommy) West. I remember Open Days when families were allowed in to the works. Anyone remember the explosion there? Many injuries including my Dad!


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