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.

Coal to Petrol Plant at Billingham

One of the pictures shows the process route, which (a) enables one to understand what the pictures mean and (b) describes a technology that is now lost. The photograph shows one of the liquid phase “stalls” at Billingham. Liquid phase, in this case, means that the oil stayed as a liquid.

Each stall contained a set of three reactors in which hydrogen reacted with a coal oil slurry, whereby part of the coal formed more oil. The oil was separated off from the unreacted coal, and sent round to a distillation column. The lightest fraction from the distillation column was similar to petrol and mixed with the output from the second stage of the process,

In the second stage, the fraction of the oil, from the distillation column, with an intermediate boiling point was sent to the two vapour phase hydrogenation reactors. More petrol was made. It will be apparent that the whole process was very complex and can only be understood by working through the diagram.

Images and details courtesy of Fred Starr.

ICI Billingham Coal Hydrogenation Site

t15417This picture looks like it was taken from an aeroplane flying to the north of the site, probably in the late 1930s. I wonder how realistic this picture is of the Billingham site, although it does show in the far distance the Newport Bridge?
I understand that Ordnance Survey maps did not show the location of the plant, as it was built before WWII to produce high octane petrol for aircraft engines. It is also interesting that the actual coal hydrogenation units are not marked. Were they under the arch-like building at the lower centre of the picture?

Image and details courtesy of Fred Starr.

Brunner Mond, one of the founding companies behind the formation of ICI

t15205Ludwig Mond (1839 – 1909) was a German-born chemist and industrialist who took British nationality. After attending schools in his home town, he studied chemistry at the University of Heidelberg. He then worked in factories in Germany and the Netherlands before coming to England to work at the factory of John Hutchinson & Co in Widnes in 1862. Here he formed a partnership with John Hutchinson. Shortly after starting work at Hutchinson’s he developed a method to recover sulphur used to manufacture soda. In 1872 Mond got in touch with the Belgian industrialist Ernest Solvay who was developing a better process to manufacture soda. The following year he went into partnership with John Brunner to work on bringing the process to commercial viability.
They established the business of Brunner Mond & Company. Within 20 years this business had become the largest producer of soda in the world.
John Tomlinson Brunner (1842 – 1919) was a British chemical industrialist at Hutchinson’s alkali works in Widnes, there he met Ludwig Mond, with whom he later formed the chemical company Brunner Mond & Co. Their initial capital was less than £20,000 (£1.6 million in 2016) most of which was borrowed. After its slow start, Brunner Mond & Company became the wealthiest British chemical company of the late 19th century. On its merger with three other British chemical companies to form Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in 1926, it had a market capitalization of over £18 million (£940 million in 2016.
Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was formed by the 1926 merger of Great Britain’s four major chemical companies: Nobel Industries Ltd.; Brunner, Mond and Company Ltd.; United Alkali Company; and the British Dyestuffs Corporation.

Information courtesy of Bob Wilson.