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Origins of the Chemical Industry

2017.04.17   10:04

Although the use of chemicals dates back to the ancient civilizations, the evolution of what we know as the modern chemical industry started much more recently. It may be considered to have begun during the Industrial Revolution, about 1800, and developed to provide chemicals roe use by other industries. Examples are alkali for soapmaking, bleaching powder for cotton, and silica and sodium carbonate for glassmaking. It will be noted that these are all inorganic chemicals. The organic chemicals industry started in the 1860s with the exploitation of William Henry Perkin’s discovery if the first synthetic dyestuff—mauve. At the start of the twentieth century the emphasis on research on the applied aspects of chemistry in Germany had paid off handsomely, and by 1914 had resulted in the German chemical industry having 75% of the world market in chemicals. This was based on the discovery of new dyestuffs plus the development of both the contact process for sulphuric acid and the Haber process for ammonia. The later required a major technological breakthrough that of being able to carry out chemical reactions under conditions of very high pressure for the first time. The experience gained with this was to stand Germany in good stead, particularly with the rapidly increased demand for nitrogen-based compounds (ammonium salts for fertilizers and nitric acid for explosives manufacture) with the outbreak of world warin 1914. This initiated profound changes which continued during the inter-war years (1918-1939).

Since 1940 the chemical industry has grown at a remarkable rate, although this has slowed significantly in recent years. The lion’s share of this growth has been in the organic chemicals sector due to the development and growth of the petrochemicals area since 1950s. The explosives growth in petrochemicals in the 1960s and 1970s was largely due to the enormous increase in demand for synthetic polymers such as polyethylene, polypropylene, nylon, polyesters and epoxy resins.

The chemical industry today is a very diverse sector of manufacturing industry, within which it plays a central role. It makes thousands of different chemicals which the general public only usually encounter as end or consumer products. These products are purchased because they have the required properties which make them suitable for some particular application, e.g. a non-stick coating for pans or a weedkiller. Thus chemicals are ultimately sold for the effects that they produce.


                                                                                                                  By Steven

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