The Reign of Chemistry
Monsanto company's vast operations
show how the country's fastest growing big industry
has become a dominant factor in the U. S. economy and changed every American's daily life
Monsanto inspector gropes his way into recesses of calciner, a cavernous furnace which, when rotating and red hot, makes phosphates
In this. century's rapid growth of-US. industry nothing can compare in speed nd scale with the rise of the chemical industry. Relatively obscure 25 years ago, it has expanded three times faster than the rest of industry, and has become a new keystone of the U.S. economy. It is also chief heir to the nation's atomic energy program, which was conceived by physicists but is being largely executed through the vast facilities of companies like Du Pont, Union Carbon And Carbide, Dow, and Monsanto.
In its forward rush the $9 billion-a-year chemical industry has transformed American life. It has scrubbed the modern world faith detergents, doctored it with synthetic drugs, dressed. it in synthetic textiles, cushioned it with synthetic rubber and adorned it from head to toe with gaudy plastics. It has penetrated industry as deeply as daily life. With its flood of discoveries, it has injected new life into some industries lace textiles which it has reconstructed with synthetics and strengthened with new chemicals that make natural textiles water-resistant, better wearing, better looking. It has absorbed whole industries, like paint and varnish, and has spawned entire new ones like plastics fabricating and synthetic rubber. The plants from which chemistry's products come are tangled nests of crooked pipes, squat vats and giant revolving ovens (above) whose shapes are often as complicated as the chemicals they produce.
One of the largest and liveliest of U.S. chemical companies is Monsanto, whose plants and processes are pictured on these pages. With a flood of products and aggressive salesmanship Monsanto has, doubled in size every five years since 1926-growing faster than the industry itself.
CHEMICAL LANDSCAPE HAS STRANGE SHAPES
The Monsanto Chemical Company began 52 years ago in St. Louis as a collection of wooden tubs which produced one chemical, saccharin. Today it is a $390 million enterprise with 17 manufacturing plants scattered across the U.S. Saccharin has been overshadowed by 402 other products with names like para-acetylaminobenzenesulfonyl chloride (used in sulfa drugs) and "Pip-pip" (used in synthetic rubber). They include abrasives, acids, alcohols, alkalis, detergents, synthetic fibers, food flavorings, fungicides, gas additives, herbicides, insecticides, leather chemicals, oil additives, paints. paper chemicals, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, plastics, rubber chemicals, textile chemicals, wood preservatives.
Practically none of these products are sold directly to the public, but are shipped to over 50 industries which use them to make familiar commodities. Often the same chemical is used by different industries for different purposes. A phosphate which Monsanto sells to' baking powder companies is also used to soften oil well mud. A Monsanto jelly used in Napalm incendiary bombs has proved ideal for use in screwworm salve for sheep.
Monsanto's varied industrial scenery includes the vistas of the Muscle Shoals chlorine plant (top right) and the clutter of the St. Louis phthalic anhydride plant (bottom right). In the mechanization of its processes, Monsanto has come to depend less and less on human control of its plants. A giant new unit in Texas City, Texas (top left) produces enough styrene to satisfy a third of the nation's needs. yet it is operated by only three men who take hourly chemical samples and keep a routine eye on the instrument panel of their air-conditioned control room.
Still expanding, Monsanto keeps its eyes fixed on a goal which still lies distantly on the horizon. The AEC is considering a joint plan of Monsanto and Union Electric Co. of Missouri for an atomic power plant. Monsanto's atom scientist-president Dr. Charles A. Thomas hopes the power plant will make Monsanto the first private enterprise in the world to harness atomic energy for industrial production.
WORLD'S LARGEST single chlorine plant is operated by Monsanto for US at Muscle Shoals, AL. Electrodes extract chlorine from brine. (left)
LEAPING RUBBER explosively created from butadiene gas in bottle is discovery of MIT's Dr. A. Morton, and exemplifies the kind of chemical magic which Monsanto and others put to commercial use.
RISING TOWERS of Texas City plant on Gulf Coast make styrene, used in rubber, paint, plastics. Silhouetted chemist tests samples in control room.
PHOSPHORUS IS MADE AMID FIRE AND SMOKE
Despite the diversity of its products, Monsanto has specialized in one chemical-the fiery element phosphorus, a waxy yellow substance which bursts into flame when it comes in contact with air. This substance plays such an important role in the company's operations that an entire manufacturing division, one of the company's six, is devoted to phosphorus and its many derivatives.
Monsanto mines its own phosphorus ore at Columbia, Tenn. and extracts the pure element in a row of six giant electrical furnaces (above) which consume more power than the whole city of nearby Knoxville. After its processing, the phosphorus is carefully stored in tanks under a layer of water to protect it from contact with air. Then it is shipped to other plants, in sealed tank cars, where it is first burned (right), then drenched with water to produce phosphoric acid. This is later converted into a whole family of powdery phosphates by being boiled in vats, fused in long ovens and baked to red heat in huge revolving calciners (photo above).
Phosphorus compounds are among the most useful chemicals known. They dissolve grease (in synthetic detergents), soften water, dye and bleach textiles, leaven baking powders, make metals rustproof, preserve food, soften cheeses, fireproof wood, refine sugar, scrub teeth (in toothpastes) and constitute the active ingredient of dozens of pharmaceuticals.
FIERY POOLS of slag from the tapped furnaces send up columns of steam as they strike the hosed-down slag heap outside the plant. Power shovel loads glowing slag into trucks to be hauled away.
BLAZING TOWERS at Trenton, Mich. produce phosphoric acid by burning Tennessee phosphorus.
GLOWING FERROPHOSPHORUS, a by-product, is tapped from furnace, cools in "chill buckets."
INDUSTRY'S BIGGEST MONEY-MAKER IS TEXTILES
Ever since Du Pont launched nylon in 1939, rival chemical companies have been scrambling to produce synthetic fibers of their own. Du Pont itself has produced two additional synthetics, Orlon and Dacron; Union Carbon and Carbide has Dynel, and Dow has Saran. Synthetic fibers have become the biggest money-makers in the chemical industry, accounting altogether for more than a quarter of the industry's total 1952 sales. Last summer Monsanto added to this family of fibers by unveiling Acrilan, its most glamorous product.
FASHION FANTASY takes place at Monsanto's unfinished Texas City plant which will turn out ingredients for the bolt of Acrilan in which the model is draped.
Acrilan is manufactured in a brand-new $30 million plant at Decatur, Ala. by the Chemstrand Corp., a joint venture of Monsanto and American Viscose Corp., the company which introduced rayon into the U.S. Like Orlon (LIFE, Sept.1, 1953), Acrilan is warm, washable, nonshrinking, moth- and mildew-proof, and will hold permanent pleats. Its creators claim it takes dyes more readily than Orlon.
To get Acrilan up to the point shown on these pages-the spinning and the radiant product-Monsanto marshals all the tools with which the industry converts simple components into final products. The whole ingenuity of the industry is focused in the Acrilan process which transforms three common gases into tangible fiber. How this transformation takes place is shown in detail below.
SUBMERGED SPINNERETTE rests in tank filled with solution. Syrupy Acrilan "dope" squeezed through spinnerette's tiny holes hardens into fibers.
FRESHLY SPUN ACRYLAN, from spinerettes submerged in tank at right if photo, rises over rolloers in ribbons of thousands of fibers each. Beyond are steaming troughs where fibers are washed for processing.
HOW AIR AND GAS ARE COMBINED, PURIFIED, SPUN, CRIMPED, CHOPPED TO MARE ACRILAN
Acrilan fiber is made in two stages: at Monsanto's Texas City plant (1 - 10) and at Chemstrand Corp's plant in Decatur,. Ala. (11 - 20). The paintings on these pages trace in 20 basic steps how air, natural gas and ammonia are transformed into bales of Acrilan staple.
Texas City makes acrylonitrile, Acrilan's chief component, which is formed by the union of two dangerous chemicals: explosive acetylene and poisonous hydrogen cyanide.
The process begins (right) when air and natural gas are pumped into a reactor (1), an engineering term for any vessel where new substances are produced by chemical reactions, and burned to form acetylene (indicated in pink) and waste gas (brown). A water spray prevents the unstable acetylene from decomposing. The newly formed gases then pass into an absorber (2), where they rise up through perforated trays overflowing with solvent. The waste gas rises to the top and is burned off: But the acetylene is absorbed by the solvent and carried to the bottom. The solvent, now "fat," or saturated, with absorbed acetylene, is pumped into a stripper (3) and heated to boil off pure acetylene gas.
At the same time, air, ammonia and natural gas are converted in a reactor (4) into hydrogen cyanide (green) and waste gas by passing through a bed of white-hot platinum catalyst. After flowing down through water-cooled pipes, the gases cross over into an absorber (5) where a solvent absorbs hydrogen cyanide and carries it to the bottom while waste gas rises to the top. The solvent, "fat" with hydrogen cyanide, is pumped to a stripper (6) where pure hydrogen cyanide gas is boiled off.
In a third and final reaction, acetylene and hydrogen cyanide are brought into a reactor (7) where they bubble up through a liquid catalyst. This produces acrylonitrile (blue) along with excess acetylene and waste vapor. This three-fold mixture now flows into an absorber (8) where the excess acetylene rises to the top and is reclaimed.
The two remaining vapors, acrylonitrile and waste, are absorbed in a solvent which is pumped into a stripper (9) and heated to boil off a mixture of acrylonitrile and waste vapors. After being cooled to liquid in a condenser, the mixture is heated once again in a second strip per (10) to boil off acrylonitrile. Rising as a vapor out of the stripper, pure acrylonitrile is cooled back to liquid in another condenser and shipped to Decatur by tank car.
At Decatur (below) acrylonitrile is pumped into a polymerizer kettle (11) and activated with secret chemicals. Soon it bubbles, clouds up with white powder-acrylonitrile polymer -a new chemical formed by the linking of hundreds of acrylonitrile molecules into long chains. Wrung out in a whirling centrifuge (12) and dried to dust in a revolving heated drum (13), the polymer is conveyed to a mixing tank (14) and there dissolved into syrup in a special liquid solvent. From here the syrup is pumped into the spinnerette (15) and extruded into continuous fibers which are dried on rollers (16), crimped for greater bulk (17), cut into shreds (18), dried again on a continuous belt drier (19) and packed into 400pound bales (20) for the trip to the textile mill.
FALLING PLASTIC pours from overhead kettles onto the floor of Springfield, MA plant. Power hammers break it up for packaging after it has hardened.
ASPIRIN plant in St. Louis makes 17,000 tablets' worth of aspirin powder per minute. Bags collect aspirin dust which otherwise would be lost
RESEARCHERS RUN A RACE FOR NEW PRODUCTS
Although all U.S. industry leans more and more heavily on research, none spends so much on it or relies so fundamentally on it as the chemical industry. Of the $1.1 billion spent annually on U.S. industrial research, the chemical companies spend a full fifth.
Like all the other companies, Monsanto knows it could not long survive the intense competition without a continual stream of new chemicals for its customers. The chemists who provide Monsanto with 42 new products a year work with tools ranging from vacuum cleaners to the radioactive chambers of Mound Laboratory, Miamisburg, Ohio. Most of their discoveries come about by deliberate planning. Monsanto's President Thomas, an amateur gardener, puts his research chemists to work to,
find a chemical that would keep soil loose and crumbly for better plant growth. The result, Krilium, has become Monsanto's best-known product. Some new developments are almost pure accident. A Monsanto chemist was once looking for a chemical to make textiles water repellent. One chemical was no good as a water repeller, but it seemed promising for a completely different use-as a detergent. He tried it; it worked. Monsanto now manufactures this chemical by the ton, which is marketed as "All", a household washing powder.
Although only one out of 10 chemicals developed in the lab reaches commercial production, more than two fifths of Monsanto's total profit in the past decade has come from new products developed during those years.
IN SCIENTIFIC SEARCH for new products, Robert Slocombe studies a wire pyramid, using it as three-dimensional graph to analyze plastics with several chemical components. The location of each plastic in graph is determined by the relative amounts of components it contains. Slocombe finds that certain similar plastics lie on points in same plane (flat sheet) and, armed with this knowledge, he is setting out to predict plastics whose make-up and uses are still unknown.
RADIOACTIVE CHAMBER is readied for experiment by a hooded technician at Monsanto-operated AEC Mound Laboratory, Miamisburg, Ohio. Chemist directs set-up through two-foot-thick radiation-proof window.