Closing Out the Century in Chemical Week

December 22, 2000 - New York, NY

By David Hunter

One good way to consider the development of the chemical industry this century is to follow a series of narrative lines. A technology narrative links the Haber-Bosch ammonia process of 1908 to the ever-larger scale production plants of today. The flowering of organic chemistry know-how has spawned a vast range of new products in the middle decades of this century, from pesticides to plastics, from fluorocarbons to pharmaceuticals. The birth of new molecules has slowed drastically since the 1950s and 1960s, but process improvement has continued apace and chemicals have become completely inseparable from everyday life.

A second narrative is the expansion of the industry's output. Worldwide, it rose from $171 billion in 1970 to $713 billion in 1980,and more than doubled to reach $1.6 trillion this year. In 1900,Germany had just overtaken the U.K. as the leading chemical producer;by the end of World War II, the U.S. was the biggest. It retains that position, with Japan number two. In terms of regions, the European Union is the world's biggest producer, and accounts for 30% of global output, followed by North America with 28%. The last 20 years have seen not only the rise of feedstock-rich regions like the Middle East as chemical producers, but also the growth of the chemical industry in Asian countries outside Japan. China and South Korea now rank among the world's top 10 producers, with India and Taiwan in the top 15.

A third and related narrative is globalization. The chemical industry has always been one of the most international, with products and technology moving worldwide from the outset. Solvay's soda ash process was already licensed in the U.S. by 1900. Dyestuffs makers based on the Rhine exported worldwide and dominated that market until the last decade. Since World War II, U.S. and European firms have invested massively in each other's home territories. BASF is now the third biggest chemical company in the U.S., while Dow Chemical is Europe's biggest ethylene producer. Company developments provide a fourth narrative. A handful of leading names from the start of the century are still with us-DuPont, Dow, BASF, Bayer, Solvay, and Linde-despite the changes their businesses have seen.

A fifth narrative is the public's comfort level with the chemical industry. Pharmaceuticals, anesthetics, hygiene products, and pesticides are just a few of the products that have improved our quality of life, but the chemical industry's fastest growth spurts have been during wartime. BASF's Fritz Haber's achievements encapsulate this duality. Haber pioneered not only the synthetic ammonia process-the basis of fertilizer production-but also the use of poison gas. As Arnold Thackray, president of the

Chemical Heritage Foundation (Philadelphia), points out, Haber contributed the basic technology for feeding the world's growing population and killing it. The industry has spent the last 30 years of the century learning to manage chemistry's Promethean potential. An increasingly affluent society has become decreasingly tolerant of environmental impacts.

What will be the next chapter of each narrative On the technology front, catalysis and biotechnology promise plenty of new developments. Growth and globalization are set to continue: The drive to higher living standards in developing countries will continue to boost demand for chemicals. Public attitudes: the chemical industry has to keep hammering at the message that it can manage the risks while delivering the benefits...

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