George O. Curme

George O. Curme

George O. Curme in his Mellon Institute laboratory before World War I, where he laid the foundation for the petrochemicals revolution that took place after World War II. Courtesy Union Carbide Corporation.

George O. Curme (1888–1976) is known for his pioneering work on ways to use by-products of petroleum processing. After completing his doctorate in chemistry at the University of Chicago, Curme went to Germany to study with Fritz Haber and Emil Fischer, who had already won the Nobel Prize in chemistry (1902) for his syntheses of sugars, purine derivatives, and peptides. Curme remained in Germany until the outbreak of World War I sent him back to the United States. He found a job with the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, where the Prest-O-Lite Company had established a fellowship for research on new ways to manufacture acetylene. The company used acetylene in bicycle and automobile lamps as well as in oxyacetylene torches. Curme succeeded in producing acetylene from petroleum with a high-frequency electric arc, but the process also produced a substantial amount of ethylene, for which there were no known commercial uses. Curme began to investigate ways to produce other chemicals from ethylene. His first breakthrough came during World War I, when he tried to make mustard gas from ethylene but instead synthesized ethylene glycol, which was eventually used in antifreeze.

In 1917, when Prest-O-Lite was absorbed during the formation of the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation, Curme focused his efforts on cracking ethane to produce ethylene. Encouraged by the progress of this research, in 1920 the company set up the Carbide and Carbon Chemical Company and bought a gasoline refinery in Clendenin, West Virginia, to supply the necessary ethane and other light hydrocarbon gases—until then, unused by-products. Over the next decade the new company created ethylene glycol antifreeze, synthetic ethyl alcohol, and dozens of other industrial chemicals. The Union Carbide venture into petrochemicals was a trendsetter for the whole chemical industry.

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