Rubber Matters: Solving the World War II Rubber Problem

Rubber

Washington, D.C., circa 1921. National Photo Company Collection glass negative. View full size here.

 I.G. Farben, Standard Oil, and the American catch-up game

1942 B.F. Goodrich Plant

February 1942: Synthetic rubber worker standing on blowdown tank, ready to tap polymerizer tank at the Akron, Ohio, synthetic rubber plant of the B.F. Goodrich Company. 4x5 nitrate negative by Alfred Palmer. View full size.

Interest in and research on synthetic rubber increased over time. American research—especially that of Standard Oil of New Jersey—intensified with the introduction of German technology. In the summer of 1926 I.G. Farben leadership toured Standard Oil’s U.S. operations. This tour demonstrated the size of the American oil industry, as well as the vast potential strength of America; it also convinced I.G. Farben that a partnership with Standard Oil would be beneficial to both companies. In a 1927 agreement Standard Oil agreed to cooperate technically in the development of the Bergius process in the United States and to build and operate a plant with the capacity to produce 40,000 tons of oil products per year. I.G. Farben kept all the patents and licensing rights, but Standard Oil received 50 percent of the royalties. Also under the agreement, if Standard Oil developed anything new, they would keep the patents and licensing and I.G. Farben would receive half the royalties. In October 1930 the two companies again solidified their partnership—and their research—by forming the Joint American Study Company, or JASCO, as a forum for getting patents on joint projects. The originator of the new technology would have a five-eighths interest in the new patent, and the other group a three-eighths interest.

Meanwhile, Hayden recalled that Fisk bought para-toluidine—commonly used in dyes, although it could also provide structure and stability to synthetic rubber—from DuPont before DuPont wanted to convert some of its dye labs into rubber labs. According to A. Donald Green, an MIT-trained chemical engineer, Frank A. Howard, president of Standard Oil of New Jersey, clearly “had synthetic rubber on his mind” as early as the late 1920s. Rubber intimately affected many industries in the United States and quickly became a central concern for business, a fact that Green noted:

Rubber for the American motorist’s tires came from far off, at prices that gyrated to over $1 per pound [before the war, prices were as low as 11.5 cents per pound], and [Howard] felt that the U.S. should have an indigenous supply. The I.G. was working hard on developing synthetic rubber from butadiene [a gaseous molecule that, when polymerized, had rubber-like qualities but was too soft for tires], and, although the product still had serious drawbacks, it appeared promising. The Germans produced butadiene in several steps from carbide acetylene, which is made from coal. They were also developing a process to manufacture acetylene from methane using an electric-arc process. This intrigued Howard and was certainly a major motive for his setting up Jasco as a starting point for synthetic-rubber development in the U.S. (Green memoir, 7)

Green was an employee of Standard Oil both during its partnership with I.G. Farben and after: “I.G. was researching a product made by polymerizing butadiene with metallic sodium catalyst, called Buna—that is, butadiene plus Na, the symbol for sodium. The cost was too high and the quality poor, so a new approach had to be taken. Their chemists developed a process in which the butadiene was dispersed and reacted in a soap emulsion. Also it was found that co-polymerizing with about 25 percent styrene made a much improved product” (12). The Standard Oil–I.G. Farben collaboration meant that the patent on Buna-S (Buna rubber copolymerized with styrene) rubber was co-owned by the two industrial giants, a fact that would cause political headaches after the war broke out. Standard Oil sent Green to visit I.G. Farben’s labs in 1933. Green called the Farben lab in Ludwigshafen “a fascinating place to go to. The way they worked there was different from us. They would have little teams on a project. Baumann had four engineers working under him, maybe he had more, but all working on the arc process. And Beller and his crew were working on the oxidation of paraffin wax. They also had groups working in competition with each another, with the same general objective but working out different process routes” (14).

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