Timbrol, later Union Carbide Australia - closed
Our thanks to the Concord Heritage Society for some of the photographs.
Other sites. University of Melbourne (very good).
In the early 1940s, ICI and Monsanto as two experienced multinational chemical companies, established larger manufacturing plants that competed with Timbrol. Although operating at small scales and with its raw material advantage being rapidly eroded by changing technologies, Timbrol continued to diversify its product range. In 1955, half way in its life, Timbrol was purchased by the Union Carbide company of the USA trading as Union Carbide Australia. The plant operated for another three decades until closing in 1985.
The importance of adequate scale, access to competitive feedstocks and the need to focus on key products is clearly shown for Australia's first significant organic chemical manufacturer. Like its future near neighbour, CSR Chemicals (later ICI Rhodes), Timbrol failed to attain a competitive advantage. It was a product of Australia's protectionist era that enabled high cost operations at small scales and promoted fragmentation. Its closure, and substantially of CSR Chemicals, marked the end of Australian owned petrochemical manufacture.
In 2001, CSR is seeking to sell its sugar business and become a building supplies company based in the US.
Also history to 1962
Timbrol Ltd established in 1928 at Rhodes (near Sydney, New South Wales) at a site later to adjoin the petrochemical complex operated by CSR Chemicals (now ICI Rhodes). It had started in 1925 by John Griffith Peake and two researchers from Sydney University.
The original Timbrol plant from Walker St in 1934. (Click to see full size)
Timbrol began to manufacture simple chemicals by distilling low-value by-products from gas and coke produced at the nearby Australian Gas Light Company (a jetty was built so that the by-products could be transported by barge and pumped to the plant). The chemicals included wood preservatives and a range of aromatic chemicals, such as phenols, aromatic solvents, naphtha, cresylic acid, pyridine and creosote. These by-product substances were used to produce antiseptic chemicals, wood preservatives, paint solvents and other simple products.
The first group of chemicals was made during the 1930s from its aromatic hydrocarbons using nitric acid. The nitric acid was made by oxidising ammonia extracted from crude liquor from the Australian Gas Light Company (Mortlake). the nitric acid enable the production of nitrobenzenes and aniline. These enabled the derivatives (ethyl- and dimethyl- aniline). Production was at batch scale with inherent scale penalties. However, with no other Australian manufacturer and with import tariffs and import licensing offsetting high operating costs, the plant was competitive against imports. A substantial part of production of these chemicals was originally sold to the Nobel plant (operated by the newly formed ICIANZ to manufacture explosives), until ICI began to manufacture them at Deer Park, Victoria in competition with Timbrol.
In 1933, Timbrol also began to manufacture xanthate chemicals that are used in mineral ores separation. Xanthates are manufactured from caustic soda, an alcohol (commonly ethanol or propanol), and imported carbon disulfide. Its production was particularly difficult in the hot climate and special equipment was required to manage this flammable and toxic chemical. The production of xanthates was the last operation to close.
Other chemicals too were produced including the therapeutics sulphaguanidine and proflavine.
The library about 1938 (click to see full size).
The second group of chemicals made by Timbrol were chlorohydrocarbons from simple organic chemicals. After World War 2 chlorine was produced from a comparatively small chloralkali plant (the caustic soda was principally used to manufacture sodium xanthate). The chlorohydrocarbon chemicals included the herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, hexachlorobenzene seed weed fungicide, ortho- and para- dichlorobenzene, and the insecticides DDT and DDE. (These chemicals left a legacy of dioxins and other chlorohydrocarbons in the soil which has been the subject of an expensive soil remediation program - the subject of the photograph in the beginning.)
An aerial photograph taken of the Rhodes plant, 1953. There has been extensive land reclamation during the next two decades. (See the subsequent panoramic photographs).
The market for Timbrol's chemicals was growing strongly, especially by the large and rapidly growing agricultural sector. However, Timbrol was now also directly competing with Monsanto and ICI who had established substantial manufacturing centres in Australia with expertise in manufacturing and marketing provided by their transnational blanks.
The Union Carbide Chemicals plant at Rhodes in the 1960s. Click to see full size.
UCAL's major chemicals became the subject of intense competition. The chemicals included chlorohydrocarbons from ICI's Yarraville and Botany plants, synthetic phenol and chlorinated derivatives from the Monsanto plant at West Footscray, and aniline and nitrobenzenes (which Timbrol had been selling to ICI) that were now produced at ICI's Deer Park plant.
During the 1960s, a range of newly developed pesticide chemicals (especially organophosphates) began to be imported which were cheaper and less harmful (persistent) to the environment reducing the growth in demand for organochlorine chemicals. Prices of Australian products also began to fall with the removal of import licensing in 1960 and by the 1980's, the blank company, the Union Carbide Corporation, began an international move away from commodity chemicals. (This move also saw it sell its polyethylene operation at Altona in 1983). The strong growth by Timbrol over its first three decades was mirrored by a decline over the next three decades. The last production unit to close at Rhodes was the xanthate plant in 1985 (after an appeal to the then Industries Assistance Commission failed to achieve an increase in government assistance).
Demolition 1986 (Click to see full size)
Timbrol had experienced a contraction not totally unlike that incurred by its neighbour CSR Chemicals. Its neighbour however, perhaps imprudently, elected to develop new products instead of closing. Union Carbide chose closure and it was left with valuable, but polluted real estate located on the banks of the Parramatta River.
Timbrol was a remarkable innovative company and a more detailed review is at the Proceedings of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, September 1962, page 325.
The soil is contaminated with chlorinated hydrocarbons which is the subject of this soil rejuvenation program. There are currently two proposals being considered - one to treat the contaminated soil with lime at elevated temperatures and another a thermal desorption process requiring the contaminants to be carried from the site for disposal/destruction. A$20m has been allocated by the New South Wales government.
Update 2006. More than two decades since manufacturing ceased and post the cleaunup, the New South Wales Government has imposed a ban on commercial fishing in Sydney Harbour, downstream from the site.
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