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Timbrol, later Union Carbide Australia -  to 1962

Proceeding of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Vol 29 - No. 9 September 1962

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Our thanks to the Concord Heritage Society for some of the photographs.

bulletRefer also the overview leading up to its closure in 1987
bulletOther sites. University of Melbourne (very good).

A young Australian engineer, convalescing after service in the trenches in France in 1918, began to ponder the significance of chemicals in the twentieth century. After discharge from the army, he remained in England to study at the Royal College of Science, and after graduation he engaged in research in coal tar intermediates. When John Griffith Peake returned to Australia, he had a firmly rooted ambition. He would make Australia more self-dependent in basic chemicals, and to avoid the perils which isolation and dependence on overseas supplies could impose in either economic or military crisis.

Soon after his return to Australia, Peake became associated in 1922 with Sir William Dixson and Mr. Robert Dixson, who were concerned in establishing a research laboratory at Sydney University to investigate several industrial chemical problems.

Three years later this group turned their attention to timber preservation and a small company, Timbrol Limited was formed on 4th May, 1925, to manufacture timber preservatives. The company's first registered- trade mark took the form of a seal, featuring the name "Timbrol" and.. around the circumference the descriptive words "Durable Effective Wood Preservative".

The first factory was in Sussex Lane, near the heart of Sydney, until a few years ago the company sign was still visible overcoats of paint. The preservation of canvas was a related field of interest at this stage.

Research was initiated into the isolation of coal tar chemicals. Were subtle differences in the raw materials from local coal tars when compared with overseas materials. In consequence, it was not possible to duplicate the established over-seas steps of distillation and extraction without modification. But progress was made in grappling with the problems) and; eventually patent protection was sought for the improved methods developed.

Then in 1928 the company moved its activities to the present site at Rhodes, some 10 miles from the city. Rail transport was available, and with the construction of a long jetty across the shallow foreshores of Homebush Bay, water transport was made available. This latter provision was extremely important. The coal tar oils which were byproducts of The Australian Gas Light Company's operations at Mortlake could now he cheaply and quickly transported by barge to the Rhodes site, and were pumped to a large storage tank on the shore. From this tank the oil was pumped to the stills on higher ground for fractionation and subsequent extraction processes.

The three stills were coal fired, and closely followed the established British design. They were second-hand) having been bought from the from the city Council tar depot at Wattle Street. Each was surrounded by with a massive brick setting. A boiler was associated with the layout, and the packaging of the products was carried out on the one large building adjacent - somewhat nostalgically remembered by the oldest employees as incorporating the framework of a one-time "picture show".

A small two-storey brick building facing tile railway was at this time general office, laboratory, library and drawing office combined!

Facing Walker Street in 1934

Initially, cresylic acid (for use as a germicide), pyridine (for denaturing alcohol), naphthalene (as a moth repel1ent and coal tar creosote (for wood preservation) were the basic pro-ducts of the plant's operations; some work was done on soaps and copper oleate wood preservative.

The mining operations in the Broken Hill area provided the next major field of interest. Australian researchers had previously found that the valuable minerals could be floated from the ground ore on a froth developed in tile presence of certain chemicals. Overseas research had shown improved results in the "flotation process" by the use of xanthates, which were the reaction products of an alcohol, an alkali and carbon disulphide. Until the year 1933 the successful operations of a xanthate flotation in Australia depended on imported xanthates; but in that year Timbrol made the first Australian product. In time the whole of Australia's requirements were met, and a considerable quantity was available for export.

Timbrol enters a new field.

This development of Australian-made xanthates revealed some of tile tenacity with which the small Timbrol research and production teams grappled with a new field. A detailed tried and proven recipe was not available to launch this venture it had to be won by hard work, failure and persistent enquiry. Nor was it enough to make a xanthate of indifferent quality. Impurities had to be reduced, assay methods of greater dependability had to be designed, stability on storage in a hot inland climate had to be achieved. Finally, the subtle variations consequent on the substitution of butyl and amyl alcohols for ethanol had to be. mastered - with competitive imported materials as a goad driving on toward the objective. The research and enquiry involved in this field alone extend over a period of twenty years.

The introduction of carbon disulphide in production quantities onto the factory site made demands in other completely different directions: plant and personnel safety became major considerations. The very low flash point of carbon disulphide, its proneness to give rise to static electricity, the possibility of decomposition products forming pyrophoric sulphides and the incessant risk of chronic poisoning of operators were aspects that were accentuated by the Australian temperate climate. Most of the published data on such matters concerned the cellulose' xanthate factories of Britain and Germany; inevitably there was the need to modify, interpret, adapt and innovate to cope with Sydney conditions.

Strict regulation of a factory building and all operations in it; flame-proof electric installations; electrical grounding of equipment and particularly charging and discharging facilities; the' use of non-sparking materials; the analysis of air for trace quantities of contamination; fire-drills; and unceasing prophylactic medical care of all personnel engaged in the process -all of these became part of a new adventurous road in Australian manufacture. Carelessness had to be banished: and un-remitting concern for safety had to be established.

The 'thirties bring changes.

In the middle 1930’s the company's management was watching with concern the implications of events overseas. If inter-national diplomacy were to fail in coping with international tensions and war was unleashed, it appeared that Australia was unable to produce the intermediates for the primers for its high explosives, the stabilisers for cordite, the essential components for smoke mixtures. At this juncture therefore Mr. Peake went overseas in search of information and equipment for; the production of these materials. By the end of 1937 the company had in its possession drawings and operating information for an aniline plant, and particulars of plant available for the oxidation of ammonia, the concentration of nitric and sulphuric acids, pressure equipment for the alkylation of aniline and' electrolytic plant for the production of chlorine.

However, at this stage tile company was far from financially strong. Australia passed through the "depression", and in that difficult period the fortunes of Timbrol had bad to counter two phases of international trade which imperilled the company's major manufactures. Depressed prices for coal tar chemicals from Great Britain had been evident; and there bad been an export drive of Germany, low-priced subsidised chemicals which was he believed to be an aspect of the cold war designed to restrict "the' expansion' of chemical industry in countries such as Australia. Such finance therefore as was available was interested in "know-how" rather' than' equipment, in the conviction that the gathering of 'know-how' was the: most time consuming element in any development.'

Chlorinated hydrocarbons as potential substitutes for the hexa-chloroethane ingredient of chemical smokes were subjected to a year long investigation. In the end it was concluded that the uniformity of carbide-derived hexachloroethane was preferable, and gave a better efficiency in chlorine consumption.

timbrolib.jpg (19338 bytes)

The library in 1938 (press to see full size)

Demands of wartime production.

The next phase in the company's operations was closely linked with two personalities of distinction, Professor C. Earl of the Organic Chemistry Department of Sydney University had become interested in the preparation of aniline and N-alkyl anilines, and with his assistance the idea of vapour phase alkylation of aniline was reduced to practice, successively in research pilot plant and industrial scale, equipment. Dr. Felix Kaufler, who had been Director of Research of Alexander Wacker A.G., one of the largest producers of acetylene chemicals in Germany, arrived in July 1939 to occupy a similar position in the Timbrol organisation. His keen mind, wide experience and intensely practical enthusiasm made an indelible impression on the research, production and management groups of the company.

In 1940 the company's foresight, initiative and collective skills were put to the test. An urgent demand for,-alkyl anilines was rated top priority, and a pilot plant was operating to produce monoethylaniline within sixteen weeks of the initial signal to proceed. This was followed by the fabrication of the full scale plant, which was in fact but one 'department of a large integrated operation. Crude ammonia liquor from The Australian Gas Light Company’s works at Mortlake was stripped of hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide and distilled to 20% concentration. The concentrated liquor was transferred by lighter to the Rhodes site, and was further distilled to give anhydrous ammonia, which in turn became the feed for an ammonia oxidation unit producing nitric acid.

Associated plants which became involved were then a nitric acid concentrator, a blending' plant to produce standard nitrating acid, a nitrating unit to produce mono nitrobenzene and aniline plant the alkyl aniline plant including reactor and distillation facilities, and a sulphuric 'acid reconcentrating unit.

Considerable diversification took place. Parallel to the above development, calcium cyanide was prepared in pilot quantities for preparation of, dicyandiamide, nitroguanidine and the antidysentery drug sulphaguanidine. The preparation of the antiseptic proflavine was undertaken first at Sydney University and subsequently at Rhodes with Timbrol staff working under the direction of Professor Earl to operate a synthesis worked out by Professor Adrien Albert. This involved the production of intermediates m-dinitrobenzene and m-phenylene diamine. Also the chlorination of benzene was commenced. Initially the product sought was monochlorobenzene subsequently converted to nitrochlorobenzene. At a later stage the byproducts ortho and para dichlorobenzenes became important products in their own right.

A plant for the production of synthetic phenol was planned In 1939, but production was delayed until 1942-3. This plant employed the-su1phonation of benzene, followed by caustic fusion. The byproduct sodium sulphite is absorbed by the paper manufacturing industry, and the smaller quantity of phenyl phenols in the residue from phenol distillation is in demand as a fungicide.

Two other products emerged in 1943, which definitely related the company's manufacturing programme to Australia's agricultural industry. Dinitro-ortho-cresol and its salts had been showing to have selective herbicidal properties (and later fungicidal properties); and tetrachlorobenzoquinone (chloranil) was a fungicide of special interest for the prevention of "damping off" ill seed beds. The raw materials for the production of these chemicals were already in use in the plant, and nitration and chlorination operations were already catered for.

Expansion of site.

Meanwhile the plant site had been expanding. Several residues from plant operations were not marketable, so iron oxide 'and calcium carbonate residues were systematically spread in side retaining walls of sandstone ballast and eventually covered with boiler ashes. In this way the area for plant expansion and container storage was reclaimed from Homebush Bay. The effect in the long run was to double the plant site, which extends along portion of its boundary to the limits permitted by the Maritime Services Board.

The immediate post-war years saw an extension of the association with Australian primary industry. The outstanding selective herbicide 2,4-D (2,4~dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) showed considerable promise, and the research group mastered several of the details of the preparation of dichlorophenol and its subsequent condensation with monochloroacetic acid.

The exhaustive chlorination of phenol to give the contact herbicide and wood preservative pentachlorophenol was in operation in 1948. In the following year production of 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) was under way, involving the production and separation of tetrachlorobenzenes, the hydrolysis of 1,2,4,5-tetrachlorobenzene and subsequent condensation of 2,4,5-trichlorophenol with monochloroacetic acid. The fourth chemical in this phase of development was hexachlorobenzene which under the trade name "Hexcebunt" is an important seed fungicide for the wheat industry in at least two Australian states.

This new direction to the company's activities called forth the Application Research group, who have played a distinctive part in the formulation and field testing of these chemicals. To a basic knowledge of chemistry they added aspects of agricultural and veterinary practice, biology, mycology, plastics and synthetic resins, surface coatings, to name but a few of the fields where the applications of Timbrol chemicals began to require customer assistance and grappling by the manufacturer with the problems only one step removed from the making of the chemical itself. The group has never been large but its tenacity has resulted in a considerable number of formulation patents which have represented achievement and progress in the fields concerned.

Two further products emerged during this period. The coal tar oils contained a potential resin-forming fraction of the coumarine-indene type. Though the proportions of coumarone and indene are not those which overseas give higher molecular weight "indene resins , a considerable quantity of "C.I. resin" has been produced annually by a sulphuric acid polymerisation together with a lower molecular weight "Polymer oil". These' products have provided raw materials for the rubber compounding and linoleum industries.

Mr. Peake and two other members of the staff, Messrs. S. W. Preston and R.Pridham, had visited German chemical industries as part of an investigating team in 1946. They returned with the knowledge that a wetting agent of value could be readily made from naphthalene and for some years there-after dibutyl-naphthalene sulphonates were produced under the trade name "Tergan".

Up until this time the chlorine and caustic soda employed in the works were almost entirely bought in - the one exception being the comparatively weak caustic liquid produced in the re-caustising plant associated with the coal-tar circuit. Messrs J Anderson, P. Perry and W Brown were therefore sent to the U.S.A. to explore the manufacture of electrolytic caustic soda and chlorine. As a result of their enquiries, a plant went on stream in 1952. It emp1oye diaphragm cells of the Townend design sign; the chlorine gas was exhausted from the cells by Nash Hytor pumps and passed direct to the chlorination division. The caustic soda was concentrated, filtered of precipitated sodium chloride in a Bird continuous centrifuge, and according to requirements used as a solution or passed to a final evaporation-flaking stage. The salt for this plant was harvested in South Australia, and was stored close to the waterfront near the edge of the reclaimed area of the factory site. Rain leached brine was trapped and passed to the dissolving tanks.

The ready availability of chlorine led to the next expansion, the manufacture of DDT and DDD (or TDE) The chlorination of alcohol was a new experience for a group well versed in the chlorination of aromatic hydrocarbons and phenols; the batchwise process was commenced with a firehose and the Safety officer very much in evidence! The DDT plant also represented, a new departure in that it was an open structure; the only walls provided were for recording and testing facilities. The research group made a number of significant improvements in the processes developed for this plant, resulting in the issue of four Australian patents on the manufacture and upgrading of DDT and DDD.

The applications research group also made. Significant achievements in the 'formulation' of DDT catt1e dips which gave superior dispersions even where saline and hard water had to be employed in the field.

The formulation of agricultural pesticides as dusts led to the next extension the installation of an alpine pin disc mill with classifier and other ancillaries. A complete new block with ample space for extension was designed to house the equipment; while a considerable amount of study was undertaken to extend the work's safety consciousness to include flammable dusts. The same block was also to house a different grinding equipment to provide multigrade paradichlorobenzene, in line with growing overseas practice.

The new chlorobenzene plant.

The increasing significance of certain of the chlorinated benzenes in the company's programme led at this stage to one of the largest systematic projects undertaken. It was obviously very desirable that paradichlorobenzene should be produced other than orthodichlorobenzene; and similarly among the tetrachlorobenzenes, the 1,2,4,5-isomer as preferable to the 1,2,3,4-isomer. Slowly the significant factors that would produce the wanted variations became clear, eventually culminating in a re-designed plant and patent applications in Australia and overseas.

The Union Carbide plant in the 1953

Like the DDT plant, the new chlorobenzene plant was an open structure. It will be remembered as the first plant which involved the new technique of a detailed scale model prepared in the drawing office. Very many man-hours went into the fabrication of the scale model; but the construction, and maintenance groups saw at least some of the difficulties before fabrication of the plant made alterations far more costly and time consuming.

Thus written the story of Timbrol has been woven around unit processes and chemical products. Another story might be written by the participants woven around personalities. It would tell of graduates and diplomates who followed on from youthful venture into chemical industry to assume increasing responsibility in an expanding organization. It would tell of intensely practical people who exercised ingenuity, who adapted unlikely equipment when ideal materials were un-obtainable, who worked long hours when emergency demanded and who developed a sense of comradeship in a team that belonged especially to those who had battled through the difficult years.

A different story might be written of mechanical and engineering problems and materials of construction. Then would be told stories of the corrosion of tar stills; the fabrication and machining of components; the training of welders to make tight seams not only in steel, but in stainless and clad materials; the wrestling with valves that would stick and pump seals that would leak; the erection of half a works on reclaimed land; and the ever-recurring realization that the best of materials in the presence of trace impurities could suddenly fail.

For thirty-two years this story ran with something of the stubbornness that characterised Australia's pioneers m other fields. Then in 1957 came the merger with the Australian interests of the Union Carbide organization. For many it has been an interesting experience to be subject to the scrutiny of executives from New York as the new chapter commences to Unfold. Sufficient to say that it is gratifying to record that Australian independence in one generation achieved such significance and calibre that the integration into the Union Carbide organization was deemed desirable.

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