Manufacturing Products in Profusion

Chemical engineers improve the processes that make mass production possible. They play a pivotal role in the diversity and distinctive properties of consumer products, and the quantities that factories are able to produce — as well as the costs and values of the starting materials and final products.


1915 — Highly heat- and corrosion-resistant lead-free borosilicate glass is introduced as Pyrex. The name may have been derived from the Greek “pyra” (hearth). Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc.) used advertising to educate consumers about the benefits of cooking with glass. (Corning Glass)

1916 — Weitzman acetone-butanol fermentation with clostridium acetobutyicum is used to make smokeless gunpowder. Unwanted butanol is later used as automobile lacquer. This development signaled the beginning of large biotechnological processing. (Strange and Graham, Ltd.)

1920 — Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) is the first commercial petrochemical — made from propylene by indirect hydration in sulfuric acid. (Standard Oil of New Jersey)

1924 —Introduction of stainless steel allowed production of nitric acid at high pressure for use in manufacturing agricultural fertilizers, dye-stuffs and explosives. (E. I. DuPont)

1926 — Chromium plating is invented to protect iron and steel products, such as automobile bumpers, against rust. (Columbia Univ. (Colin Fink))

1927 — First fractionating bubble tower is introduced, supplanting inexpensive but lower-capacity and less-efficient packed columns (which were introduced in 1889). (Standard Oil Development)

1931 — Beginning of tungsten powder metallurgy: ductile tungsten for incandescent lamp filaments is produced by doping tungsten oxide before its reduction. (Columbia Univ.)

1934 — First plant capable of extracting 67-ppm bromine from seawater starts up in North Carolina. Bromine, as ethylene dibromide, is used to scavenge lead oxide deposits produced in automobile engines from tetraethyl lead (TEL) added to increase octane number. (Dow Chemical)

1941 — Steam cracking is commercialized, and allowed for production of a wide range of chemical feedstocks from ethane, propane and other petro­leum naphthas. (Standard Oil Development)

1946 — First low-sudsing washing machine detergent, ALL, is produced; a key ingredient was ethylene oxide adduct. (Monsanto)

1955 — Industrial synthetic diamonds are pro­duced at 6 to 18 GPa and 5,000°C, from graphite dissolved in a molten nickel, cobalt or iron catalyst. (General Electric)

1959 — First synthetic molecular sieve zeolite (Zeolite A) is commercialized to absorb oxygen. (Union Carbide)

late 1960s — Kevlar ballistic fabric is developed for use as body armor; it was originally intended to be steel belting in tires. Nylon had been used in WWII flak jackets. (E. I. DuPont)

1961 — First disposable paper diaper (creped tissue in rayon/plastic liners) is developed; hydrogel-forming polymers would later provide magnitudes greater absorption (1972). (Procter & Gamble; Kimberly-Clark)

2004 — Enhanced morphyline extractive distillation is used to recover high- purity benzene from close-boiling nonaromatics; distillation alone requires too many separate stages and excessive liquid recycle. Benzene is used to make ethylbenzene — a styrene precursor. (Maxygen; DSM)