|Acetylene Chemicals Plant
General Aniline & Film Corporation, Linden, New Jersey
In May 1946, George W. Burpee, president of General Aniline & Film Corporation, announced that work had commenced on a new $1.25 million building at Linden
(Grasselli), NJ that would serve as a semi-works and pilot plant for the manufacture of chemicals from acetylene under conditions of high pressure. This was the first
unit of its kind in the United States. It followed investigations carried out at Linden since 1937. Experimental quantities of vinyl ethers had already been produced and
were made available to chemical manufacturers.
The new two-story building was called No. 204, located on a vacant area at the south of the plant site. Some 640 piles supported the foundations. One of the two wings
was made available to the Process Development Department and the other to the New Products Development Department. The building incorporated a reinforced
explosion-proof stall for high-pressure acetylene experiments. The acetylene was produced from calcium carbide in a nearby building, since natural gas was then
considered too expensive as a source.
Acetylene-derived chemicals represented a major technology breakthrough for General Aniline and became an outstanding commercial success. The basic research
for safely reacting the highly flammable gas with other chemicals at high pressures was done by J. Walter Reppe at I. G. Farben from the late 1920s. The research
work was highly dangerous, though eventually highly successful. In England, ICI had undertaken similar work in the 1930s, but did not advance beyond a small-scale
process, in part because of the danger. General Aniline acquired the Reppe acetylene inventions in the last batch of 850 patents received from I. G. Farben in 1940.
The Easton, PA research laboratory developed syntheses for thirty products that showed potential commercial applications.
The starting point for many of these products was the reaction of acetylene under pressure with formaldehyde to form butynediol. This was reduced to butenediol
and then to the saturated butanediol. These alcohols are precursors to esters, carbamates, polyesters and urethanes. The lower alkyl pyrrolidones are excellent as
polymer solvents, paint strippers and industrial cleaners.
During World War II, Linden produced small quantities of two acetylene products for the military, Polectron and Koresin. Polectron was poly(vinyl carbazole). The
Linden product was useful in electronics, for insulation, and where high operating temperatures were employed. It was similar to styrene but had improved heat
resistance; mass polymerization gave almost clear glass-like castings. However, for peacetime use it suffered from high cost, lack of uniformity, poor color and poor
mechanical properties. The carbazole came from coal tar or diphenylene imine. Copolymers of vinyl carbazole and styrene were found to have good molding
properties. Koresin, also first developed in Germany, was a condensation product of acetylene and p-tert-butyl phenol, and was a very effective tackifier for GR-S
The most important product arising out of the acetylene work at Linden was vinyl pyrrolidone, originally discovered by Reppe. This involved dehydrogenation of
butanediol to yield butyrolactone, which was condensed with ammonia to afford 2-pyrrolidone (butyrolactam), followed by vinylation with acetylene, again under
pressure, to afford N-vinyl pyrrolidone. The latter was the monomer for polyvinyl pyrrolidone, a white powder, soluble in both alcohol and water, that served
as a valuable blood plasma extender, made first in Germany during World War II, and during the early 1950s at Linden. At that time its main use was as a blood
substitute. It formed transparent films on glass, plastics and metals, and found application in the formulation of cosmetics, particularly hair sprays. The polymer,
known as Polyclar, was manufactured at Linden until the 1980s, and the copolymer with an aminoalkyl methacrylate, Gafquat 755, until 1991.
The marketing of vinyl derivatives and polymers was taken over in 1952 by Jesse Werner, when he was appointed director of commercial development (a post he held
until 1959, when he was appointed vice president of the corporation). A favorable response from the marketplace resulted in the decision to build a $6 million
acetylene chemicals plant in Calvert City, Kentucky, that came on stream in 1956. Linden chemist Hans Beller, who had earlier cooperated with Easton in acetylene
products research, was project director during the construction phase, and was appointed the first plant manager. Acetylene was supplied via pipeline by a
neighboring company that generated it from calcium carbide
The acetylene chemicals technology was difficult and there were two serious explosions at Calvert City in the early years. However, General Aniline succeeded and
was the only producer in the United States, at least until the Dow-BASF process was introduced in 1958. The Calvert City plant lost money until 1962, when the
business became highly profitable, with gross profit margins in excess of 50 per cent on production costs beyond the breakeven volume. A second acetylene
chemicals unit was built in Texas City, TX in 1968 to fill the demand for the many new applications of the products. Acetylene was supplied via pipeline by a
neighboring company that generated it as a by-product from ethylene manufacture. About 150 people were employed at Texas City. Elsewhere acetylene-based
syntheses had been replaced mainly by those based on ethylene, also used in the production of an important Linden product, ethylene oxide.
The Linden plant closed in the early 1990s. All the buildings, including the acetylene chemicals unit, have been demolished. Environmental remediation of the site
was conducted under the supervision of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
ISP Corporation took over the chemical business of General Aniline in 1991. In 2011, Ashland Inc. purchased ISP and continues to operate the Calvert City and Texas
City acetylene chemicals plants today. Polymers of vinyl pyrrolidone have diverse applications in the pharmaceutical industry as tablet coatings, binders and
disintegrants, as well as solubilizers for direct injection applications and clarifiers for the beer and wine industry. Copolymers of the vinyl pyrrolidone are used in the
personal care industry.
1. Robert J. Baptista and Anthony S. Travis, "I.G. Farben in America: The Technologies of General Aniline & Film", History and Technology, Vol. 22, No. 2, June 2006, at
2. Anthony S. Travis, "Unintended Technology Transfer: Acetylene Chemistry in the United States", Bull. Hist. Chem., Vol. 32, Number 1, 2007 at link
3. PVP Polyvinylpyrrolidone, General Aniline & Film Corporation, New York, 1951
4. "General Aniline & Film Unveils Acetylene Pilot Plant", Chemical and Engineering News, Vol. 27, No. 14, April 4, 1949, pp. 976-979
General Aniline & Film Corp., Linden, NJ. New acetylene chemicals unit 1949. Photo: Newark, NJ Public Library
First high pressure acetylene chemicals plant in U.S., General Aniline & Film, Linden, NJ 1949. At right is building housing carbide
acetylene generators. Acetylene was carried overhead to reaction bays on the left of the main building.
The compressor on right fed acetylene to the vinylation and ethnylation towers in the adjoining bays. Pump at left
compressed the hydrogen needed to convert butynediol to various products such as butanediol. Studying the compressor
charts were are at left, Dr. Abraham Zoss of the Special Products Department, and at right Dr. Hans Beller, Manager.
Large tanks provided storage capacity for vinyl ethers, alkynols and other products derived from acetylene.
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