Shaping chemical industries through law

#============================ The Alkali Act of 1863 ============================#

The agenda of the natural sciences

The modern natural sciences are based on the concept of maximum dissection. In their view, everything that is of interest to human beings can best be understood when it is conceived as consisting of the smallest possible portions of abstract and immutable matter.

This idealisation originated with the atomists of ancient Greece. And when the first chemical elements were identified in the late 18th century, it was believed that the envisaged maximum of decomposition had been reached (until today, the elements are defined as any substance that cannot be decomposed into simpler substances by ordinary chemical processes).

Originally, the natural science of chemistry saw itself as Scheidekunst, i. e. ‘the art of separating’, and this was also reflected in several company names, e.g. Degussa.

Even if only A is desired, B is produced as well

The methodology of dissection, however, leads to the fact that at least two components are created with every separation. The separation of AB always generates A and B, even if only one of them is desired. Since the beginning of applied chemistry, this inevitable accrual of unwanted products has led to problems. And as chemical production grew with the onset of industrialisation, so did these problems.

Both, chemistry and environmental destruction on an industrial scale

In 1789, the French surgeon Nicolas Leblanc dissected sea salt. In doing so, he succeeded in producing the substance that the glass and soap industries, but above all the expanding textile industry, demanded in ever greater quantities: artificial soda. For decades, researchers had searched intensively but in vain for an industrial process to produce this substance, and both the Académie des sciences and the Royal Society had tried just as unsuccessfully to speed up the development of such a process by advertising an award. The prospect of this award and its money, but which in the end he was never to receive, made Leblanc switch from surgery to chemistry.

In the Leblanc process, which marks the beginning of the inorganic chemical industry, and which became the worldwide standard process for the production of artificial soda for almost 100 years, other substances besides the craved soda are also produced. One of them is the highly corrosive gaseous hydrogen chloride, also known as muriatic acid gas. Since there was no economic interest in this gas, little was done to keep it in the factories. It was simply allowed to escape into the environment where it corroded all organisms.

In the countries of the booming young textile industry, especially in France and England, this led to serious damage to people, animals and the environment. "The alkali industry also shaped the British and French landscapes in ways that are still evident" [1]. And regarding the people who worked there at the time, at first mainly men, but later also women and children, "vomiting and fainting [were] brought on and they [were] obliged to be carried out of the works for air"[2].

Beginning of modern environmental law

In the 19th century, soda production, and with it the corrosive muriatic acid gas, spread over ever larger areas. The legislators of Victorian England, at that time the world's leading production site of artificial soda, were the first to react.

With the Alkali Act of 28 July 1863, the term “alkali work” was defined (every work for the manufacture of alkali, sulphate of soda, or sulphate of potash) and the obligation to register such works and their owners was introduced. It stipulated that no less than 95 % of the muriatic acid gas evolved in these works was converted into condensate, i.e. captured in water. The burden of proof for the compliance was placed on the work owners. Inspectors monitored this compliance and only men whithout interests of their own in these industries were allowed to serve as these inspectors. Violations were punishable by heavy fines, for which detailed enforcement systems were established in all parts of the UK.

Vertical integration (so-called Verbund)

This legislation prompted the young chemical industry to systematically reuse the unwanted products. The muriatic acid gas produced in the Leblanc process, which was now dissolved in water and thus collected as muriatic acid, changed in the perception of the industry from an insignificant waste material to one of the most important feedstocks for the production of chlorine gas (which, however, later became a problem itself).

Overall, what is now called vertical integration developed: a "complete circle of interlinked reactions" in which "every product is a commodity, but at the same time a starting material for another product" and in which everything is interwoven with everything else (this was the description of the leading dye chemist of the 19th century, Otto Nikolaus Witt) [3]. From now on, people started to perceive the material cycles of large-scale chemistry as living organisms [4]. The unwanted by-products, for which profitable uses had now to be sought, became known as joint products.

The business and technical perfection of these industrial organisms is still being refined today. This happens above all at the so-called Verbund sites, the heart chambers of large-scale chemical industry.

[1]Brock: The Chemical Tree: A History of Chemistry, New York 2000, p. 282.
[2]A report from 1846, quoted by Brock: The Chemical Tree: A History of Chemistry, New York 2000, p. 282.
[3]Witt: Die deutsche chemische Industrie in ihren Beziehungen zum Patentwesen, mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Erfindungen aus dem Gebiete der organischen Chemie. Acht Vorträge, gehalten im Kaiserlichen Patentamt zu Berlin, Berlin 1893, p. 41.
[4]Vgl. etwa Osteroth: Soda, Teer und Schwefelsäure, Reinbek 1985, p. 48, 158.