Baton Rouge: A Process Landscape at the Confluence of German-American Chemistry

August 22nd, 2019

The impact of fossil fuel emissions on climate change is well established. This research project sheds light on the lesser known origins and history of the petro-industry.

Hydrocarbons not only play a driving role as an enabler of mobility, but the refineries of the petro-industry, which clusters around Baton Rouge, are also a catalyst of anthropocenic transformation processes of planetary scale. But where lie the origins of petrochemistry and what is its history?

Baton Rouge is home to one of the biggest refineries in the United States and in the world. This chemical complex produces over 300 products, adding up to a general output of more than 500,000 barrels daily. This alone would qualify it as a perfect site to read as a contribution to Mississippi. An Anthropocene River, because petrochemistry is one of the most important drivers of anthropocenic change. Furthermore, this particular chemical process landscape is a “National Historic Chemical Landmark” and a historic site of German–American scientific cooperation.
The refinement and chemical synthesis of fuels, ammunition, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and plastics have fundamentally altered the human condition and the very functions of the planetary biosphere. Chemistry, the science of processes, has produced substances that have altered the natural and cultural evolution of the planet, resulting in unprecedented mobility, chemically fuelled wars, organismic extinction, and economic and population growth. Raw materials have not driven the “Great Acceleration,” but as Baton Rouge shows, it was the work of industrial chemistry and the use of catalysts that helped bring about the Anthropocene.

The prehistory of petrochemistry lies in nitrogen chemistry. Since the invention of the Haber-Bosch process in around 1910, the impact of the German chemical industry has had planetary significance. The catalytic synthesis of ammonia has vastly amplified the planet’s metabolism by producing abundant fertilizer and changed warfare by producing abundant ammunition. Furthermore, it provided the technical platform for hydrocarbon synthesis and petrochemistry.

In Baton Rouge, the German chemical company BASF (IG Farben) has closely cooperated with the New Jersey-based Standard Oil Company since the 1920s. German efforts to replace oil with synthetic fuels derived from hydrogenated coal, and advancements on the technical platform brought these companies together. In the late 1920s, when the complexity of the task threatened the German project, the Americans stepped in. Close scientific cooperation began, with asset swaps and joint laboratory work between Germany and America, resulting in important advances in petrochemical research, poignantly just before they became combatants in the Second World War.

The development of the major chemical compounds of modern warfare, from aviation fuel to synthetic rubber and toluene used for explosives, took place on the new industrial platform of catalytic petrochemistry. In particular, the high-octane fuels used in military aircraft depended on new molecular technology derived from German coal chemistry. With considerable irony, Germany lost the war in part as the result of America’s use of German chemistry. Since the conflict, petrochemistry has become a planetary force, enabling unparalleled mobility, whilst the Ziegler-Natta process, also of German origins, enabled the abundance of plastics that now pollute the Earth.

Near the estuary of a vast hydrological basin, the refineries of Baton Rouge are one source of the flood of petrochemical goods that enter the planetary system. Understood as heart chambers of the Anthropocene, refineries drive the outputs of industry and have manifold effects on ecological metabolisms and climatic patterns. The hydrocarbon industries share the same technological basis as nitrogen chemistry and both are grounded in the production of ammunition and fertilizers. Even the soil-enriching side of this dichotomy shows a destructive tendency in Louisiana, as over-fertilization of the Mississippi Valley has created large eutrophic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico.

This project will involve interviews with practitioners, historians, and archivists as well as a visit to Baton Rouge, where the site will be approached as a paradigmatic place in which coal chemistry and petrochemistry, as well as German and American science and industry, met, changing not only the flow of political and cultural history but planetary history as well.