Chemistry Fights

From earth, water and aír Canada’s 45,000 chemical workers unleash deadly forces to hurl against the enemy

LEONARD L. KNOTT May 15 1942

Chemistry Fights

From earth, water and aír Canada’s 45,000 chemical workers unleash deadly forces to hurl against the enemy

LEONARD L. KNOTT May 15 1942

Chemistry Fights


From earth, water and aír Canada’s 45,000 chemical workers unleash deadly forces to hurl against the enemy


NO ONE can tell where the war work of the chemist begins, or where it ends—not even the chemist. Yet chemistry is the most potent of all war weapons used on all fronts and behind the lines.

Canadian chemistry in 1942 is everything that it was before the war greatly expanded, plus a brand new $115,000,000 war weapon built from the ground up since September, 1939.

This huge expenditure, involving as it does a nation-wide construction program and unprecedented tooling-up for chemical production, has produced results far greater than most chemists even imagined possible. A startling illustration of these results is the fact that Canada produced more military explosives in the single year 1941 than in the entire period from 1914 to 1918. The importance of that achievement is evident to any Tommy who carries a gun, any anti-aircraft gunner or any air crew member whose privilege it is to drop

Canadian-made bombs on the Ruhr or on Japanese invaders in the Pacific.

Surprisingly enough, few Canadians know very much about this wartime mammoth, which is as essential as it is big and costly, or hate even the slightest realization of how chemistry serves or how chemistry fights. Many ideas in popular circulation are gathered from the colored comic sections in the newspapers or from the lurid, pseudo-scientific accounts of streamlined alchemists bending over pots of mysterious boiling brews. Or Canadians think of chemical warfare as being waged exclusively by white-gowned scientists with test tubes, by long-haired gentry in smelly laboratories, or by crack-pot students, with horn-rimmed spectacles, peering through microscopes. On all counts they are wrong.

Actually wartime industrial chemistry is Jack “Mate” Jackson who in peacetime was a bricklayer and is now general supervisor on number three production line in a shell-filling plant in Quebec and who, until the war started, had never been in an explosives factory in his life. The Canadian chemical industry couldn’t just switch over from peace to war production. Neither the materials nor processes used in the manufacture of commercial explosives, such as dynamite and powder for sporting ammunition, are of any use for military purposes. The industry, on the other hand, couldn’t drop its normal production work to concentrate on producing strictly war materials. For, while the nation was demanding explosives and war chemicals, it was also greatly increasing its demands for chemicals used by other industries across the continent.

It is Jean Laporte, a truck driver who now works on the same production line and has forsaken truck driving for the duration.

It is John Smith and Bill Doe who mold plastics for aircraft windshields and operate temperature control equipment or draw nitrogen out of the air somewhere in Alberta.

It is smoking factories where even the smoke is not allowed to drift away unmolested but is drawn back again and made to disgorge its essential ingredients.

And it is thousands, or millions, of minute processes repeated over and over again so that ships may sail, guns may be made, airplanes may fly and the men of Canada’s armies and their allies may be assured of their vital allotment of at least five pounds of explosives per man per day.

Tell any of the 45,000 workers on the chemical front that they are chemists and they would laugh at you. They are bricklayers, truck drivers, steam fitters, cabinet makers, farmers, office workers. Today all are warworkers in the chemical industry and most, if not all of them, will go hiking back to their own jobs the day the shooting is over. In the meantime they get into more phases of actual war production than any other warworkers in the Dominion.

Some of today’s wartime chemical industry can be retrieved for purposes of peace. Some of it cannot. Designed for war and war alone are the products of those new giant factories which now are located throughout the Dominion and employ almost 40,000 of chemistry’s 45,000 workers.

Such products’ include TNT (trinitrotoluol), a chemical brew of small yellow crystals which looks like brown sugar and which, mixed with other ingredients, is poured into shells; cordite, long macaroni-like explosive which, used in varying

lengths, is the charge which sends a shell speeding toward its target; oleum, a concentrated fuming sulphuric acid used in the making of military explosives; hexachlorethane, a chemical that forms the base of the smoke screen and looks like salt; smokeless powder, which looks like pastry dough; gunpowder which looks like soot, and fuse powder, for the time-ring on the nose of a shell, which looks like coffee grounds.

These are chemistry’s tools for war.

Lessons Remembered

IN WORLD WAR I it took the whole four years for Canada really to get started on chemical production. Its most vital chemicals, including nitrate, from which all commonly used explosives are derived, had to be imported, transported long distances from overseas. But the lessons learned then were not forgotten and they led to the development of Canada’s peacetime chemical industry. Today not a pound of nitrate is imported. In 1919, after four years of war, Canada was producing 50,000 tons of nitrate annually. In 1939, before the present war started, the Dominion was producing 250,000 tons. And that is a small amount compared with today’s production.

Canada learned its lesson in World War I, yet when the second conflict started, it did not have an armaments industry, chemical or otherwise. What it did have was a basic chemical industry, the facilities of which could be turned to war production, plus an even more important possession which, for lack of a better phrase, has been described as “know how.” In other words, Canada was no longer dependent upon outside sources for her vital chemicals since she had the resources for making them at home and, as well, the men who knew how to do it. All that was necessary, then, was the designing and construction of plants and equipment, training of thousands of skilled operators and

provision of all necessary chemical manufacturing facilities. That was all.

And that was what cost the first $115,000,000.

In these days of billion-dollar Victory Loans, doubled and tripled national incomes, increased taxes to meet astronomical budgets, a mere $115,000,000 doesn’t mean very much. But break it down and relate it to the industry’s peacetime expenditures and it begins to look like a lot of money.

In the first two years after the outbreak of war government-sponsored plants, operated by the chemical industry for war production only, were designed, built and equipped at a cost equal to the total value of all the properties in use by the entire chemical and allied products industry in September, 1939. This new construction, to provide for manufacture of wartime explosives and chemicals only, and having no peacetime value, included twenty-three major plants—factories that were never there before—plants built in bush country, on the prairies, in the mountains and foothills, some of them covering anywhere from 500 to 1,000 acres of ground, some of them consisting of from 200 to 300 separate buildings, all of them requiring power, railway lines, piping and machinery.

In those plants, mushroomed out of nowhere, and in dozens of smaller units, 40,000 workers are now engaged, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. From them explosives and chemicals are being shipped by the trainload.

That huge construction development was equal to the building of an entire city almost as big as London, Ontario, with homes and services, as well as a place to work, for the 40,000 workers. That was miraculous enough. But that is only part of the story.

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Practically without exception, all other war industries depend, too, on chemistry. That is why even the chemists cannot say where their war production begins and where it ends.

Dyestuffs and textile chemicals are peaceful enough products, but they are required in ever-increasing quantities for uniforms for the men of the armed services. Acids and chemicals used in steel making are now in greater demand than ever before by the makers of ships and guns and tanks and planes.

Plastics which before the war were used for such innocent purposes as dental and surgical instruments, “unbreakable” drinking cups and decorative novelties, are now in greater demand by army doctors and dentists and also for use in aircraft and mechanized transport. In addition, they are constantly being substituted for steel in other products in order that metals may be preserved for armaments.

Chemicals for tanning leather now go into army boots; chemicals for rubber making are now in demand for army tires and other chemicals will be required for the new synthetic rubber industry. Even such a harmless and colorful product as paint is keeping the chemists busy since special camouflage and gas resistant types are necessary. And peacetime or commercial explosives, such as dynamite, are required in increasing quantities by the mining industry and for road building.

That was the double problem that faced the industry when war started. First, it had to expand quickly and efficiently its normal production to meet an accelerated demand for all types of chemical products and second, it had at the same time to design, build and operate the new government sponsored plants, lend its own experienced and trained personnel and train new supervisors and operators. And in case anyone believes that this new construction job was just a simple little task involving nothing much more than the spending of a lot of money, in one month the blueprint section of an engineering department concerned with one of the construction jobs turned out 28,000 blueprints. Laid side by side they would cover three solid acres of ground.

A Planned Miracle

NOW THIS industrial miracle, accomplished without fanfare and, for censorship reasons, with little public knowledge, was obviously not the work of one company or one group of men. It does, however, serve as an illustration of directed planning and the results being achieved today are the joint achievement of all sections of the industry, from the peacetime fireworks company in a small Ontario town to the chemical industrial giant whose plants and factories stretch across the Dominion. From the skyrocket maker whose simple function in life was to make the twenty-fourth of May a delight to young children, to the industrial chemist who was concerned with developing substitutes for disappearing raw materials, the entire personnel of the industry has been dovetailed into a national organization all-out for the chemical war effort.

The national setup is as simple as the task was complicated. The central planning and co-ordinating body is Allied War Supplies Corporation, a wholly government-owned concern upon which was imposed full responsibility for the explosives and shellfilling program. Chairman of this company, located on downtown Lagauchetiere Street in Montreal, is

Hon. Charles A. Dunning, former ] Minister of Finance, and president is Harold Crabtree, president of the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association. In addition to planning the .Canadian production program, this organization has also participated in an informal Canada-U.S. committee designed to integrate the explosives and chemical programs of the two countries. Canada imports certain chemicals from the United States and reciprocates by exporting to that country some chemicals which the U.S. requires.

The production program itself is divided into two distinct parts. Normal chemical production, greatly expanded, of course, to meet increasing needs, is carried on by the chemical industries themselves. Production of purely military products, such as military explosives and special wartime chemicals, is carried on in government sponsored plants operated by private companies for an operating or management fee.

The Canadian chemical industry, therefore, has no interest in the plants represented by the $115,000,000 construction program, except to operate them as efficiently as possible and secure the maximum production» at the lowest possible cost for the nation’s war effort. There is no question here of war profits or paying for elaborate installations or equipment. After the war the plants will be, as they are now, the property of the Dominion and, if the production is not required, the private companies now operating them for the government will simply cease operating them.

These government sponsored plants are operated by a subsidiary of Canadian Industries Limite*d, known as Defence Industries Limited, or DIL.

While the bulk of this new wartime manufacturing industry is located in Ontario and Quebec, an inspection of new Canadian plants now engaged in making explosives and war chemicals exclusively would require a crosscountry tour starting at the Pacific and extending to the Atlantic coast. Were it possible to stand on a high mountain peak, or look down from a captive balloon and see the entire Dominion spread out below, this new chemical industry would stand out as a series of smoking dots, scattered throughout all sections of the country and notable for one thing— their remoteness from the bigger centres. War chemistry has brought unexpected importante to many a small town and village.

Hundreds of workers’ homes have had to be constructed for the men and women who man the new machines, and hundreds more must still be built. Services of all kinds have had to be provided in this series of boom towns. Puffing railway trains now travel in unending processions past towns which previously considered the daily milk train an important event in transportation history.

In bushland and prairies, in peaceful farm country and barrenland, something new has been added.

West To East

1 ETTING the imaginary eye travel À from west to east, first stop is in the Rocky Mountains. There for years a giant smelter has performed one of chemistry’s minor miracles. Day after day it has created ammonia fertilizer out of smelter fumes. When war came that miracle had to be adjusted to wartime purposes. So the chemists proceeded in their usual logical, though sometimes mysterious, ways to produce nitrate, which is one of the vital ingredients of military explosives, from that selfsame fume-contaminated air.

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The process, long a chemical dream before its final realization, can be simply described. First the chemists recover nitrogen from the air. Then they extract hydrogen from water and make the nitrogen react on the hydrogen to produce ammonia. That was being done as part of everyday business before the war. The next step is to take the newly created ammonia and combine it with oxygen taken from water to make nitric acid. Then the fourth and final step is taken. Ammonia and nitric acid are mixed and, presto, we have ammonium nitrate, or just what the explosives makers ordered.

In the foothills of the Rockies is a plant that is surely unique in Canada. Its only purchased raw material comes to it through a pipe—Turner Valley natural gas. At the plant the gas is used in various complicated processes in combination with chemistry’s most useful ally, air, and with water and electric power. From the air nitrogen is extracted and the company’s eventual product is nitrate, that old explosives essential which, during the last war, Canada imported. «

In Manitoba a great $9,000,000 cordite plant has risen from waste land. Farther east, in northern Ontario, the first of the new explosives plants to be ordered has been turning out thousands of tons a month for over a year. In 1940 the site of this booming plant was bushland. Today a thousand acres are covered with hundreds of buildings, transportation line» and plant equipment, and all through the night the entire development is aglow with thousands of lights. Also in northern Ontario is the huge nickel smelter from whose fumes is extracted sul-

phuric acid for the explosives industry.

Turning south again, in the Niagara Peninsula is a synthetic ammonia plant that provides both ammonia and nitrate,and near-by is a sulphuric acid factory where this most important of all acids is made. In a near-by city raw materials for chemical production are recovered from coking plants. Farther east is a shell-filling factory where the shells and bombs and depth charges are loaded with explosives and fitted with fuses. Then, just before leaving Ontario, there is the plant near Ottawa where phosphorus and perchlorates are made.

In Quebec Province shell filling and loading plants are located near Montreal, and in the Laurentian Mountains. In this province, too, is the tiny pilot plant from which all this vast chemical explosives industry has sprung. Before the war workmen at this plant were making military explosives in small quantities for the Canadian Government. The war material demand was small, and just enough explosives were made to permit the firing of annual salutes on Armistice Day and the King’s birthday, with a few rounds added for artillery practice. But while quantities were small, quality was high and here the future explosives makers had their training and a basis was developed for the mammoth industry of today. Also in Quebec is the largest of the government-sponsored explosives plants, turning out high explosives in record quantities every day. All small arms ammunition manufacture is also located in this province.

In another part of the province, where development is not yet finished, plants were expanded to produce carbide and several important solvents by synthetic processes. Here, too, a new and secret chemical never previously made in Canada is produced, and strange new chemicals used in smoke screens are made. Finally, in the Maritimes, a new plant on the Atlantic seaboard is now making one of the little known essentials for war explosives, toluol, fractionated from coal for TNT.

Around toluol is woven a neat little story designed to illustrate through chemistry the nation’s united war effort. Madeinanewwartimefactory, the farthest east dot on the nation’s chemical map, this important chemical is daily meeting a British Columbia raw material, produced in the heart of the Rockies, in an explosives plant in Quebec. There the two are joined, mixed with some central-Canadian ingredients, and emerge as an all-Canadian explosive that is being shipped in steadily growing quantities overseas. It has already played an important part in the defense of Britain and struck many a chemical blow at Goering’s Luftwaffe.

That takes care of the big dots on the map, but it entirely overlooks the hundreds of little dots representing smaller chemical plants that still make up an important part of the over-all effort. And inside each dot, behind each puff of smoke, in the laboratories and workshops, Canadian chemistry is performing a daily series of scientific miracles about which little will be known until after the war. Something can be told, however, about the strange story of Rhamnus Frángula.

Rhamnus Frángula is the scientific name for a species of buckthorn shrub commonly used by hedge growers in England and France. A harmless, decorative bit of bush, it has nevertheless been discovered to have important wartime qualities, because, when converted into charcoal and mixed with other ingredients, it gives to time-ring fuse powders for shells certain very desirable burning qualities. As such it is in great demand at the present moment.

Rhamnus Frángula, unfortunately, is not a native of Canada, and until the fall of France all necessary supplies were imported. Then, however, a problem arose. No other brand of charcoal quite filled the bill. Some unnamed genius recalled that early French and English settlers brought cuttings of the mottle - barked, smooth - leaved variety to Canada and planted hedges here, probably to remind themselves of home. And so the scientists, already engaged twentyfour hours a day in the serious business of producing explosives, sent out search parties which were eventually successful in locating some sturdy growths of the shrub in various sections of the country, mainly in Ontario. Woodcutters were set to work and production of fuse powders went on.

With that happy climax, however, the story does not quite conclude. The chemists are not entirely satisfied with this haphazard way of securing an essential war material, and cutting down stray hedges does not appeal to them as the most efficient method of developing a source of supply. Already they are burning the midnight oil, taking Rhamnus Frángula apart and seeking a synthetic substitute. When they do that the mystery will be solved and they will turn to another.

Everywhere In War

THE STORY’ of Canada’s wartime chemical industry is filled with such dramatic little tales. Because fulminate of mercury used to be the only detonator used in priming caps on cartridges and shells, a great many Canadians were alarmed to learn that most of the world’s supply of mercury is secured from Spain and Italy and therefore under NaziFascist control. But Canada had long ago passed the mercury stage. Today chemists have substituted a superior detonating compound which lacks some of the harmful qualities of mercury. And the source of supply is right here in the Dominion. Mercury, as far as the munitions makers are concerned, can remain a Spanish prisoner.

Chemistry is everywhere in war. It rides with the pilot in the cockpit of his plane; it rides the rolling Atlantic with the crew of the corvette, the battleship or the submarine; it accompanies the gunner who fires his shells from tank or field artillery or long range gun and it is found in the footwear of the poor slogging infantryman who at least has the satisfaction of knowing that the boots he wears in this war are immeasurably better than those worn by the troops in 1914-18.

Chemistry stays home, too, with the men in the factory who know, for instance, that steel cannot be made without sulphuric acid, that nitric acid, which in peacetime turns cotton into plastics or paint, now turns that same cotton, or woodpulp, into

smokeless powder. It is still in the laboratories where, only recently, a Canadian chemist developed, after more than five years of research, a new process for extracting magnesium, to make it available for aircraft production. And chemistry is still in the field where, going into the making of fertilizers, it replenishes the soil so that food may be grown to feed the armies and peoples of freedom.

Created by wars, but designed for peace, industrial chemistry in Canada has risen to the national emergency. It built for itself a nation-wide chain of factories. It trained and equipped a new army of 40,000 warwrorkers, put into their hands the magic it draws from the air, the wonders that flow from test tubes and the logic that makes it the most bafflingly simple of all the sciences, then told them to go to work. In Europe and the Near East, in Australia and the Far East, on the Atlantic and the Pacific and the blue Mediterranean, the crashing of bombs, the bursts of artillery fire, the rattling of machine guns and the spray plumes from depth charges, the rumble of heavy armored tanks, the roar overhead from high-powered bombers and fast pursuit planes, the silent moving cargo vessels and ships of war—these are all proof that Canadian chemistry is in there fighting.