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Gary Brown: Remembering the Tech Center

Nearly every day I drive along the Kanawha Turnpike in South Charleston past the entrance to the former Union Carbide South Charleston Technical Center, and note the changes that have been taking place to my former place of employment since Dow's buyout of Union Carbide in 2001.

Dow has only a small presence at the Tech Center now, with most of the former Carbide employees taking some form of early retirement, and a few dozen having been transferred to Dow's research and engineering facilities in Texas and Michigan.

Most of the site is now owned by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, which is trying to promote the "Technical Park" as a center for innovation and business development.

The Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College has renovated and moved from Institute on the WVSU campus into the former Engineering building, and is now the major occupant of what was the largest Tech Center building.

MATRIC (the Mid-Atlantic Research and Innovation Center) is located there and has more than 100 employees, made up mostly of former Carbide Tech Center scientists and engineers, and does leading-edge contract research for companies in countries throughout the world.

On the site of the original research building at the Tech Center built in 1949, The Community and Technical College System of West Virginia is now constructing a $15 million Advanced Technology Center that will open later this year

All these changes remind me of how rapidly things are evolving, and how quickly we tend to forget our past. Perhaps it would be beneficial to recall part of the history of the Technical Center before it is all lost to our memory.

The Union Carbide Technical Center was, for many years, one of the most highly regarded technology centers of its kind in the industry. On its 670 acres, nearly 3,000 people worked there at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, including nearly 300 PhDs, second in number in West Virginia only to WVU in Morgantown. It was the largest of three Union Carbide technical centers, with more than half of the company's R&D and nearly all of its Engineering being done there.

Many of the world's leading chemicals and plastics products and the processes for their production came out of work developed there. Its top scientists and engineers were widely recognized for their expertise as among the best in the world in the fields of chemistry and engineering. Carbide was able to attract the best young scientists and engineers from universities throughout the world to work there, recruiting PhDs from 48 universities in the United States and a handful in the United Kingdom. Thousands of patents for work done at the Tech Center were granted to Union Carbide over its 50-year life span.

But how did such a world-class technology center happen here in such an out of the way spot in the hinterlands of Appalachia?

In the period immediately following World War II, Union Carbide was one of the largest and most diversified companies in the world. Businesses included Chemicals, Plastics, Industrial Gases, Ferro-Alloys, Batteries, and Carbon and Graphite electrodes. Its headquarters was in New York City in its own 52-story office building on Park Avenue. Its stock was one of the 30 on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Carbide had invented and developed the petrochemical industry right here in the Kanawha Valley in the mid-1920s, with the first facility in the world for cracking ethane into ethylene and the use of ethylene to produce a wide variety of downstream products. At other locations it had also pioneered practical gas separation on an industrial scale, particularly for the production of oxygen and nitrogen from air. It had developed electrochemical processes for the production of critical metals and alloys. It had even begun developing a chemical industry based on coal liquefaction and gasification.

In the late 1940s, it was also flush with success from three major contributions to the United States' World War II effort:* Synthetic Rubber. Carbide developed, built and operated the first processes for making butadiene (1942) and styrene (1943), at what later became Carbide's Institute plant. This supplied the B. F. Goodrich rubber plant built next door with the raw materials for the manufacture of synthetic rubber for the war effort.

* Manhattan Project. Carbide built and operated the Oak Ridge, Tenn., facility for the production of U-238, which went onto Los Alamos for the making of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

* Polyethylene. Carbide developed and built the first commercial process for making polyethylene (now the world's largest volume plastic) here in the South Charleston plant in 1943. The first products from this facility were used to make wire and cable coating for radar facilities, specifically in England, which was widely credited with helping shorten the Battle of Britain and eventually the war.

Through these huge but highly coordinated and planned activities during the war, Carbide saw the tremendous value and potential that research and development could have into new products and processes in the chemicals and plastics arena, and the benefit of having scientists and engineers closely working together. Up until that time, Carbide's research facilities were widely scattered around the Kanawha Valley, with scientists working in relative isolation on projects in support of particular product lines at the nearby productions facilities.

A decision was made in 1947 to construct a central research facility, which would anchor around a major research laboratory and office building, but would also include larger-size development scale-up facilities, commonly known as pilot plants.

Land was purchased in South Charleston and construction began in late-1947. Building 701, the original Research Building, and the pilot plants began operation in 1949 and 1950. In the late 1950's, the upper level of the site was initially developed, with an additional Research and Development office and laboratory building (Building 770) in early 1958, and later that year a cafeteria/medical center (Building 791).

By the late 1950s, Carbide was in a period of extreme growth in chemicals and plastics. It was developing processes for chemicals and plastics from Research and Development efforts and needed an efficient Engineering effort to design the commercial facilities to implement those technologies. Having seen the advantages of having R&D efforts at one site, Carbide decided to do the same with its process engineering and design activities.

The new Engineering Building (Building 2000) was completed in 1958, and consolidated all of their Engineering efforts under one roof. It also organized the engineering work both by process (eg, polyethylene, ethylene oxide, agricultural chemicals) and by skill center (reaction engineering, distillation, pressure vessel design).

It was upon the completion of these facilities in 1958 that the name "Union Carbide South Charleston Technical Center" was first used.

Further development of the Tech Center continued in the 1960s, with the completion of a polyethylene pilot plant and office facilities in 1961. This was the site where the "Unipol" process for polyethylene and polypropylene was developed, which became the world's most widely used process for producing these large-volume plastics. Also in 1961, "Rocket Hollow" was developed for research into rocket fuels for domestic and military use.

In 1963 the Olefins Building (Building 740) was completed on the lower level of the site. And in 1977, a large new Computer Center, home to almost all of Carbide's data processing, was completed on the upper level adjacent to the Engineering Building.

But during the mid-1980s, Union Carbide suffered a series of setbacks that affected its financial position and contributed eventually to the Dow takeover. The tragedy in Bhopal, India in December 1984 (a gas leak in the MIC unit) rocked the company to its roots and caused a drop in the price of UCC stock. The GAF Corporation then attempted a hostile takeover, which Carbide fought off in a bidding war at the expense of several billion dollars. To pay for this, Carbide was forced to sell off its Agricultural Products division (Sevin, Temik, etc.) and its Consumer Products Division (Glad Wrap, Eveready Batteries). The downsized company struggled to remain profitable through the 1990s but eventually had to face the inevitable and accept Dow's buy-out offer in 1999 (completed in 2001 after a thorough SEC review).

The handwriting was on the wall for the Tech Center. Dow had its own research and engineering facilities and had little use for those at the Tech Center.

Over past decade, the loss of the Tech Center has had a profound effect on the Charleston area, not only because of the disappearance of so many high-paying jobs, but the loss of a cultural influence which will never be duplicated. With so many Tech Center employees being originally from other parts of the United States, and indeed from many foreign countries, they brought a wide variety of technical and cultural influence to the region.

And well-educated people tend to be strong supporters of the arts. Much of the recent demise of attendance and funding for the Clay Center, the Symphony, and the various theater and dance companies in the region is due directly to the loss of Tech Center population.

I think back to a place and a time of great excitement and challenge when I first arrived as a young research engineer, and found myself in the midst of so many talented people assembled in one location. And I lament the loss of the Tech Center, its people, and what they meant to our community.

Brown is vice president of NewCarbon LLC, and is a former associate director of research and development and engineering at the Union Carbide Technical Center.

 

 

 


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