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BASF starts early research on nitrogen around the turn of the century. Work by Fritz Haber at the Karlsruhe Technical University raises the possibility of synthesizing ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, and points the way forward. At BASF, Carl Bosch takes on the job of developing the process on an industrial scale.

Coal is not merely a source of energy, it is also the chemical industry’s most important raw material at this time. To secure its raw material base, BASF, along with Bayer and AGFA, acquires the Auguste Victoria mine in Marl, Germany, in 1907.

At the beginning of 1908, the first vacation policy comes into effect: After ten years of service, workers enjoy a week's holiday. During this time, they receive an additional special allowance besides their regular pay.

1908: The work of Fritz Haber (1868 – 1934, professor of chemistry at the universities Karlsruhe and Berlin) suggests that the technical synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen may be possible. The process requires high temperatures, high pressure and catalysts. BASF starts conducting intensive research under the direction of Carl Bosch (1874 – 1940, chemist, Chairman of BASF’s Board of Executive Directors from 1919 to 1925 and of IG Farben from 1925 to 1935).

In 1911, after extensive experiments, Alwin Mittasch (1869 - 1953, chemist at BASF from 1904 to 1933) finds the long-sought-after, ideal catalyst for synthesizing ammonia: iron with a few percent of alumina and a small amount of potash. The industrial production of ammonia requires extensive pioneer work: New types of steel have to be developed and tested, new reactor designs tried out, and special gas machines and compressors built.

The technical implementation of the Haber-Bosch process faces failure. The new pressure vessels and pipes encased in reinforced concrete burst again and again. It is Carl Bosch himself who comes up with the solution: a "double pipe" with an inner mantle of soft iron and an external, pressure-bearing but perforated steel casing. Nevertheless, further expert advice is needed. In order to solve the growing problems posed by materials and related safety problems, BASF sets up the chemical industry’s first materials testing lab in 1912. The main task of materials testing, then and now, is to identify and control problems in materials for instrumentation and process engineering.

Installation of a high-pressure reactor in the ammonia plant
Installation of a high-pressure reactor in the ammonia plant

A year after the groundbreaking, the first ammonia synthesis plant goes into service in Oppau in 1913 - three kilometers north of the Ludwigshafen site. Annual output: initially 9,000 tons of ammonia to be processed into 36,000 tons of ammonium sulfate. 100 years later BASF has an annual capacity of 875,000 metric tons of ammonia in Ludwigshafen.

The plant’s fire department is founded as a professional fire department at the Ludwigshafen and Oppau sites. In addition to firefighting, their duties include gas protection and assistance in case of operational interruptions and incidents such as pipe breakage as well as ambulance and first aid service.

BASF’s clubhouse, the Vereinshaus, today known as the Feierabendhaus, is inaugurated. It provides event rooms, a library, a restaurant and a bowling alley that workers can use in their leisure time. The first edition of the company newspaper is published to coincide with the opening of the building on April 13, 1913.

Carl Bosch wants fertilizers to be tested as thoroughly as dyes. Customers are to be given proper instructions for their use. This means extensive trials to determine the effect of fertilizers on soil and on plants. 1914 sees the opening of the Agricultural Research Station in Limburgerhof, near Ludwigshafen, to investigate fertilizers and plant physiology. This paves the way for BASF’s worldwide activities in the field of agricultural chemistry.

The First World War begins in August 1914. Germany pours its resources into the war effort, putting an increasing burden on the economy. For the first time, the war makes the new industrial society aware that there are many dual-use products, including chemicals. Synthetic ammonia, for example, was developed to secure food supplies for a growing population. Faced with a shortage of ammunition by the end of 1914, the government, however, assigns top priority to ammonia. It is converted into saltpeter at the Oppau plant and then delivered to the explosives industry.

Chlorine and phosgene, important intermediates used to manufacture dyes and drugs among other things, are used as poison gas by the armies of both sides.

Calcium ammonium nitrate “Rieselkorn”
Calcium ammonium nitrate “Rieselkorn”

Fritz Günther (1877 – 1957, chemist at BASF from 1901 to 1938) discovers Nekal, a textile auxiliary, in 1916. It is the first synthetic surfactant. It reduces the surface tension of water and outperforms the washing performance of the soaps of the day. Such synthetic wetting agents are still used today in dishwashing and laundry products, and a no-dry shine would not be possible without them. Other surfactants are used to manufacture emulsion paints and shampoos.

After several expansions of the Oppau ammonia facilities, the government orders the construction of a second major production plant. A site in central Germany, away from the danger of air raids, is chosen. After a brief period of construction, BASF’s second ammonia plant in Leuna near Merseburg starts operating in April 1917. In Oppau, construction work starts on the Ammonia Laboratory, BASF’s second major research facility.

By the end of the First World War in 1918, German dye manufacturers have lost their leading position on the world’s markets. Production facilities, subsidiaries, associated companies, and sales companies abroad are confiscated, as are patents registered abroad. Reparations imposed by the victors hamper economic recovery. BASF is occupied by French troops for several months and links to the eastern bank of the Rhine are severed.

Representatives of BASF’s senior management, salaried employees and workers found a joint committee for education in 1919. The goal is to organize evening entertainment, lectures and concerts for all BASF employees. This lays the foundation for today’s broad program of cultural events sponsored by BASF. Symphony and chamber concerts and a wide range of special events as well as extensive sports and leisure facilities are offered not only to BASF’s workforce, but also to their families and to the citizens of Ludwigshafen and the surrounding region.

The creation of the first German republic in November 1918 also leads to changes in the company’s charter. The previously paternalistic approach to relations between the company and its employees is replaced by mandatory codetermination rights. The first collective wage agreement in the chemical industry is signed in July 1919. It guarantees the eight-hour working day long demanded by labor unions. BASF’s first works council is elected in 1920; its representatives are admitted to the company’s Supervisory Board in 1922.

On September 21, 1921, the new Oppau site is rocked by a huge explosion that claims more than 500 lives and causes considerable damage to the site and neighboring community. The accident occurs during blasts carried out to loosen ammonium nitrate sulfate fertilizer stored in a warehouse.

At the memorial service, Carl Bosch says: “The disaster was caused neither by carelessness nor human failure. Unknown natural factors that we are still unable to explain today have made a mockery of all our efforts. The very substance intended to provide food and life to millions of our countrymen and which we have produced and supplied for years has suddenly become a cruel enemy for reasons we are as yet unable to fathom. It has reduced our site to rubble. But what is that compared to the victims whose lives this disaster has claimed. We stand here today helpless and powerless, and whatever we can do to comfort their grieving families and the injured is nothing compared to what they have lost.”

The first shipment of methanol leaves the Leuna site on September 26, 1923.
The first shipment of methanol leaves the Leuna site on September 26, 1923.

The lost war brings rising inflation to Germany. One U.S. dollar is worth 4.2 trillion marks. In 1923, BASF’s assets amount to 65,733,583,748 million marks. BASF tries to protect its workforce from the effects of the devaluation. At the height of the crisis in 1923, the company introduces a form of new currency, the “aniline dollar.” For a short time, it becomes the most sought-after banknote in the region.

The Haber-Bosch process enables BASF to become the first company to begin working on the many opportunities presented by high-pressure technology. It is this technology that will now shape large-scale chemical operations. In 1923, Matthias Pier (1882 – 1965, chemist at BASF from 1920 to 1949) successfully synthesizes methanol. Yet another of nature’s raw material monopolies is broken: Wood alcohol is dethroned by synthetic methanol. A year earlier, BASF had succeeded in producing urea on an industrial scale from ammonia and carbon dioxide – 100 years after Friedrich Wöhler had first synthesized urea in the laboratory.

In his attempt to improve the production of synthesis gas in the manufacture of ammonia, Fritz Winkler (1888 – 1950, chemist at BASF from 1916 to 1950) discovers the principle of the fluidized bed in 1924. This produces an excellent combustible gas during the process of coking fine-grain lignite. The Winkler principle is also the basis for the process developed by BASF in 1950 whereby pyrite is roasted in fluidized bed furnaces in the production of sulfuric acid.