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BASF builds on its expertise in the Haber-Bosch process and finds additional areas of application for high pressure technology: the hydrogenation of coal to generate synthetic fuel and the production of synthetic rubber (Buna). These activities are carried out within IG Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschaft, formed by the merger of BASF and five other major chemical companies in 1925.

Economic recovery is hindered by continuous political unrest, reparation obligations, the dismantling of factories, a lack of coal, transportation problems, the French occupation of the west bank of the Rhine River, and the establishment of a customs barrier on the Rhine. Representatives of the major chemical companies meet to discuss intensifying the loose form of cooperation established in 1916. They agree to carry out the necessary streamlining of production and sales jointly. In 1925, the merger of BASF with five other companies (including Hoechst and Bayer) to form the IG Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschaft is finalized. In late 1925, BASF is absorbed into IG Farben. The new company’s headquarters are moved to Frankfurt. The Ludwigshafen and Oppau sites form the main part of the Oberrhein Operations Union, one of the four original IG Farben operating units.

Nitrophoska is registered as a trademark with the German Patent Office in 1926. The name reflects the three most important plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphate and potassium (“Kalium” in German). The fertilizer represents something completely new because the concentration of nutrients is two to three times higher than in existing multicomponent fertilizers.

A year later, Nitrophoska is launched on the market. Because each grain of fertilizer has a homogeneous composition, it solves earlier problems encountered when mixing various synthetic fertilizers.

Nitrophoska poster
Nitrophoska poster

Gasoline from coal: In 1913, Friedrich Bergius had already succeeded in obtaining liquid reaction products from coal using hydrogen and high pressure. BASF chemist Matthias Pier picks up on this idea and soon finds a way of translating the process to an industrial scale. At the end of 1927, the first tank car of gasoline derived from coal leaves the Leuna site.

Under the direction of Walter Reppe (1892 - 1969, chemist at BASF from 1921 to 1957), research begins in 1928 on the catalytic reactions of acetylene under pressure. Known as “Reppe chemistry,” it is now possible to develop numerous organic compounds and intermediates from simple building blocks using reactions such as technical vinylation, ethynylation, carbonylation and cyclization. Acetylene chemistry is also one of the most important prerequisites for developing plastics.

During the severe winter of 1928/29, IG Farben launches the first antifreeze for cars, Glysantin. Compared with previously used additives – all of them merely make shift solutions – it has clear advantages: a boiling point of 197 °C (387 °F), corrosion resistance, no separation, virtually no evaporation and a freezing point of minus 25 °C (minus 13 °F), which is suitable for central European winters. 

The Ludwigshafen and Oppau sites in 1929
The Ludwigshafen and Oppau sites in 1929

The synthesis of styrene at the Ludwigshafen site in 1929 ushers in the plastics era. Over the following years at the Ludwigshafen and Oppau sites, which now employ 24,442 people, work begins on a new area of chemistry and physics: polymers. A series of these compounds is developed for large-scale production: polymeric acrylic compounds (1929), polystyrene (1930), polyvinyl chloride (1931), polyisobutylene (1931), polyvinyl ether (1934), and polyethylene (1937).

The syntheses of methanol and urea pave the way for the chemistry of urea-formaldehyde condensate products. Kaurit adhesive, based on urea and formaldehyde, is launched in 1931. It becomes a key product for the wood processing industry and for woodworking – in particular with regard to conserving resources. Plywood - former a waste product - now becomes a high-quality material for a host of new applications and designs. Chipboard can now also be manufactured efficiently.

Carl Bosch and Friedrich Bergius receive the Nobel Prize for the development of high-pressure technology for ammonia synthesis and coal hydrogenation.  

Nobel prize diploma for the development of high-pressure technology
Nobel prize diploma for the development of high-pressure technology

Adolf Hitler is appointed German chancellor on January 30, 1933. In the following months, the Nazi Party takes control of the social-policy and "opinion-forming" organs at the individual sites of IG Farben. The National Socialist ideology also shapes day-to-day operations at the Ludwigshafen and Oppau sites. The works library is “cleansed,” the site newspaper reorganized and on the first of May all employees take part in Labor Day marches. Military style roll calls become part of plant routine. After labor unions are banned, both employers (“factory leaders of the enterprise”) and employees (“followers”) are organized in the German Labor Front. This is the beginning of a development in which IG Farben becomes inextricably enmeshed in the Nazi system over the following years.

Researchers in Ludwigshafen develop a ground-breaking new invention – magnetic tape. Expertise from several different areas is combined with ideal results. Since 1924, extremely fine carbonyl iron powder has been produced in Ludwigshafen for manufacturing induction coils for telephone cables. BASF has experience in manufacturing extra fine dispersions thanks to its dye production operations, and the development of film in the brand new field of plastics provides a suitable carrier medium.

In 1932, AEG and IG Farben agree to collaborate on the development of a magnetic recording device. The first 50,000 meters of magnetic tape are supplied in 1934. A year later, the first magnetophones are presented to the public at the 1935 Radio Fair in Berlin. In 1936, the Feierabendhaus hosts a very special premiere: An entire concert with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra is recorded on magnetic tape.

Sensation at the 1935 Berlin Radio Fair: The magnetophone developed by AEG with the new magnetic tape from Ludwigshafen.
Sensation at the 1935 Berlin Radio Fair: The magnetophone developed by AEG with the new magnetic tape from Ludwigshafen.

Ten years of intensive research into synthetic rubber culminate in success: “Buna” is now capable of replacing natural rubber. The first Buna tires are launched at the International Automobile Exhibition in Berlin in 1936. In the same year, the cornerstone is laid at IG Farben’s first Buna factory in Schkopau near Merseburg.

IG Farben receives nine Grand Prix awards for its products and processes – including coal liquefaction, Buna and indanthrene – at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair.

A patent is filed in 1939 for one of the most interesting derivatives of acetylene chemistry: polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP). It is initially used as a blood plasma substitute and later in a wide variety of applications in medicine, pharmacy, cosmetics and industrial production.

Walter Reppe explains the synthesis route for polyvinylpyrrolidone.
Walter Reppe explains the synthesis route for polyvinylpyrrolidone.

The first tons of caprolactam-based polyamide are produced in Ludwigshafen. This allows for the production of fibers (Perlon) and new construction materials (e.g. Ultramid).

The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 forces a change to a war economy. With its synthetic products, in particular nitrogen, rubber and gasoline, IG Farben also becomes part of this autarkic, coercive system. During the war, many male employees are called up and replaced by women conscripts, prisoners of war and forced laborers especially from the occupied countries of Eastern Europe. Moreover, concentration camp inmates are put to work at IG Farben’s Buna factory in Auschwitz, commissioned by order of the German army high command in 1940.

Times of war, 1940: The day intended to celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary is replaced by a normal working day. The long planned festivities are canceled. History repeats itself: The company’s 50th anniversary could not be celebrated in 1915 because of the First World War. June sees the first air raids by Allied bombers on the Ludwigshafen and Oppau sites, but as yet the raids do not have a serious impact on production.

Ludwigshafen engineers develop a new high-pressure tubular reactor for the continuous production of high-pressure polyethylene (Lupolen).

IG Farben’s third Buna plant is built in 1941 based on a Ludwigshafen site based on a three-stage-process developed by Walter Reppe. It links the hitherto separate Ludwigshafen and Oppau sites. The Buna plant makes a third power plant necessary: A coal-fired central power station is built and supplies the site with steam and electricity until 1999.