Celebrating ICI

C&I Issue 11, 2016

ICI was a late comer to the ranks of the giant multi-sectoral chemical companies, which emerged before and after World War I. The company was set up in 1926 through the merger of four of Britain’s leading chemical companies – Brunner, Mond, Nobel Industries, United Alkali and British Dyestuffs Corporation (BDC) – to become to become a strong force not only in the chemical industry of the UK but also the British Empire.    

Also its R&D capabilities trailed at the time behind those of its major international rivals whose industrial power had triggered the creation of ICI. These were mostly Germany’s IG Farben, comprising primarily BASF, Bayer and Hoechst, and in the US, DuPont. Its other competitors included Allied Chemicals, American Cyanamid and Monsanto in the US, and Ciba, Geigy and Sandoz in Switzerland, which had formed their own national alliance.

In fact, ICI’s research operations did not start to gain recognition for its inventiveness until the mid-1930s, while it only began to make a steady stream of significant discoveries during and after World War II.

The company’s research efforts were held back in its early history by its focus on heavy chemicals, which made up most of its sales. The R&D resources of the Dyestuffs division, which, through its expertise in multistage organic synthesis had the greatest innovation potential, were neglected in the first decade of the company’s existence.

Although the company’s R&D budget was increased after its creation, for much of the rest of the interwar years it was smaller than its rivals. While ICI’s R&D budget averaged around 2-2.5% of sales, the proportion at IG Farben was four times higher, at close to 10%.

Yet among the world’s leading multi-divisional chemical companies, which dominated the 20th century global chemical industry, ICI became a remarkable innovator. What made it stand out from the rest was its ability to make radical breakthroughs across a diversity of sectors.

What were the primary reasons for its success in research? And could its feats in innovation be replicated in the R&D culture of the today’s chemical industry?

Since the foundation of the company, its scientists were given the freedom to undertake their own initiatives in the belief that it was curiosity that brought great discoveries and ultimately world-beating products.

The policy of ‘blue sky’ research was laid down by Brunner, Mond and Nobel Industries, the two key companies within ICI. ‘What are they doing examining last month’s costs with a microscope when they should be surveying the horizon with a telescope?’ asked Francis Freeth of Brunner, Mond’s directors.

From the start, R&D in ICI was decentralised so each division had its own research centres. In northwest England, the Alkali Group, originally Brunner, Mond, had its research headquarters at Winnington; General Chemicals at Runcorn; and Dyestuffs at Blackley, Manchester. In the northeast, Billingham was the centre for fertilisers and, in Scotland, Ardeer for explosives. 

The amount of research autonomy given to the company’s divisions had the disadvantage of duplication of work by individual laboratories. In the 1930s, virtually all the company’s divisional laboratories were doing research into polymers.

Nonetheless, despite the overlap, ICI’s research staff overall accomplished more significant innovations per capita than its competitors. This was particularly in comparison with IG Farben, which had considerably more research staff. Even when ICI raised its numbers of R&D personnel in the 1930s in a recruitment drive, the German group had 40% more research staff than its UK counterpart.

‘On the whole (ICI) has brilliantly succeeded in the many sectors it decided to penetrate,’ said the French historian, Fred Aftalion, in his History of the International Chemical Industry, published in English in 2001. ‘This was in large part due to its decentralised organisation into highly competent divisions. These were self-governing and each had research teams of great talent to judge from the number of original processes and new products developed since 1926.’

Being the biggest force in British R&D in chemistry, and later chemical engineering, ICI was well positioned to attract some of the best chemical scientists, especially young scientists. The company’s divisions followed a recruitment policy, originally initiated by Freeth at Brunner Mond, of head-hunting for talent in the country’s universities and even secondary schools.

Once these scientists joined the company, they took advantage of its scientific freedom to follow with great determination their own paths of discovery. Some of ICI’s biggest innovations resulted from a conviction by individual scientists of the importance of their findings in the face of the initial scepticism of their colleagues.

However, the encouragement of this individualism had to be balanced against the need for team work. ICI’s research triumphs were usually a mix of personal flair and imagination and collective effort.

Soon after its foundation, ICI set up a Research Council, comprising ICI and academic scientists, in which to conduct brainstorming session on new ideas and lines of research that would extend the company’s portfolio.

Initially, however, R&D was not high up in the company’s list of priorities. As a new entity, it needed to consolidate its position in key markets, usually with the help of cartels and other anti-competitive alliances.

It gained a virtual monopoly in its main products in the UK, mostly fertilisers, alkalis, soda ash, caustic soda and dyes, and its preferential access to the markets of the British Dominions and colonies ensured almost a captive market of around 400m people.

The first major impetus for a new direction in R&D came from the company’s move into polymers, triggered by popularity among consumers of the phenol-formaldehyde resin Bakelite but also the prospects on the horizon of petrochemical-derived plastics.

The company set up a central plastic materials committee in 1927, which was followed by the takeover of Croydon Mouldrite, a manufacturer of phenol-formaldehyde powders, and then the creation of a Plastics Division to co-ordinate a variety of polymers research schemes across the country. Urea-formaldehyde was being investigated at Billingham; vinyl resins at General Chemicals; nitrocellulose at the explosive business in Ardeer; and phenol-formaldehyde at the Dyestuffs operation in Manchester.

ICI’s first fundamental discovery in its history – that of polyethylene – was made in none of these projects but at the Akali division’s laboratories at Winnington, which by the 1930s had started to become a thriving hub of scientific endeavour. This was mainly due to the recruitment enterprise of Freeth in the previous decade as research director at the site.

The number of graduate researchers went up sixfold from the late 1920s to 82 by the mid-1930s; only around a quarter were involved in alkali research. Also under Freeth, it had forged close links with scientists in the Netherlands, particularly those with expertise in high pressure chemistry.

A team at Winnington was set up to carry out research into high pressure, high temperature reactions. Its pivotal members were Reginald Gibson, a young chemist from London University; Anton Michels, a Dutch scientist with whom Gibson had done research at Amsterdam University on the design of high-pressure vessels; and Eric Fawcett, who had worked on polymers at DuPont with Wallace Carothers, who was later to invent Nylon.

Late on Friday 24 March 1933, Gibson and Fawcett conducted an experimental reaction of ethylene with benzaldehyde at a pressure of 1900 atmospheres and a temperature of 170°C. Over the weekend, the pressure had to be restored once. By Monday, all the benzaldehyde had moved out of its test tube. But a paraffin wax appeared on the tip of a gas-inlet tube. Gibson merely noted: ‘Waxy solid found in reaction tube’. Fawcett was convinced this was a highly important discovery because it indicated ethylene could be polymerised on an industrial scale.

Because Fawcett and Gibson were unaware that oxygen was a vital factor in the reaction, they were unable to repeat the experiment. Fawcett was so disappointed, not only that he could not continue with the research, but also about the scepticism of his laboratory colleagues concerning the significance of the findings, that he was determined to reveal details of it.

His chance came at a conference on polymerisation at Cambridge, UK, attended by some of the world’s leading experts on the subject, including Carothers and two top German specialists: Hermann Staudinger and Kurt Meyer.

Surprisingly, he was given permission by ICI senior executives to disclose at the meeting what he and Gibson had discovered. But he was unable to eliminate the doubts of the attending distinguished scientists that ethylene could be polymerised – at least through a high pressure and temperature process.

In December 1935, another team of ICI researchers, without Fawcett and Gibson, resumed the high pressure experiment, this time with ethylene but without benzaldehyde. It produced a considerably larger quantity of polyethylene – in powder form. The team worked out that an accidental trace of oxygen in the ethylene had acted as a catalyst for the polymerisation. This realisation enabled them to produce polyethylene consistently in the laboratory from a combination of ethylene and oxygen.

ICI filed the first UK patent for polyethylene in early 1936 with the names of the members of the second team and those of Gibson and Fawcett. Three years later, ICI opened its first polyethylene plant with 100t/year capacity. This was soon doubled with most of the output being used for the insulation of radar equipment on warships and aircraft during World War II. In the post-war petrochemicals boom, polyethylene was to become, and stayed, the world’s most common plastic.

The company’s other major research advances in polymers were the invention of processes for polymerising methyl methacrylate (MMA) for making a plastic alternative to glass and manufacturing synthetic fibre from polyester.

Two ICI scientists: John Crawford at the explosives division at Ardeer and Rowland Hill at the Dyestuffs Division in Blackley, were working in the early 1930s on finding a process for polymerising MMA. Crawford’s turned out to be so cost efficient and practical that, with a few alterations, it has remained the basis for large scale production of acrylic plastics. Soon ICI had constructed a plant to make the polymer, which was given the brand name, Perspex.

In 1939, two scientists: Rex Whinfield and James Dickson, at the little known Manchester-based textile printing specialist, Calico Printers Association (CPA), started researching an aromatic version of polyester fibre derived from terephthalic acid, then a rare chemical used in textile dyeing.

CPA patented the fibre, called it Terylene and then sold the intellectual property rights and the trade mark to ICI, which did not have a process and plant ready until 1950 to make a product destined to become the world’s leading synthetic fibre.

Spurred on by its technological competiveness, ICI built up a large business in petrochemical-derived polymers and other products. But in the post war years, it no longer had the advantage of monopoly positions in its commodity chemicals in its home market and privileged trading relationships with the former countries of what was by now a rapidly shrinking British Empire.

It had to discover new technologies and markets, which would offer relatively fast growth in sales and much higher profit margins.

The answer to this dilemma was to be found in the expertise in organic chemical synthesis at the Dyestuffs division at Blackley, Manchester. It had already shown an aptitude for innovation in colourants itself with the discovery of reactive dyes and phthalocyanine blue pigment, sold under the Monastral brand; in terms of volume output, the world’s leading pigment.

The Dyestuffs division started research into pharmaceuticals in the mid-1930s when it set up a Medicinal Chemicals Section. This was in response to the company’s board and academic advisors who wanted the business to follow the example of Bayer and Hoechst in Germany, which were applying their dyestuffs expertise to pharmaceuticals development.

This move prepared the ground for a big move by ICI into the treatment of infectious diseases during World War II. It developed the first industrial process for manufacturing penicillin by surface culture, and also discovered synthetic anti-malarials, like Paludrine.

Another success was the discovery, development and commercialisation of a halothane-based anaesthetic Fluothane, in a project by a Dyestuffs-led team.

After being made a company in 1942, the pharmaceuticals operation finally became a business separate from Dyestuffs when it was made into a full ICI division in the 1950s. It then had the freedom not only to run its own R&D activities but to build plants inside and outside the UK and to establish a marketing organisation across the world.

Soon after it was created, it started on an research project which was to become probably the ICI’s biggest scientific achievement – the discovery of a top selling beta-blocker for treating cardiovascular disease.

This triumph can be largely attributed to the ingenuity of one man: the Scottish pharmacologist James Black. He was running the physiology department in the veterinary school of Glasgow University with which ICI had close ties, when he was recruited by ICI Pharmaceuticals in 1958.

His main objective at the time was to find a medicine for angina, which instead of increasing oxygen supply to the heart, as current treatments did, would reduce the heart’s demand for oxygen. This would be done by designing molecules able to inhibit the ‘excitation effects’ of beta receptors, the proteins on the surface of, or within, a cell that modify the cell’s behaviour.

With the help of an inter-disciplinary team of chemists, biochemists, biologists, pharmacologists and lab technicians, which had built up a competence in cardiovascular research during the 1950s, Black’s work at ICI Pharmaceuticals R&D centre at Alderley Park, Cheshire, led to the discovery of the beta-blocker propranolol. Under the brand name, Inderal, it was to become among the world’s best selling drugs as a result of effectiveness in treating angina, arrhythmias and hypertension.

Even before the development of propranolol was completed, Black resigned after ICI refused to back his desire to develop a similar drug for treating ulcers by blocking gastric receptors responsible for histamine-stimulated acid secretion.

Instead, he joined the rival drugs company, Smith Kline and French (SK&F), where he developed cimetidine, an anti-ulcer H2 antagonist, which under the trade name Tagamet, also became a worldwide best seller.

After Black’s departure, ICI extended its range of beta-blockers. One of the biggest breakthroughs was atenolol (Tenormin), which became a another blockbuster for treating hypertension for which it is still a leading medicine.

ICI Pharmaceuticals also made inroads into the anti-cancer market through a number of discoveries, including the anti-oestrogen tamoxIifen (Nolvadex), still administered widely today to breast cancer patients.

In the 1970s, through to the 1980s, pharmaceuticals were ICI’s most profitable business with trading profits averaging just under 30% of sales. Also the vast majority of these therapeutics came from the division’s own research. Meanwhile, Black returned to academia after the launch of cimetidine. In 1981, he was knighted and won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1988 for his contributions to drug development as a result of his research at ICI and SK&F.

In addition to his attainments with beta blocker technology, Black also pioneered the concept of development by design. The then current approach in the pharmaceutical sector was to have large teams of chemists synthesising numerous compounds, which would then be tested by equally large teams of biologists.

Black helped to introduce a new approach detailing precise biochemical specifications for new drugs and then building molecules to meet those specifications.

‘The real thing about James Black is that he was driven by curiosity,’ said Professor Peter Downes, principal of Dundee University, where Black became chancellor, in an obituary on him in 2010. ‘That’s the interesting thing for someone whose major achievements were actually delivered within the pharmaceutical industry.’

In crop protection research, the Dyestuffs division was not the only unit contributing to the company’s research effort in the sector. The main R&D centre was at Jealott’s Hill, Berkshire, which was set up in 1927 as the research arm of the fertiliser business at Billingham.

In the 1930s, chemists at Jealott’s Hill developed the insecticide gamma benzene hexachloride (Gammexane) and in the 1940s, the first hormone weed killer, 4-chloro-2-methylphenoxyacetic acid (MCPA), which was marketed as Methoxone.

However, the company’s biggest R&D attainment in crop protection: synthesis and development of  the herbicide Paraquat, stemmed from the research resources of the Dyestuffs division. It was derived from a collection of quaternary salts discovered at the Dyestuffs’ Blackley laboratories, while the main architect of the work on 1,1’-dimethyl-4,4’bipyridylium dichloride (Paraquat) was William Boon, a Dyestuffs organic chemist, who was moved to Jealott’s Hill.

Boon, who was involved in the development at Blackley of the process for making penicillin on an industrial scale, became renowned in ICI for his persistence. This led to the creation of an award in the company known as ‘the Boon award for perserverance’.

The advantage of Paraquat was its instant action but once in the soil, it immediately became inactive and its selectivity was limited. After discovering Paraquat, Boon insisted that these impediments were in fact benefits.

‘The fact that (chemicals) aren’t selective and don’t stay in the soil isn’t a disadvantage,’ he said later. ‘It’s the biggest advantage ever.’ He was putting forward a vision of crop protection, which became the norm in future years, particularly when a combination of rapid action and quick degradation was a valuable property.

Paraquat is still one of the world’s most commonly used herbicides. It is even applied with glyphosate, another major non-selective commodity herbicide, because of its effectiveness with glyphosate-resistant weeds.

Its big drawback has been its danger to the environment and human health. It has, as result, been banned by the EU.

Another significant innovation in agriculture was ICI’s development of an economic process at Billingham for making single-cell protein (SCP) from methanol, which is considered to be a milestone in fermentation history. It showed that the company’s strengths in chemical engineering could be extended to fermentation process design.

The technology was used first to make Pruteen, a SCP animal feed. Although Pruteen was a market failure, its development led to the creation of a Biological Products business at Billingham to give ICI a foothold in the fermentation and biotechnology sector. In the 1980s and 1990s, this diversification resulted in the introduction of a myco-protein meat alternative, called Quorn, and the bioplastic polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB).

By now, however, ICI’s days as a single corporate entity with a powerful presence in international industrial research were coming to an end. After the divestment of its pharmaceuticals business in 1993, it was gradually broken up with its last remnants –the paints business and some speciality chemical activities—being taken over by AkzoNobel in 2007 (See p38).

ICI Pharmaceuticals, which became, in a relatively short time in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical businesses, had highlighted the weaknesses of ICI’s innovation strategies in polymers and some other sectors.

Once ICI Pharmaceuticals gained its independence from Dyestuffs, its management was clear about the importance of building up a framework to supports its research. This involved not just systems for clinical trials but also a worldwide marketing network, which was in close touch with its customers in the medical profession and other healthcare providers.

This was something that other parts of the company, reliant on innovation, were not able to do so effectively. The establishment of interactive ties between research laboratories and downstream users was unfamiliar to many chemical companies at the time, especially those highly influenced by the culture of commodity chemicals.

In today’s world of industrial research, one lesson to be learned from ICI’s experience as a multi-sectoral company is that inventions by brilliant scientists do not become innovations until discoveries are successfully commercialised, or even turned into profits.

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