Vol. 5 No. 2 (2021)
Research Articles

First Steps: Synthetic Ammonia in the United States

Anthony Stewart Travis
Edelstein Center, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Safra Campus, Givat Ram, Jerusalem

Published 2021-09-09


  • synthetic ammonia,
  • Casale process,
  • Niagara Ammonia Company,
  • Allied Chemical,
  • Du Pont

How to Cite

Travis, A. S. (2021). First Steps: Synthetic Ammonia in the United States. Substantia, 5(2), 55–77. https://doi.org/10.36253/Substantia-1181


The synthetic ammonia industry, originally based on Fritz Haber's 1909 invention of a catalytic high-pressure method as scaled up by Carl Bosch at BASF, grew globally in the years following World War I, based on the processes of Brunner, Mond & Co. (Britain), Luigi Casale (Italy), Georges Claude (France), and Giacomo Fauser (Italy). The ammonia was mainly converted into ammonium sulphate fertilizer. There was less impetus in the United States for taking up these developments, because America relied on ammonium sulphate from its by-product coke ovens, sodium nitrate (Chilean nitrate) from South America, ammonia from coal gas works, and calcium cyanamide as manufactured by the American Cyanamid Company. Even when a synthetic ammonia industry started up in the United States, it was on a smaller scale than in Europe. However there emerged just before the Wall Street Crash two major producers of synthetic ammonia, Allied Chemical and Du Pont. This article presents a historical reconstruction of the early synthetic ammonia industry in the United States focusing on the 1920s, paying particular attention to Du Pont's success, which relied on the ammonia process of Casale. Standard accounts suggest that Du Pont acquired Casale technology as the result of a straightforward business acquisition. However, the situation, as shown here, was far more complex. Du Pont had to engage in aggresive litigation in order to acquire rights to the Casale process in 1927.



  1. K. Steen, The American Synthetic Organic Chemicals Industry: War and Politics, 1910-1930. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2014.
  2. D. A. Hounshell, J. K. Smith Jr, Science and Corporate Strategy. Du Pont R and D, 1902-1980. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 183-189.
  3. A. S. Travis, Nitrogen Capture: The Growth of an International Industry (1900-1940). Springer, Cham, 2018.
  4. D. A. Hounshell, J. K. Smith Jr, Science and Corporate Strategy, pp. 183-189; P. A. Ndiaye, Nylon and the Bomb: DuPont and the March of Modern America (transl. Elborg Forster) The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2007, pp. 74-81. That little had appeared on developments in the Claude process is indicated in W. H. Shearon, H. L. Thompson, Ammonia at 1000 Atmospheres, Chem. Ind. Eng., 1952, 44(20), 254-264, on 260.
  5. G. Bruni, L. Casale, Giornale di chimica industrial ed appplicata, 1927, 9(2), 90.
  6. J. B. Lipman, Fertilizer Prospects for 1926: The Use of Concentrated Fertilizer Materials in Potato Fertilization, American Potato Journal, 1926, 3(1), 3-9, on 4.
  7. O. Wilson, Gases in Commerce and Industry, Ind. Eng. Chem., 1926, 18(12), 1273-1276, on 1276.
  8. On dangers associated with early refrigeration, see J. Rees, ‘I Did Not Know… Any Danger was Attached.’ Safety Consciouseness in the Early Ice and Refrigeration Industries, Technology and Culture, 2005, 46(3), 541-560. See also H. Peavitt, Refrigerator: The Story of Cool in the Kitchen. Reaktion Books/Science Museum, London, 2017.
  9. M. J. Clarke, The Federal Government and the Fixed Nitrogen Industry 1915-1926. PhD dissertation, Oregon State University, 1976.
  10. Following the 1921 suspension of the Nitrate Division, administration was transferred to the Department of Agriculture. In 1926, the FNRL was absorbed into the laboratories of the Bureau of Soils.
  11. M. J. Clarke, The Federal Government, pp. 158-160.
  12. Synthetic Ammonia, Ind. Eng. Chem., 1925, 17(8), 772.
  13. A. S. Travis, Nitrogen Capture, pp. 227-245, 330-334.
  14. Luigi Casale US patent 1348428 of 12 July 1921 (burning of air; process for generating from air and hydrogen, either nitrogen and hydrogen mixtures or nitrogen; filed 7 July 1920); and 1408987 of 7 March 1922 (catalytic apparatus for the synthesis of ammonia; filed 7 October 1920). See also patents 1447123 ("self making of ammonia"), 27 February 1923; 1478549 (catalytic apparatus for the synthesis of ammonia) and 1478550, both of 25 December 1923. On 28 July 1925, Casale was granted patent 1547362, for electrolysis of water (filed 19 July 1922).
  15. For the Electric Bond & Share Company, see T. P. Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1983, pp. 392-401. In 1925, the Electric Bond & Share Company was absorbed into the Electric Bond & Share Securities Corporation, as holding company for General Electric.
  16. Previously, Pierce had been president of the Wood Products Company (1885-1905), before taking up an interest in railroads. Henry J. Pierce Dies; Utilities Official, New York Times, 10 August 1947, p. 10.
  17. D. B. Rushmore, E. A. Lof, Hydro-Electric Power Stations. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1923 (first edition 1917).
  18. M. J. Clarke, The Federal Government, pp. 77-107, 122-123.
  19. No. 77, Nitrogen prod. Synth amm. Haber proc. catalysts. Analysis of samples received from Germany between February and August 1919. H. E. Jones, Brunner, Mond & Co., Northwich, February-August 1919; and No. 78, Nitrogen prod. Synth amm. Haber proc. catalysts and catalysers. Examination of Oppau catalysts from vanadium. H. E. Jones, Brunner, Mond & Co., Northwich, May 1920. Solvay Process Company archives, microfilm reel 2, the Sidney M. Edelstein Library, National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.
  20. K. Bertrams, The Making of International Alliances. In Solvay: History of a Multinational Family Firm (Eds.: K. Bertrams, N. Coupain, E. Homburg) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013, pp. 193-228, on 199-202.
  21. American Chemical Society Favors Selective Embargo, Oil, Paint and Drug Reporter, 12 September 1921, p. 23.
  22. B. Waeser, The Atmospheric Nitrogen Industry: with Special Consideration of the Production of Ammonia and Nitric Acid (transl. E. Fyleman) P. Blakiston's Son & Co., Philadelphia, 1926, p. 287. This was a translation of B. Waeser, Die Luftstickstoff-Industrie mit Besonderer Berücksichtigung der Gewinnung von Ammoniak und Salpetersäure. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1922. E. Fyleman, was chief chemist at the Crowley & Partners engineering consultancy in London that represented the Casale ammonia process in the United Kingdom.
  23. W. Haynes, American Chemical Industry: A History, vol. II. The World War I Period: 1912-1922. D. Van Nostrand, New York, 1945, p. 122;
  24. F. A. Ernst, Fixation of Atmospheric Nitrogen. Chapman & Hall, Ltd., London, 1928, pp. 131-132.
  25. K. Steen, American Synthetic Organic Chemicals, p. 254.
  26. For a number of years it served "as an experimental plant to explore markets and develop technical information and operating experience" that was put to use at Hopewell. Williams Haynes, American Chemical Industry: A History. vol. VI. The Chemical Companies. D. Van Nostrand, New York, 1949, p. 394.
  27. R. E. Welch, Solvay Process Among State’s Mightiest Plants, Syracuse Journal, 28 July 1934, p. 8.
  28. Hydro-Electric Chemical Co. and Frederick Pope were among holders of preferred stock in The Ammonia Corporation. The Ammonia Corporation, A Preferred Stock, box 66; and The Ammonia Corporation, Directors & Stockholders minutes 1926-28, box 67. Records of E. I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co. Absorbed companies. Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware (hereafter: Hagley), Accession 500, series II, part 1 (hereafter: Ammonia Corporation); and Hagley, Hydro-Electric Chemical Co. Stock Certificates, 1923-28, Accession 500, series II, part 1, box 848 (hereafter: Hydro-Electric Stock). See also list of stockholders, in H. J. Pierce to Hydro-Electric Chemical Co., New York, 1 August 1923. Hagley, Hydro-Electric Chemical Co. Directors & Stockholders Minutes, 1924-26, Accession 500, series II, part 1, box 847 (hereafter: Hydro-Electric).
  29. F. Pope, Engineer Dead. Set up Synthetic Ammonia Plants Here and Abroad, New York Times, 13 August 1961, p. 88.
  30. F. Pope, Condition of Chemical Plants in Germany, Ind. Eng. Chem., 1919, 11(6), 512.
  31. T. W. Sill, The Dyestuff Plants and Their War Activities, Ind. Eng. Chem., 1919, 11(6), 509-512.
  32. R. Thomas, Salt & Water, Power and People. A Short History of the Hooker Electrochemical Company. Hooker Electrochemical Company, Niagara Falls, 1955, p. 47.
  33. Two proposals for sale of oxygen from the Electrolabs cells were considered: one for sale to the International Oxygen Company; the other for the formation of a joint marketing company with Electrolabs.
  34. K. Steen, American Synthetic Organic Chemicals.
  35. Regular monthly meeting of the directors of the Niagara Ammonia Company, 14 November 1923, Niagara Ammonia Co., Inc. Directors & Stockholders Minutes, 1923-26. Hagley, Accession 500, Series II, part 1, box 1366 (hereafter: Niagara Ammonia). See also Haynes, The World War I Period, pp. 503, 504.
  36. Regular monthly meeting of the directors, 21 December 1923, Niagara Ammonia.
  37. L. Cerruti, La fissazione dell'azoto, ovvero l'ambiguità della scienza, 5-6. http://www.minerva.unito.it/storia/chimicaclassica/azoto/azoto4.htm (accessed 20 December 2020)
  38. W. Haynes, Chemical Companies, p. 394.
  39. Minutes of meeting of board of directors, 30 July 1924, Niagara Ammonia.
  40. Minutes of the board of directors, 30 July 1924. With attachments: D. T. Kiley, Armour Co., Chicago, Ill, to A. E. Bonn, Niagara Ammonia, 30 July 1924; and J. R. Powell to Kiley, 24 July 1924, Niagara Ammonia.
  41. Minutes of the board of directors, 30 July 1924, Niagara Ammonia.
  42. A. Miolati, Synthetic Ammonia and the Casale Process. Amplified edition of a lecture delivered the 27th February 1927 at the Institute of Chemistry of the Polytechnic School of Prague (transl. G. Impallomeni, 2009) “L’Universale” Tipografia Poliglotta/Ammonia Casale SA, Rome, 1927, p. 34.
  43. Meeting of the board of directors, 14 November 1924. It was resolved, as at that date, that the offices be moved from 280 Madison Avenue to 65 Broadway, Niagara Ammonia.
  44. Stockholders were: Hooker Electro-Chemical Co., common stock, 250; The Ammonia Corporation, A preferred, 3,983 1/3, common, 889 1/6; and Frank L. Smiley, A preferred, 1,016 2/3, common, 260 5/6. Total A preferred stock: 5,000; total common stock 1,400. Annual stockholders meeting, 2 February 1925, Niagara Ammonia.
  45. Pope was also a broker, and later sold (what probably included his own) holdings in The Ammonia Corporation. Note of sale of 350 preferred (at $100) and 652 2/3 common (at $25) stock from Pope & Company, 60 Broadway, New York, to Tucker, Anthony & Co., 120 Broadway, New York, 22 September 1925, Ammonia Corporation, box 67.
  46. Frederick Pope, Envoy Needed in Russia, New York Herald, 14 November 1932.
  47. A. C. Sutton, Western Technology and Soviet Economic Development, 1930-1945. Hoover Institution, Stanford, 1971, pp. 99-100. The American chemical engineer Alcan Hirsch ostensibly demonstrated more enthusiasm for the Soviet system. Travis, Nitrogen Capture, pp. 316, 322-324.
  48. Phosphorus-Hydrogen Company to Hydro-Electric Chemical Co., 21 April 1924, Hydro-Electric. See also, Thomas Edward Warren, The Dissociation Pressures of the Orthophosphates of Ammonia, research paper, McGill University, 1926. OAI identifier: oai:digitool.library.mcgill.ca:141772 (accessed 20 December 2020)
  49. Meeting of the board of directors, 9 December 1925, Hydro-Electric.
  50. A. M. Fairlie, Sulfuric Acid Manufacture. Reinhold Publishing Corporation, New York, 1936, pp. 150-151.
  51. Why Synthetic Ammonia Prices are Lower, Chemicals, 1926, 26(25), 12-13.
  52. Meeting of the board of directors, 2 Rector Street, New York, 15 March 1926, Niagara Ammonia. The Ammonia Corporation was in turn indebted to the Irving Bank-Columbia Trust Company (formed, in 1923, when the Columbia Trust Company of New York merged with the Irving National Bank).
  53. Meeting of the board of directors, 17 May 1926, Niagara Ammonia.
  54. On Fin Sparre, see Hounshell and Smith, Science and Corporate Strategy, pp. 35-36, 37.
  55. S. K. Varnes, Pioneering in High Pressure. In Sentimental History: The Du Pont Belle Works. A 75 Year History (Ed.: Charles J. Denham) Du Pont, Charleston, 2001, pp. 11-16, on 12 (from an account written in 1947).
  56. Claude's first ammonia patent in the United States was no 1332460 of 2 March 1920. In 1921, he received a US patent for obtaining hydrogen from a gas mixture, and another for an apparatus suited to high pressure, high temperature exothermic reactions; in 1922, two patents for producing hydrogen and one for separating constituents in a gas mixture; in 1923, one patent for high pressure apparatus for production of ammonia, and one patent for a thermally insulated apparatus. Three of Claude’s six US patents filed in 1924 covered the use of ammonia in production of ammonium chloride and sodium carbonate, which was relevant to the Solvay alkali process.
  57. Claude Patent for a Method for Direct Synthesis of Ammonia, Ind. Eng. Chem., 1925, 17(9), 985. During 1926, Claude’s US ammonia patents were assigned to Lazote.
  58. Glancing Back Over 1926, The Du Pont Magazine, 1927, 21(3), 1.
  59. S. K. Varnes, Pioneering in High Pressure, p. 14.
  60. D. A. Hounshell, J. K. Smith Jr, Science and Corporate Strategy, pp. 183-189.
  61. W. Haynes, American Chemical Industry: A History, vol. IV. The Merger Era. D. Van Nostrand, New York, 1948, p. 88. Meantime, National Ammonia Co. and Armour & Co. in 1926 had taken out licenses for ammonia processes from the Chemical Foundation.
  62. W. Haynes, The Merger Era, p. 88.
  63. Du Pont Obtains American Rights on Casale Process, Chem. Met. Eng., 1927, 34(6), 388.
  64. Board of directors. Meeting no. 29 (special meeting), 27 May 1927, Niagara Ammonia.
  65. Following the death of Luigi Casale earlier in the year (on 18 February), his place was taken by Gregg, as vice president. Board of directors. Meeting no. 38 (special meeting), 27 May 1927, Ammonia Corporation, box 66.
  66. H. A. Humphrey, Preliminary report on visit to United States of America. 9 April to 28 May 1927.
  67. Papers of Herbert Alfred Humphrey, Imperial College Archives and Corporate Records Unit, London, Item M6, pp. 94-97.
  68. Du Pont Gets the U.S. Rights to Casale Patents, Oil, Paint and Drug Reporter, 6 June 1927, p. 21. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. held 1,116 2/3 of A preferred stock, and 310 5/6 of common stock; The Ammonia Corporation held 3,883 1/3 A preferred stock, and 839 1/5 of common stock (out of a total of 5,000 A preferred stock, and 1,150 common stock).
  69. Minutes of special meeting of stockholders, 6 June 1927, Niagara Ammonia.
  70. Hydro-Electric Chemical Co., stock certificates, transfer documents, 10 June 1927. Including affidavits of Guiseppe Albisetti, member of the council of administration, Ammonia Casale SA, and Luigi Calissano, manager of Ammonia Casale SA, before the consulate of the United States of America, Milan, Italy. Hydro-Electric stock.
  71. F. A. Ernst, Fixation of Atmospheric Nitrogen, pp. 121-123; B. Waeser, Die Luftstickstoff-Industrie, mit Berücksichtigung der chilenischen Industrie und des Kokereistickstoffs. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1932, pp. 163-164.
  72. W. Haynes, The Chemical Companies, p. 213.
  73. Du Pont, Wilmington, to Ernest Iselin, A. Iselin & Company, 30 December 1927, Hydro-Electric.
  74. Du Pont, Wilmington, letters regarding meeting to be held on 26 January 1928 to consider voluntary petition in bankruptcy of Niagara Ammonia Company, Inc., 19 January 1928, Niagara Ammonia. Ammonia Corporation, Board of directors, meeting no. 41 (Special meeting), 26 January 1928; board of directors, meeting no. 42 (special meeting), 10 March 1928, Ammonia Corporation, box 66.
  75. Board of directors, meeting no. 41 (special meeting), 26 January 1928, Ammonia Corporation, box 66.
  76. Niagara Ammonia Bankrupt. Ammonia Corporation Creditor, also is Insolvent, New York Times, 16 February 1928, p. 37.
  77. C. J. Denham, Sentimental History, p. 144.
  78. Independently, Air Liquide eventually modified its Claude process, with, in the case of the Mississippi Chemical Corporation of Yazoo City, Missouri, two converters in series, and recirculation of unreacted gases. H. L. Thompson, P. Guillaumeron, N. C. Updegraff, Ammonia Synthesis at 1000 Atmospheres: The Present-day Claude Process, Chem. Eng. Prog., 1952, 48(9), 468-476. See also W. H. Shearon, H. L. Thompson, Ammonia at 1000 Atmospheres, Chem. Ind. Eng., 1952, 44(2), 254-264, on 260
  79. B. Waeser, Die Luftstickstoff-Industrie (1932), pp. 163-164; C. Stewart, A Glance at 25 Years. In Denham, Sentimental History, pp. 16-18 (from an account written in May 1950).
  80. C. J. Denham, Sentimental History.
  81. R. Norris Shreve, The Chemical Process Industries. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1945, pp. 402-404.
  82. The Pressure Synthesis of the Du Pont Ammonia Corp., Ind. Eng. Chem., 1930, 22(5), 433-437, on 433.
  83. Jasper E. Crane, of Du Pont, to George W. Norris, senator, Nebraska, 8 May 1933, in H. Tongue, The Design and Construction of High Pressure Chemical Plant. Chapman & Hall, London, 1934, pp. 377-378.
  84. G. W. Taylor, Nitrogen Production Facilities in Relation to Present and Future Demand. In Agronomy: A Series of Monographs. Vol III. Fertilizer Technology and Resources in the United States (Ed.: K. D. Jakob) Academic Press, New York, 1953, pp. 15-61, on 43.
  85. Du Pont Ammonia Corp. Dissolved, Chem. Eng. News, 1931, 9(17), 28.
  86. D. A. Hounshell, J. K. Smith Jr, Science and Corporate Strategy, pp. 186-189.
  87. P. H. Spitz, Petrochemicals: The Rise of an Industry. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1988, pp. 274-279.
  88. S. B. McGrayne, Prometheans in the Lab: Chemistry and the Making of the Modern World. McGraw-Hill, New York, 2001, pp. 79-105, esp. 96-101.
  89. Sales of anhydrous ammonia were made to the distributors Pacific Ammonia & Chemical, the main purchaser, and National Ammonia Co., Inc.; and of liquor to Hercules California, Du Pont Washington, and Fleischmann, of Sumner, Washington, totalling 276,633 pounds of ammonia. Walter Dannenbaum, vice president, to board of directors, Pacific Nitrogen Corporation, 13 July 1928. Pacific Nitrogen Corporation. Reports of Walter Dannenbaum 1926-29. Hagley, Accession 1305, box 1471.
  90. Pacific Nitrogen Corporation. Board of Trustees, minutes of special meeting, 24 April 1928. Present: F. A. Wardenburg, in the chair; Jasper E. Crane; Walter Dannenbaum, vice president; H. Dannenbaum; Walter U. Reisinger, treasurer. Pacific Nitrogen Corporation, Minutes, 1924-31. Stockholders and Board of Trustees. Hagley, Accession 1305, box 1468 (hereafter Pacific Nitrogen).
  91. Pacific Nitrogen Corporation. Board of Trustees. Minutes of special meeting, 31 December 1930, Pacific Nitrogen.
  92. W. Haynes, The Merger Era, p. 88.
  93. F. A. Ernst, Fixation of Atmospheric Nitrogen, p. 94; Haynes, The Chemical Companies, p. 213.
  94. Significant Trends in Nitrogen Fixation, Ind. Eng. Chem., 1927, 19(12), 1307.
  95. A. D. Chandler, Jr., T. Hikino, D. Mowery, The Evolution of Corporate Capability and Corporate Strategy and Structure Within the World’s Largest Chemical Firms: The Twentieth Century in Perspective. In Chemicals and Long-Term Economic Growth: Insights from the Chemical Industry (Eds.: A. Arora, R. Landau, N. Rosenberg) John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1998, pp. 415-457, 417-421.
  96. A. S. Travis, Dyes Made in America, 1916-1918. The Calco Chemical Company, American Cyanamid and the Raritan River. Sidney M. Edelstein Center/Hexagon Press, Jerusalem, 2004.