Union Carbide Corporation

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Union Carbide Corporation 2016-12-06T05:35:24+00:00

Union Carbide Corporation

   

The giant multi-national American company, Union Carbide, was formally incorporated in November 1917 as Union Carbide & Carbon Corporation – the name reflecting their earlier history in carbon products (including carbons for electric arc street lights and electric furnaces) and calcium carbide for making acetylene for carriage lamps.

Such was the emergence of new technology in the 1920s and 30s that the Company soon became involved, through mergers and expansions, into new areas such as gases and metal alloys. Its particular strength was the ability to transmit laboratory-scale operations into full-scale production – a skill that proved of exceptional value in World War II in the manufacture of butadiene and polyethylene used in the production of synthetic rubber and high-frequency cable insulation respectively. The Company was also deeply involved in the production of the atom bomb.

Post-war, the manufacture of polyethylene developed into one of their major successes. The high-pressure process had originally been acquired as part of a war-time agreement with the inventors of polyethylene, ICI. Union Carbide had also acquired in 1939 Leo Baekeland’s Bakelite Corporation which they added to a portfolio of other plastics including PVC and, later, plastics such as polyester and epoxide resins and various engineering plastics.

In the UK, Bakelite Limited was used as the selling arm for Union Carbide polyethylene which was marketed under the famous Bakelite trademark and in 1958 a new 10,000 tons per annum PE plant was opened at Grangemouth, Scotland to replace the imported American product.

By 1957, the company (now called Union Carbide Corporation) had 400 plants in North America alone and affiliated companies throughout the world. Its product range was huge, ranging from electronic components and cryogenics to plastics and metals.

In the UK, in 1963, UCC merged its UK plastics interests with those of the Distillers Company to form Bakelite Xylonite Ltd. which at one time employed 11,000 people. UCC became the sole owner of the new company in 1970 but sold it, together with most of its other European plastics interests, to BP Chemicals in 1979. BP changed the name to BXL Plastics Ltd.

A great tragedy was to overwhelm the company. In 1984, at Bhopal, India a methyl isocyanate plant owned jointly by the Indian government and UCC accidentally leaked the deadly gas into the nearby town causing 2,800 deaths with thousands more severely affected. It was the worst industrial disaster in history and the company never recovered. Its businesses were gradually sold off to meet its huge liabilities and the particular plastics jewel in their crown, Unipol process for making polyethylene which owned jointly with EXXON, was sold in April, 2000, together with much else to the Dow Corporation in America.