First Electrolytic Production Of Bromine

Herbert Henry Dow (1866-1930)
Herbert H. Dow, 1924Herbert H. Dow, born in Belleville, Ontario,  was reared to a life of enterprise and invention by his father, J. Henry Dow, a tinkerer and inventor best remembered for the Dow turbine, a device that powered U.S. Navy torpedoes during much of the 19th century. He grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from the Case School of Applied Science in 1888, having studied chemistry with the renowned Edward W. Morley and physics with Albert A. Michelson, the first U.S. Nobel laureate (1907). Dow's senior thesis, a study of the composition of northern Ohio salt brines, initiated a lifelong interest in "mining" the chemicals stored in underground brines. By graduation, he had devised his "blowing-out" process for liberating bromine from the brine and received the first of 107 patents he eventually was granted.

Main Street in Midland, Michigan, 1989In 1889, Dow formed the Canton Chemical Company (Canton, Ohio) to exploit his invention. The company failed because the process was not economically feasible. Dow then began experiments using electrolytic cells. In 1890 he moved to Midland, Mich., and established the Midland Chemical Company, where he first produced bromine electrolytically. Once this firm was operating successfully, Dow began extracting other elements from the brine, beginning with chlorine. His backers, however, refused to fund these efforts, and he was fired in 1894. Undaunted, he returned to the Canton area and formed the Dow Process Company, where he worked in great secrecy to perfect his electrolytic cell to extract chlorine from brine. In 1897, with the help of supporters in Cleveland, he formed The Dow Chemical Company, using his new chlorine cell to make bleach as its original product. The company was an immediate success and in 1900 absorbed the Midland Chemical Company.

In succeeding years, during which Dow continued his work at the lab bench, the company made and marketed a growing number of products derived from the brine stream, ranging from chloroform and sodium benzoate to calcium chloride and Epsom salts. During World War I, the company succeeded in extracting magnesium metal from the brines and was the first in the United States to synthesize indigo, a key dyestuff cut off from U.S. markets by the war in Europe.

After World War I, Charles F. Kettering and Thomas Midgley, Jr., of General Motors, the developers of tetraethyl lead, came to Herbert Dow with a technical problem. Their desire to make tetraethyl lead, or "ethyl" gas (which prevented knocking in automobile engines) available to U.S. motorists would require huge volumes of ethylene dibromide and therefore more bromine than anyone in the world could produce. "Perhaps more bromine than exists in the world," Midgley said. "Then we'll have to go to the oceans for it," Dow told them. The ocean waters, he explained, were simply "diluted brines."

By 1929, he was ready to build a plant to extract bromine from seawater, but death intervened. Dow died on Oct. 16, 1930.  His work was completed in 1934 by Willard H. Dow, his son and successor as the company's president.

 

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