north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
      In 1936, C. C. Furnas, professor of chemical engineering at Yale, heralded an advance which had taken place two years before: “On January 10, 1934, the Dow Chemical Company opened the flood gates of a new plant on a neck of land near Wilmington, North Carolina, and started extracting bromine from sea water. . . . From the beginning of terrestrial time down to that day no one had ever put into operation for commercial production a plant for the bona fide extraction of any one of the elements from the boundless reservoir.”

      Bromine was used in photography and chemical warfare but its principal use was in Ethyl, an anti-knock compound in gasoline. The process for its refinement from sea water had been known for several years. The Ethyl Gasoline Corporation in 1924 launched the S.S. Ethyl, aboard which they perfected the process. Increasing need for their product necessitated a land-based production facility. In a joint venture with Dow, Ethyl purchased ninety acres at Kure Beach. The site met several requirements: no dilution of sea water by fresh water streams, no industrial waste in the source water, and a way to get rid of used sea water without diluting the source, i.e., by channeling the water into the Cape Fear River. The site offered unexpected advantages: a natural basin for a holding reservoir, formed by a “Carolina bay,” and an abandoned trench, thrown up as part of the Cape Fear defense system in 1865.

      The plant, which proved to be a boon to the local economy during the Depression, was erected at a cost of three million dollars. At the peak of production, 15,000 pounds of bromine were extracted per day. It was necessary to treat 2,000 gallons of water to yield a single pound. The process involved precipitation, vaporization, and absorption, using massive “blowing-out towers.” Press reports of the process excited interest in the possibility of extracting gold from the sea. Production ceased in 1946 when a plant for the dual extraction of magnesium and bromine opened in Texas. Parts of the plant in North Carolina were salvaged by local industries but the concrete bases of the towers have defied destruction.


References:
Leroy C. Stewart, “Commercial Extraction of Bromine from Sea Water,” Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol. 26, no. 4 (April 1934), pp. 361-369
“Mining Bromine at Sea,” Scientific American (June 1934)
Wilmington Star-News, April 1, 1934
Joseph C. Robert, Ethyl: A History of the Corporation and the People Who Made It (1983)
Don Whitehead, The Dow Story: The History of the Dow Chemical Company (1968)
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north carolina highway historical marker program


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