The tasks at hand varied widely. The need to diversify, to develop new industries, was present right from day one. Hydro had hydroelectric power at its disposal and wanted to produce more than mineral fertilizer. The company had already started looking into the possibility of utilizing raw materials found in Norwegian rock to produce aluminum. But this proved to be difficult, very difficult indeed.
In the glow or the shadow of the electric arc furnace?
Hydro was founded on a basis of advanced research. Many of the company’s engineers in the early years saw the electric arc as the very soul of the company. Research departments were set up at both Notodden and Rjukan to work on improvements to the operational processes, but the research centre Hydro built at Skøyen in 1919 had a broader brief. It was to develop completely new products and alternative processes for producing ammonia.
The research centre at Skøyen was designed for 30 – 50 employees. In the development of ammonia technology, it competed with, amongst others, leading German companies that amalgamated in 1925 in I.G. Farben, and had a research organization employing around 3,700 people.
Leading research scientists in Hydro had believed for some time that it was possible to develop Hydro’s electric arc technology, whereby nitrogen was bound in nitric acid, whereas in the German technology nitrogen was bound in ammonia. The aim was to develop a pressure furnace. Hydro had the advantage of cheap hydroelectric power.
Hydro’s development work was more successful on a small scale than in the large scale trials. Developing a commercial technology did not seem likely in the near future and time was running out. The Haber-Bosch synthesis, a technology developed in Germany, was still a tough competitor, and finances were tight during the twenties.
In the spring of 1927, Hydro’s management decided to enter into a partnership with the German company I.G. Farben, which made it possible to expand the calcium nitrate plants at Rjukan for production by the “ammonia method” as it was called.
Meanwhile the construction of an ammonia factory based on the American synthesis technology was underway. The collaboration with American engineers breathed new life into Hydro’s research environment. Several important breakthroughs followed. In a short space of time Hydro’s engineers succeeded in developing an efficient ammonia catalyst, a method for cleaning synthesis gas and a method for measuring the oxygen content in gas mixtures.
These achievements helped Hydro’s ammonia plant at Notodden, which was later referred to as ”the tactical plant”, to become highly successful.
The work carried out on pressure absorption of nitrous gases was later put at the disposal of Du Pont, who further developed and commercialized the technology.
Closer to production
The partnership with I.G. Farben also affected Hydro’s own research activities. The agreement gave Hydro access to I.G. Farben’s development results on the condition that Hydro did not carry out equivalent work itself. This arrangement was not popular at the Skøyen research centre in Oslo. Hydro’s managing director Axel Aubert supported the closure of the central research organization and the setting up local research and development units in the plant laboratories or in direct connection to plant operations.
In 1927, the research centre was put up for sale, but work continued for another couple of years.
New difficulties – new opportunities Protectionism ruled the markets in the 1930s. For Hydro this meant that the need for diversification increased. The company strove to develop new fertilizer products and technologies for new branches of industry.
It was in the 1930s that one of today’s most important fertilizer products – the complex fertilizer NPK – was developed, mainly on the basis of studies carried out by the engineer Erling Johnson at the smelter Odda Smelteverk. Johnson had also submitted a number of patent applications.
Another project that was developed and realized was the production of heavy water (deuterium) by means of electrolysis. The company built a unit for producing high concentrations of heavy water at the Vemork plant at Rjukan. Production started in December 1934.
Hydro’s research scientists also resumed work on developing efficient production technology for aluminum and magnesium. During the years up to 1940, preparations were made for the building of a magnesium plant at Herøya, near Porsgrunn.
Renewed efforts after 1945
The second World War changed a great deal. Not least for the fertilizer industry. The German company I.G. Farben was split up in the peace settlement. Hydro’s management was no longer bound by earlier agreements, and was again able to build up a strong research environment in the company.
In 1946, a research unit was set up at the company’s main office in Oslo, and a new research laboratory was established in Hydro’s industrial site at Herøya, near Porsgrunn.
The aim was to develop new production methods in areas such as metallurgy, petrochemicals and organic chemistry. Further development of existing processes and products would be taken care of at the individual plants.
Hydro started producing both magnesium and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) at its Herøya plant in the early fifties. Both areas required close follow-up from the research centre.
Management came to realize the increasing importance of Hydro’s research unit for the company’s competitive edge – both in technological and commercial terms. More development tasks came to be transferred from the operational units to the central research unit.
Examples of research projects Hydro was engaged in the 1920s and 1930s:
- Manufacture of aluminum oxide from labradorite or leucite.
- Pressure absorption of nitrous gases (later passed on to Du Pont, who further developed and commercialized the technology)
- Synthetic fuel based on Spitzbergen coal
- Complex fertilizer (NPK)
- Super phosphate
- Ammonia- and sodium-phosphate (Hydro’s phosphoric acid process)
- Potassium from seawater
- Process for concentration of heavy water (deuterium)
- Purification and production process for dry ice
- Hydrogen, ammonia and synthesis gas as fuel for car engines
- Road salt (calcium chloride)
- Bromine, silver and gold from seawater
Updated: August 18, 2020