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The DuPont Belle Works, a mainstay in the economy of the upper Kanawha Valley of West Virginia for more than 90 years, pioneered a new industry, commercial chemical synthesis at hyper pressures. Rootstock chemicals for the entire world supply of nylon came from the Belle Works from 1937 to 1946, and the plant remained important in the production of nylon until 1968. Located at Belle on the Kanawha River 11 miles east of Charleston, this plant of the E. I. DuPont Company employed more than 5,000 people at its peak in the early 1950s.

The story began in the mid-1920s, when DuPont decided to commence the manufacture of ammonia using technology developed by Germany during World War I. The process used giant mechanical compressors called ‘‘hypers’’ to achieve pressures up to 15,000 pounds per square inch. Under these conditions, hydrogen made from coke gas would react with nitrogen from the air to make ammonia. DuPont built the Belle plant in 1925. Since coal (made into coke) was the primary ingredient it was natural for the plant to be built in the heart of coal country.

On April 1, 1926, the first high-pressure-process ammonia in North America was produced at Belle. This achievement provided the raw materials to manufacture a myriad of chemical products. The first commercial synthetic wood alcohol, or methanol, was made at Belle in 1927. The ability to make chemicals by combining coal gas and other chemicals at high pressures was an important technological breakthrough. It led to the creation of many new polymers, including nylon. Ammonia was also used to make the fertilizer known as urea that led to the so called Green Revolution and helped to feed the burgeoning global population.

All of the nylon used by the U.S. armed forces during World War II came from chemicals produced by the Belle Works. Nylon was used for war needs such as parachutes and shoe laces. A new clear plastic called Lucite, made at Belle beginning in 1937, was used for the canopies of Allied warplanes. Other chemicals made at Belle such as Zerex antifreeze and hydraulic fluids also found wartime uses.

After World War II, the plant reached its peak employment as the peacetime uses of nylon, Lucite, Zerex, and urea exploded. As demand grew, the old processes were improved to use cleaner, more economical oil and natural gas as raw materials. The Belle Works switched from coke to natural gas in 1959. Other changes were made as large new plants were built in other locations where oil and natural gas were readily available. In 1978, the plant stopped producing ammonia, and in 1998 the last of the giant hyper compressors were cut up into scrap. Today, the plant still produces specialty chemicals but with automation and new technology the work force has fallen below 700. The hypers and the smoking coke ovens with their gleaming fires showing through the night are gone forever, but the contributions of the Belle plant to 20th-century American life are historic.

This Article was written by Richard A. Andre

Last Revised on March 15, 2013

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Sources

Sentimental Journey: The DuPont Belle Works: A 75-Year History 1926-2001. Charleston: E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., 2001.

Cite This Article

Andre, Richard A. "DuPont Belle Works." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 15 March 2013. Web. 23 September 2018.

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