On June 28, 1940, with the Japanese military threatening America’s sources of natural rubber, President Franklin Roosevelt designated rubber as a strategic and critical material. In August 1940, Union Carbide Corporation was asked to investigate ways to produce butadiene and styrene, which would be used in making synthetic rubber. Within six months, Union Carbide had perfected a process and designed equipment to convert ethyl alcohol into butadiene.
In August 1941, the U.S. Defense Plant Corporation authorized Union Carbide to build a butadiene plant at Institute with a capacity of 10,000 tons per year, which was increased to 80,000 tons per year in late 1941. Union Carbide was also asked to design, build, and operate a styrene plant. The U.S. Rubber Company was asked to design, build, and operate an adjacent rubber polymerization plant. It would consume 80,000 tons of butadiene and 25,000 tons of styrene and combine them to make 90,000 tons per year of Buna-S synthetic rubber.
Shortly after the December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese cut off 90 percent of America’s natural rubber supply. In 1942, Union Carbide and U.S. Rubber undertook to build the synthetic rubber plant in the middle of the former Wertz Air Field at Institute.
Meanwhile, construction started on the first alcohol-to-butadiene unit in April 1942. In January 1943, less than 10 months later, the first of four butadiene units started production. Construction started on two styrene units in July 1942, and the first operation began in April 1943. The construction of the three rubber polymerization units began in August 1942, and operation began seven months later. At the peak of construction, nearly 7,000 men worked around-the-clock, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to build the synthetic rubber complex.
The first shipment of Buna-S synthetic rubber left the plant on March 31, 1943. By May 31, one million pounds of Buna-S had been produced. On June 10, government and industry dignitaries visited Institute to see the miracle plant. Institute became the largest government synthetic rubber plant and the only one whose production was totally integrated, from ethyl alcohol to the final product. In 1944, Institute produced 131,000 tons of butadiene. During World War II, the Institute plant produced 60 percent of the Buna-S made from ethyl alcohol in the United States.
After World War II ended, the government discontinued the rubber program, causing the plant to be shut down in 1946. Union Carbide purchased the butadiene, styrene, and support facilities in 1947 and began a massive conversion effort to produce other chemicals and add new facilities. The rubber facilities were purchased by B. F. Goodrich, restarted as Goodrich-Gulf Corporation, and manufactured synthetic rubber until the 1960s, when Union Carbide purchased the rubber plant.
This Article was written by Warren J. Woomer
Last Revised on November 05, 2010
"Butadiene and Styrene for Buna S Synthetic Rubber from Grain Alcohol." Carbide & Carbon Chemicals Corp., Union Carbide & Carbon Corp., NY, 1943.
"Synthetic Times - In the Great Kanawha Valley." Institute, WV United States Rubber Co., 1943.
Report on the Rubber Program, 1940-1945. Washington: Rubber Reserve Co., 1945.
Cite This Article
Woomer, Warren J. "Synthetic Rubber." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 05 November 2010. Web. 29 April 2017.