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Hou Te-Pang (Debang Hou)

HOU TE-PANG (DEBANG HOU)

(b. Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China, 9 August 1890; d. Beijing, China, 26 August 1974),

chemistry, applied chemistry, chemical engineering.

An outstanding Chinese chemist and chemical engineer of the modern period, Hou directed the first successful use in Asia of the Solvay process. He authored Manufacture of Soda, with Special Reference to the Ammonia Process (1933), an influential work in which he summarized, from a theoretical perspective, his experience in successfully manufacturing soda. He also overcame the difficulties of wartime to direct the beginnings of a new, dual soda-manufacturing process, one that bears his name: Hou’s process. In 1958 he became vice minister of the Ministry of Chemical Industry of the People’s Republic of China.

Childhood and Education . Hou Te-pang (also called “Zhiben” and “Debang Hou”) was born on 9 August 1890, on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the reign of Emperor Guangxu, and his birth was registered in Fuzhou. His father died young, and Hou was raised by his paternal grandfather, a private tutor. He performed farm chores while studying. At the age of thirteen he entered Yinghua Academy, a former missionary school in Fuzhou. After three years he entered a middle school, where his grades placed him at the head of his class. As a result he was recommended for study at the Fujian-Anhui Railroad College in Shanghai. After graduating in 1908, he was sent to the Tianjin-Puzhou (Pukou) Railroad Company to work as an engineer. To further his education, he successfully passed a test for the Boxer indemnity scholarship and entered Tsinghua (Qinghua) School in Beijing to prepare himself to study abroad. During his period of study there, the school suspended classes because of the outbreak of the Revolution of 1911.

In 1912 Hou graduated with honors from Tsinghua School and, supported by the boxer scholarship, he studied chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in 1917. He then went to Pratt Institute in New York City to study tanning. In 1918 he entered Columbia University, also in New York City, from which he received a master’s degree in 1919 and a PhD in chemical engineering in 1921, with a thesis on iron tannage.

In the Soda Industry . After receiving his PhD, Hou received an invitation from Fan Xudong, general manager of Yong Li Soda Plant in Tianjin, to be technical manager of the plant. Hou had had contact with Yong Li Soda Plant before. He deeply respected Fan Xudong’s ambition to save China through industrialization, and Fan Xudong admired Hou’s knowledge.

After World War I, Fan Xudong and other entrepreneurs were goaded into action by the inflationary effect of the war on markets. After trying to establish themselves as salt manufacturers, they realized the importance of soda manufacturing in a modern industrial system and decided to produce it. To this end they sought to use the rich lime and salt deposits near Tanggu (Tianjin) and to take advantage of the tax exemption for the industrial use of salt that they had acquired from the warlord government of the time. Planning to build a soda plant in three years, they ultimately took nearly ten. Several times they were on the brink of bankruptcy, the primary cause being the cost of overcoming technical difficulties.

At the time, the primary technique for manufacturing soda was the Solvay technique of applying the ammonia process. Around 1900 the Solvay patent rights expired, and many independent factories cropped up. When the Yong Li Soda Plant was set up in 1917, the technology was controlled primarily by the Solvay group and a few independent companies. Fan Xudong and his partners first contacted a Belgian company that had stopped production because of World War I and whose plant was for sale, but because they could not accept the Belgians’ stringent conditions, negotiations fell through. They then turned to the United States, where, after much trouble, they were able to commission a retired soda-plant manager to design a factory. The numerous difficulties encountered indicate a flawed design, a major factor in which seems to have been a lack of consideration given to differences between China and the United States regarding the availability of resources.

In 1921, when Hou arrived at the Yong Li Soda Plant, the factory was in the process of installing equipment. After installation came the testing stage, starting in 1922, during which all sorts of technical problems cropped up, one after another, many of which could not have been anticipated. The factory could not yet produce soda, mainly because impure raw materials were used— sea brine instead of rock salt and ammonium sulfate instead of ammonia. Hou, using the theoretical training he had acquired abroad, modified and improved every link in the technology, devised new methods to purify the raw materials, redesigned some key pieces of equipment, and learned from many failures. Regular production began slowly in 1924; in June 1926, he finally achieved lasting success in continuously producing high-grade sodium carbonate. At the Sesquicentennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia in the same year, soda from the company received a gold medal. In 1927 production was up to fourteen thousand tons, and in 1937 to fifty thousand tons. This success in producing soda became, for technical experts who studied in the West, a model for solving the problems that arise in introducing western technology into the uncertainties of the Chinese market. It also planted within Chinese industrial circles confidence in applying science in China’s industry.

Writer of International Handbooks . Throughout his career, Hou was an assiduous writer. He wrote in both Chinese and English, publishing ten technical treatises and over seventy papers. His most influential work was Manufacture of Soda(1933), written in English and published in New York. For this work the author received a grant from the China Foundation for the Promotion of Education and Culture to travel to the United States to research soda manufacturing. The book attracted much attention in both the chemical industry and academic circles. Manufacture of Soda draws on the author’s records of, and knowledge gained from, his more than ten years experience in the operation of a soda plant. Though Hou considered the manufacture of soda from a practical point of view, he provided sufficient theoretical exposition to ensure that his points were consistent with the scientific reasoning of the time. He hoped that the fields of physics and chemistry would publish data on gases and liquids so that other chemical industries might benefit from it.

In Manufacture of Soda, Hou put forth the complete process of the Solvay method. Recognized throughout the world, the book was considered the primary work on the ammonia process for making sodium carbonate and the best work on the Solvay method. In 1942 a revised edition was published in New York, and in 1948 the Stat Chemical Literature Press in the Soviet Union published a Russian translation of the revised edition. In 1942 Hou contributed the chapter titled “Soda and Chlorine Products” to the sixth edition of Rogers’ Industrial Chemistry.

Production of Nitrogen Fertilizers . In 1934 Yong Li Co. received a large loan from the Republican government in Nanjing in order to become an integrated chemical corporation for the production of ammonia, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and ammonium sulfate fertilizer. Fan Xudong changed the name of his corporation to the Yong Li Chemical Industry Corp. to reflect its broader scope. A new site was purchased for the erection of the Yong Li Ammonia Plant. In the meantime, Hou went abroad to select appropriate technology, organize the design, select and purchase equipment, organize technical training, and hire foreign experts. He signed a contract with the American Cyanamid Company, which would supervise construction. Within China he organized, built, installed, and tested all the systems. The construction project was done well and completed quickly. In January 1937 Yong Li Ammonia Plant at Xiejiadian in Nanjing had its first successful trial run and began regular production. The Xiejiadian complex was the most modern and complete chemical plant in China before World War II.

The Hou Soda Process . At this point, thanks to Hou, China had acquired the two basic components of the chemical industry, acids and bases. Not long after the Yong Li Ammonia Plant began production, the Japanese Imperial Army captured Nanjing in 1937. Hou evacuated at the last moment, carrying with him only designs and taking with him plant personnel. After passing through many places, they ended up at Wutongqiao, Leshan County, Sichuan Province, where they hoped to reconstruct a base of chemical operations using resources of the area. Even under the trying conditions of war, Hou and his colleagues again greatly improved soda-manufacturing technology.

In Wutongqiao, salt was both cheap and of acceptable quality. Because the Solvay technique for applying the ammonia process has a low salt-utilization rate and requires pure sodium chloride, which could be produced from crude local salt only at enormous cost, this technique is not suited to the Wutongqiao area. At that time Hou became aware of the German patent for the Zahn process, which has a high salt-utilization rate. He went to Germany to negotiate the lease of this patent. He did not succeed, however, because the Germans, due to their close ties to Japan, refused to transfer patents to China. Hou then decided to develop independently a new soda-manufacturing technique with a higher rate of utilization of the raw materials.

Toward the end of 1938, Hou formulated a plan in New York and had teams in Hong Kong and Shanghai carry out experiments. In the fall of 1939 he had enough knowledge of all the technical requirements of the Zahn process. By 1941 he had developed a manufacturing process that, though not perfect, was superior to the Zahn process and that came to be called the Hou soda process. By the end of 1943, after many semi-industrial chemical experiments, he had developed a process entirely different from the Zahn process that could be put into continuous production.

Hou’s process has the advantages of both the Solvay and Zahn processes. It uses the carbon dioxide produced by the ammonia plant and also employs the chlorine salt produced by the soda plant. It increases the rate of utilization of the raw materials and avoids the waste liquids produced in the Solvay process. Moreover, it greatly reduces the investment in equipment and costs. Hou’s process combines the Solvay soda-manufacturing and the Haber ammonia-production processes and thus is an important development in soda-manufacturing technology. Its final products are soda and ammonium chloride, which can be used as fertilizer. Hou’s work built up morale in China’s industrial circles during the second Sino-Japanese War, from 1937 to 1945.

Large-scale industrial use of the Hou soda process was achieved only after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. In 1964, when it was appraised by China’s National Science Council, Hou himself suggested that his process be formally named the dual process rather than Hou’s process. At the end of the twentieth century, Hou’s process was one of the primary processes used to manufacture sodium carbonate in China, which produces more sodium carbonate than any other country.

On the international stage, Hou helped Brazil build a soda plant, and he helped an Indian soda plant improve its technology and equipment. After Japan’s surrender in 1945, he played a major role in negotiations with Japan for the return of equipment removed from China during the war.

Honors and Political Career . For his outstanding contributions, Hou received many honors both at home and abroad. In 1930 he was awarded first-class honors with a university medal from Columbia University. In 1933 he received an honorary gold medal from the chair of the China Association of Engineers. In 1935 he was among the first members of the newly established National Research Council, set up by the Nanking government. In 1943 he was named an honorary member of the British Royal Society of Chemistry in London.

Prior to 1949, Hou held the positions of chief engineer, plant manager, and general manager at Yong Li Co., serving in both a technical and administrative capacity. In 1948 he was elected a member of the Academia Sinica (Chinese Academy) in Taipei. After the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, Hou was elected as a member of the Academic Division of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing in 1955. He was appointed as vice minister of the Ministry of Chemical Industry in 1958 and served society in many other capacities. In whatever capacity he served, no matter how high, Hou went down to the shop floor to give lectures, present reports, have personal conversations, gain direct experience, and introduce new technology and knowledge. After 1972, although he suffered from several illnesses and had difficulty getting around, he continued to inspect factories frequently, helped solve technical problems, and invited technical personnel to his house to discuss how to improve and develop Hou’s process. In August 1974 Hou died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Beijing.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

WORKS BY HOU

Iron Tannage. New York, 1921.

Manufacture of Soda, with Special Reference to the Ammonia Process: A Practical Treatise. New York: Chemical Catalog, 1933.

“Jianye zhi xingqi” (The rise of the soda industry). Haiwang 11, no. 2 (1938): 7.

“Soda and Chlorine Products.” In Rogers’ Industrial Chemistry: A Manual for the Student and Manufacturer, 6th ed., edited by Allen Rogers. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1942.

Cong huaxuejia guandian tan yuanzi neng. Beijing: Huaxue Gongye Chubanshe, 1957.

Zhijian gongxue (The science of manufacturing soda). Beijing: Huaxue Gongye Chubanshe, 1959–1960.

With Wei Yunchang. Zhijian gongye gongzuozhe shouce (Manual for workers in the soda-manufacturing industry). Beijing: Zhongguo Gongye Chubanshe, 1962.

With Hu Xian’geng. Si suan san jian (Four acids and three bases). Beijing: Kexue Puji Chubanshe, 1966.

With Hu Xian’geng. Suan he jian (Acids and bases). Beijing: Kexue Chubanshe, 1980.

Hou Debang xuanji (Selected papers of Hou Debang). Edited by Li Zhichuan and Chen Xinwen. Beijing: Yejin Gongye Chubanshe, 1990.

OTHER SOURCES

Boorman, Howard L., ed. Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

Li, Zhichuan, and Chen Xinwen. Hou Debang. Tianjin, China: Nankai Daxue Chubanshe, 1986.

Reardon-Anderson, James. The Study of Change: Chemistry in China, 1840–1949. New York; Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Shijie Guo

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