Frasch, Herman (1851-1914)

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Frasch, Herman (1851-1914)

German-born American chemist

Herman Frasch, the son of a prosperous apothecary, was born in Gaildorf, Württemberg (now part of Germany) on Christmas Day 1851. He studied at the gymnasium in Halle but rather than attend the university, he decided to immigrate to the United States in 1868. Frasch taught at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and continued to study chemistry with an eye to becoming an expert in a newly-emerging field, petroleum .

The oil industry in the United States began with the opening of the Titusville, Pennsylvania, oil field in 1859. In 1870, John D. Rockefeller formed Standard Oilwhich refined a majority of the oil in the countryin Cleveland, Ohio. Frasch sold his patent for an improved process for refining paraffin wax to a subsidiary of Standard Oil in 1877 and moved to Cleveland to open a laboratory and consulting office. Soon he became the city's outstanding chemical consultant. In 1882, he sold to the Imperial Oil Company in Ontario, Canada, a process for reducing the high sulfur content of petroleum, which gave it a disagreeable odor and caused the kerosene refined from it to burn poorly. When Standard Oil discovered a field of "sour oil" in Indiana and Ohio, the company hired Frasch as a full time consultant, bought his process and the Empire Oil Company he had recently purchased in Ontario, and gave him charge of the American petroleum industry's first experimental research program. Frasch's process for removing sulfur, patented in 1887, was to treat the petroleum with a variety of metallic oxides to precipitate the sulfur and recover the oxides for further use. He continued with Standard Oil as special consultant for the development of new petroleum by-products and became wealthy. He refused to join Standard Oil as an executive, choosing instead to be a lifetime consultant.

Frasch turned his attention to sulfur, the substance his process removed from petroleum. The island of Sicily held a virtual monopoly on this valuable mineral from which sulfuric acid, industry's most vital chemical, was made. While Sicilian sulfur deposits were near the earth's surface and more easily mined, sulfur deposits in Texas and Louisiana were deeper, and American laborers were unwilling to go into sulfur mines. Frasch believed that sulfur could be melted and pumped from the ground in much the same manner petroleum was, but boiling water was not hot enough to liquefy the sulfur. He organized the Union Sulfur Company in 1892, and two years later began employing the method he had patented a year earlier. His process required three concentric pipes to be sunk into the sulfur deposit. Water, superheated under pressure to above 241°F (116°C), was pumped into the sulfur deposit through the outside pipe. Compressed air was forced down the center pipe, and through the center pipe the melted sulfur flowed to the surface where it was pumped into bins to solidify. The major problem with this method was the cost of heating the water, but the discovery of the East Texas oil fields in the early twentieth century provided an inexpensive, readily available fuel supply. Frasch expanded his research into the use of sulfur as an insecticide and a fungicide. Other companies infringed on his patent rights, and his company disappeared, but the use of the Frasch process enabled the United States to become self-sufficient in the production of sulfur needed to supply its growing chemical industry.

Frasch died in Paris on May 1, 1914. Among his honors was the Perkin Medal in 1912. His greatest honor was the distinction of having two chemical processes, one for producing sulfur and the other for removing sulfur from petroleum, carry his name.

See also Petroleum detection; Petroleum, economic uses of; Petroleum extraction; Petroleum, history of exploration