Early Industrial Chemistry Program Serves Regional Industry

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When he came to the UW in 1904 as an assistant professor of chemistry, Henry K. Benson was asked to develop courses in physical and industrial chemistry. After his arrival, Benson launched studies of the soils of Washington State. He investigated the potential for industrial use of regional resources such as coal, lime, and clay, and of forest resources such as Douglas fir and other conifers. His concern for developing the region's industries spurred the creation of the Bureau of Industrial Research, which he helped establish in 1916, and of which he served as director.

[Henry K. Benson]
Henry K. Benson

Benson developed a curriculum for chemical engineering, beginning with the reorganization of an industrial chemistry course and the introduction of a course in electrochemistry. The industrial chemistry course was expanded to two semesters in 1908, and an additional class, "Chemical Technology," was added in 1909­10. Benson also taught the courses on "Gas and Fuel Analysis," "Soils and Fertilizer," and "Road Oils and Tars." He was made head of chemistry in 1919, and of a dual department of chemistry and chemical engineering in 1925, serving until his retirement in 1947. The department was split into separate departments for chemistry and chemical engineering in 1953. Over the years, Benson became known as the "Father of Chemical Engineering" at the University of Washington; today, the building that houses the Department of Chemical Engineering bears his name.footnote 1

Benson's research interests focused largely on the pulp and paper industry. He established laboratories on campus with pulp and paper testing equipment. By the end of the 1930s, Benson was directing work on such projects as the application of bacteriological methods to sulfite waste liquor disposal, and related problems in lignin and wood utilization.

During the late 1930s and 40s, the pulp and paper industry had been polluting the region's rivers and Puget Sound so seriously that the state legislature had threatened to take action. UW research aimed at solving some of these pollution problems helped keep the pulp and paper industries running.

In 1944, assisted by UW professor Joseph McCarthy, Benson established the Pulp Mills Research Project with financial support from about 20 of the region's pulp and paper mills. Their goals were to develop methods for avoiding the discharge of waste into water and air, and to find methods for purifying certain spent liquors that were produced as effluents from pulp processes. Results of the effort were published in over 100 scientific papers and presentations.

McCarthy continued research relating to the pulp and paper industry, mainly on the lignin sulfonates and sugars in the spent liquor of sulfite pulp mills. His pioneering processes for making ethyl alcohol from spent pulp liquor helped to reduce pollution of Puget Sound. And as a result of UW research on the lignin sulfonates, several uses for them were developed by industry. Sales of the lignin sulfonate products now amount to several hundred million pounds per year.

  1. "A History of the Department of Chemical Engineering, 1904-1995," Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, 98195.
  2. The author wishes to thank Arthur G. Anderson, Professor Emeritus, Chemistry, Joseph L. McCarthy, Professor Emeritus, Chemical Engineering, and Bruce Finlayson, Chairman, Department of Chemical Engineering, for information and assistance they provided in preparing this vignette.

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