The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Frasch, Herman

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Frasch, Herman

FRASCH, Herman, inventor, b. at Gaildorf, Württemberg, Germany, 25 Dec, 1852; d. in Paris, France, 1 May, 1914, son of John and Frieda Henrietta (Bauer) Frasch. Both his parents were natives of Stuttgart, his father was burgomaster of Gaildorf. His family on both sides was notable, particularly in the military life of Germany; his uncle, Major Borth, was killed in the Franco-Prussian War, and a first cousin, Lieut. Col. Frederick Borth, of Württemberg, a member of the staff of the Grand Duke Albrecht, was killed during the recent operations in France, on 18 Aug., 1914. Herman Frasch was educated in the city of Halle, passing through the successive grades of the public and Latin schools and the gymnasium. At the age of sixteen he entered upon his work as a pharmacist in Halle, but about one year later came to the United States, sailing from Bremen and landing in Philadelphia. Soon after his arrival, he entered the laboratory of Prof. John M. Maisch at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Here he worked for several years, perfecting his knowledge of pharmaceutical chemistry and rendering valuable assistance to his chief, through his daring and originality in experiment. His interest, however, turned steadily toward industrial chemistry, a branch of the science then coming into increasing prominence, and in 1874 he opened a laboratory of his own, and began a series of experiments that proved him the master-mind that the world was destined to recognize and honor in later years. He received his first patent, covering a process for utilizing tin scrap, in 1874; his second, on a process for purifying paraffine wax in 1876. Both of these, as events have proved, were basic to important modern industries. The paraffine wax, formerly a waste by-product in oil refining, was now capable of utilization in the manufacture of candles and for other industrial purposes of importance, and the credit of discovering the secret of its utilization, worth millions of dollars yearly, is due to the genius of Mr. Frasch. He also originated the familiar and useful paraffine paper, which has such great and varied uses as a waterproof packing for foodstuffs, confectionery, etc., and has made possible the safe transportation and preservation of many substances, otherwise perishable. These, and related patents having been purchased by one of the subsidiaries of the Standard Oil Company, he himself was retained, under contract for a term of years, to conduct extensive experiments for improving the processes of refining crude petroleum. He made several technical contributions to the practical processes of oil manufacture, all of which were profitably adopted in practice with the comparatively pure oils from the Pennsylvania fields, as well as several inventions in other industrial lines, such as one for the production of white lead from galena ore, another for the purification of salt, and a third for producing electric light carbons from oil residuum. In 1885, however, he entered upon experiments leading to one of his most important discoveries, the purification of sulphur-tainted oils, such as are found in the oil fields of Canada, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The presence of sulphur in these oils greatly limited their range of utility, because of the offensive odors and suffocating fumes liberated when they were burned. Such defects, of course, reduced their value to the lowest terms, the usual price at the wells being as low as fourteen cents per barrel. Apart from the presence of these impurities, however, the oils were of excellent quality, capable of refinement into illuminating oils of high grade, as well as into the coarser products fit only for fuel purposes. A great reward awaited the man who should successfully achieve the feat of desulphurizing them on a commercial scale, and to win this Mr. Frasch set himself with his usual persistence and industry. As the result of exhaustive tests on Canadian sulphur-tainted oils he discovered that the offensive odors and other commercial drawbacks were due to the presence of about 2 per cent. of sulphur in the crude well product. Therefore, with the instinct of the experienced chemist, he quickly concluded that this could be eliminated by treating with metallic oxide, so as to combine with the free sulphur held in the solution by the oil and form the corresponding metallic sulphides. Several such oxides when suitably reduced and heated with the oil were found capable of accomplishing the desired end of desulphurization, but Mr. Frasch concluded that copper oxide is the most suitable, because of the fact that the sulphide resulting from the treatment of the oil may be more readily generated, or reduced to a simple oxide again by a process of roasting. The copper oxide may thus be used repeatedly, after regeneration. Furthermore, as he discovered, by the addition of oxide, after the desired combinations had largely taken place, the oil could be so far desulphurized that only about 2-100 of 1 per cent. of sulphur could be found, a quantity entirely negligible for most purposes in which petroleum products are used. The process of mixing the oil with copper oxide was performed by either one or two methods. In the one the oil is boiled with the oxide in great vertical stills, and the mass was kept in constant agitation by the use of chain stirrers. In the second the vapor from the oil boiled in a suitable caldron was led through great double walled drums, which, in turn, were heated on the outside by fires fed from oil vapor, and in which the copper oxide was kept in a constant state of agitation by means of rotary brushes of steel wires. Either process was suitable for the large scale work demanded in the oil industry, and both have been used. The vast scope of the process may be judged by the fact that at the largest of the Standard Oil Company's refineries at Whiting, Ind., 400,000 pounds, or 200 tons, of copper oxide are constantly in use. The desulphurization of the copper sulphide residuum of the oil desulphurization process is accomplished in a specially designed roasting furnace, in which the mass of the sulphide is kept in constant agitation by immense stirring arms carried on a rotating shaft. This shaft he made hollow, protecting it and the attached mechanism from distortion under the intense heat by hot water circulated through the inner spaces; transforming the moving parts, in fact, into a water-tube boiler supplying superheated steam to the engine which drove the entire mechanism. Thus was completed a process which is, by all odds, the most important contribution ever made to the oil refining industry, and which has made available for all purposes to which petroleum oil and its products are applied, even the most impure deposits to be found in the wells of the Middle West of the United States and Canada. Mr. Frasch's inventions, which had really created the Canadian oil industry, were destined to even wider utilization. About the time of their first perfection the oil fields of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois were first discovered. These fields yielded a highly sulphurized product of quality very similar to that found in Canada. In order to render these western oils available for the market, desulphurization was necessary. The Standard Oil Company accordingly purchased Mr. Frasch's patents to the process, and secured his services in the erection and operation of stills in the United States. The efficiency of the process may be judged by the fact that, with the installation of the process, the daily output at the wells was increased from 30,000 barrels at fourteen cents to 90,000 barrels at $1.00, an increase in gross receipts from $4,200 to $90,000. The stock with which Mr. Frasch was paid for his patents rose similarly from a quoted value of 168, with dividends at 7 per cent., to a quoted value of 820, with dividends at 40 per cent. In his connection with the Standard Oil Company, Mr. Frasch was repeatedly appealed to for the solution of a wide range of difficulties that were inevitable in the course of such a business. Difficulties seemed only to stimulate his inventive ability to greater activity. Nor were his contributions only in the domain of chemistry, but also in the range of mechanics, where he is credited with several devices of the greatest use and efficiency. He nearly duplicated his achievements with sulphurized oil in his successful purification of the Californian oils, which were found charged with aromatic hydrocarbon compounds to such an extent as to interfere with their fullest usefulness. His solution of this difficulty was a simple chemical one by which the aromatics were easily separated from the alphatic and acyclic constituents by transferring the former into their sulpho-acids by the use of smoking sulphuric acid. On another occasion he was appealed to to devise a method for rejuvenating “tired wells” suitable to the conditions of the western fields. In Pennsylvania the usual method had been to drop a charge of nitroglycerine into the well, in order to shatter the surrounding rock by explosion and thus promote new flow of oil. Geological considerations, relating principally to the quality of the rock, also to its depth below the surface rendered this procedure inapplicable to the Indiana and Ohio wells. After mature consideration of the conditions, Mr. Frasch suggested the use of hydrochloric or sulphuric acid, the one or the other, according to specified conditions in a given case, to be poured down the well, and the mouth securely plugged. The result was that the generation of gases, due to the chemical reactions taking place in the subterranean depths, acted to shatter the surrounding rocks and open up new oil cavities, quite as effectively and more certainly than by the use of explosives. About 1891 Mr. Frasch's attention was called to an interesting situation developed in Calcasieu Parish, La. There, as had long been known, exists a rich and very pure bed of sulphur, which had never been worked for the simple reason that no one had as yet devised means suitable for mining it. Several companies, Austrian, French, and American, had successively attempted to get at the rich deposit, and had failed ignominiously. The principal difficulty lay in the fact that a bed of quicksand, about 500 feet in depth, lay immediately over the sulphur. The conditions were such that the sinking of a shaft was entirely out of the question. Consequently, the rich sulphur deposit — one of the richest in the world, as it has transpired — seemed irrevocably out of the reach of human ingenuity. To Mr. Frasch the difficulty presented only another opportunity. He wasted no time in attempting to devise some means for sinking a shaft through the bog, but saw plainly that some new method must be adopted. With his thorough knowledge of chemistry and physics fortified also by familiarity with methods followed in other industries, to overcome analogous difficulties, he invented the process of melting the sulphur in its subterranean bed, and pumping it in liquid form to the surface. To accomplish this result he sunk a ten-inch pipe to a depth of 200 feet through the sulphur deposit, with the object, merely, of providing a suitable casing for his pumping apparatus. Within this, then, he let down another pipe of six-inch diameter, hav- ing a strainer at the lower end, and filled in the intervening space with sand, in order to secure a firm and rigid construction. A three-inch pipe was then let down within the six-inch, and the principal elements of his epoch-making apparatus were in place. A battery of boilers, aggregating 3,000 horsepower steaming capacity, was then installed on the surface, and superheated water, at a temperature of 335 degrees Fahrenheit, was pumped steadily through the six-inch pipe for twenty-four hours. At the close of this period, the injection was stopped, and the raised pumps operating through the inmost, or three-inch, pipe were started. The result was that, as he had foreseen, the sulphur, melted and carried by the superheated water, was drawn to the surface, and fed into extensive receptacles, hastily prepared to receive it. In this manner was the success of Mr. Frasch's brilliant experiment fully demonstrated, and an extensive deposit of sulphur, hitherto inaccessible, brought forth for commercial uses. By the use of the simple devices just described, coupled with others designed to meet the requirements of filling in the cavities formed by the extraction of the sulphur and to maintain the requisite high temperature in the wells, against the cooling effects of springs, etc., the process was rendered perfectly effective. At the present time seven separate wells are pumped constantly, and an annual aggregate production of 250,000 tons of sulphur is obtained. Each well apparatus is served by a battery of between fifteen and twenty high pressure steam boilers. The product, 99½ per cent, pure, is fed into reservoirs where it is allowed to cool and harden, and is then blasted into sections suitable for transportation. An immense amount of the sulphur is sold to agriculturalists, particularly to those engaged in the cultivation of grapes. Because of the immense output of the mineral made possible by Mr. Frasch's inventions, his company would have easily been able to control the sulphur trade of the world, underselling all competitors, even the Anglo-Sicilian Company, which had hitherto enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the sulphur market. The exceptional opportunity to thus create an actual monopoly of the world's market in sulphur would have been eagerly seized on by many, who would have thought of nothing but the vast profits to be obtained. With Mr. Frasch, however, a different thought occurred immediately. He knew perfectly well that the other important source of the sulphur supply was in the mines of Sicily, where the laborers had been afforded a constant source of employment since the days of the Roman Empire. Accordingly, with that deep kindliness of nature which had endeared him to all with whom he came in contact, he determined to achieve an understanding with the Sicilian producers on the division of the world market on a perfectly equable basis. The matter was adjusted, therefore, in such a way as to maintain the best interests of all. Mr. Frasch's inventions in the various lines of his endeavor are covered by several hundred patents in the United States, Canada, and European countries. According to his friend, Charles J. Hedrick of the U. S. Patent Office, patents were granted to him covering at least sixty-nine distinct and separate subjects of invention. Mr. Frasch resided for many years in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, where he was a member of the Union and Roadside Clubs, one of the founders of the Gentlemen's Driving Club, and a charter member of the Tavern Club. He was also a member of the Sleepy Hollow Club of New York and of the Travelers' Club of Paris. He was married in 1892 to Elizabeth Blee, of Cleveland, Ohio. He had one son, George Berkeley Frasch, and one daughter, Frieda, who was married in 1902 to Henry Devereux Whiton, of Cleveland. He was buried in the old cemetery at Gaildorf, where his wife and daughter have erected a memorial chapel within the cemetery inclosure.