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ACS News

Birth of the petrochemical industry garners Chemical Landmark designation

West Virginia State University has established a scholarship as part of the celebration

by Sophie Rovner, ACS staff
November 26, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 43


Four people stand around a plaque that reads, "Birth of the Petrochemical Industry".
Credit: DeAnnia Spelock
Micheal Fultz (from left), Roger Hanshaw, Chris Bias, and Megan Spelock attend the designation ceremony in Clendenin, West Virginia.

Innovations at Union Carbide that laid the foundation for the modern petrochemical industry are being honored with the American Chemical Society’s National Historic Chemical Landmark designation. The dedication ceremony was held on Sept. 10 in Clendenin, West Virginia, where this now-global industry had its modest start a century ago.

In 1920, thanks to the vision of George Curme Jr., Union Carbide formed a subsidiary to develop a process to manufacture ethylene. The move to ethylene was a revolutionary step because acetylene was the workhorse chemical of the day. Union Carbide, which is now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, began operating its first ethylene facility in 1921 in Clendenin. Curme and his Union Carbide colleagues also commercialized processes to convert ethylene into several other useful compounds, thereby launching a business sector that has evolved into today’s multi-billion-dollar petrochemical industry.

“These ethylene-based compounds are now used in numerous products—including clothing, packaging, detergents, paints, durable goods, and construction materials,” ACS President H. N. Cheng says. “So the achievements we are now celebrating show that chemistry truly is part of our everyday lives.”

A black-and-white photo of welders standing next to large pipes.
Credit: Courtesy of Jim Sweeney and Kim Johnson
Welders at Union Carbide’s Clendenin, West Virginia, facility in the early 1920s

This is the first National Historic Chemical Landmark in West Virginia. “The state has a long history of excellence in chemical production and research,” says Micheal Fultz, who prepared the landmark nomination on behalf of the ACS Kanawha Valley Section, which includes Clendenin. “The Kanawha Valley is known as Chemical Valley due to the resources, knowledge, and transportation systems that help bring products to the market,” adds Fultz, a professor of chemistry at West Virginia State University. “The landmark dedication recognizes a major accomplishment of talented people who helped provide society with a new building block—ethylene.”

“Dow and Union Carbide are proud to be part of the long history of innovation in West Virginia and the resulting impact on the entire chemical industry,” says Shannon Huber, senior site manufacturing director at Dow West Virginia Operations. “Dow’s efforts remain rooted in our ambition to be the most innovative, customer-centric, inclusive, and sustainable materials science company in the world.”

Participants in the landmark dedication ceremony included Roger Hanshaw, speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates, who holds a PhD in chemistry; Clendenin Mayor Kay Summers; Cheng; and Fultz.

As part of the landmark celebration, West Virginia State University has established the Dr. George Curme Jr. Scholarship for college students who want to change lives through the power of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics education. The funds are intended for West Virginia residents volunteering for community outreach and service. The first recipients will be named next spring.

ACS established the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program in 1992 to recognize seminal events in the history of chemistry and to increase awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society. Past landmarks include the discovery and production of penicillin, the invention of synthetic plastics, and the works of notable scientific figures such as educator George Washington Carver and environmentalist Rachel Carson. For more information, visit


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