There is a chemical plant in Hopewell Virginia which has been operating for 57 years. It’s among the largest and most efficient plant in the world for making caprolactam, a precursor to Nylon 6. The plant is a cash cow for Honeywell, generating hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue each year. H/AREA member, Reed Belden, who was there at the beginning and played a key role in its success, wrote the following history for our Newsletter.

History of the Hopewell, Virginia Chemical Plant

Wallace Carothers of DuPont discovered Nylon in 1933. DuPont grew the nylon fiber market, primarily in hosiery, until World War II at which time all production became dedicated to making parachutes. After the war major markets developed for nylon in clothing, carpets, tire cord and plastics.

At the end of World War II, the victorious Allies set up groups to look at and “cotton pick” German technology as part of the war reparations. A representative from Allied Chemical and Dye was part of a team that studied German nylon manufacture. In the late 1940’s, a major decision was made by Allied to pursue the “polyamide project”.

Pilot plants were constructed in Morristown at the Corporate Research Center for manufacture of the nylon precursor, caprolactam, and for polymer manufacture and fiber spinning.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that while Allied was building the small batch pilot plant for making caprolactam, DuPont was building a much larger caprolactam continuous pilot plant. DuPont used a different process. Subsequently, both Allied and DuPont both built full scale plants using different processes. It should be noted that DuPont’s Nylon 66 is made from two monomers, hence the 66, Allied’s Nylon 6 is made from a single monomer, caprolactam. Both nylons have similar properties though made from differing raw materials. DuPont’s interest in becoming a caprolactam producer was to supply the increasing number of Nylon 6 manufacturers around the world. After duking it out with Allied for a few years, DuPont threw in the towel and went out of the caprolactam business.

Now going back to about 1950, the corporation decided the commercial operation would operate under the aegis of the National Aniline Division because that division made and sold dyestuffs to the fiber industry. For a number of reasons it was decided that the optimum location for the “polyamide project” plants would be in the Hopewell, Va. area. The caprolactam plant was located on the James River which has deep water access to the Atlantic Ocean thereby facilitating shipments of sulfur from the Gulf coast and phenol from Philadelphia. Further, the site was adjacent to a large Allied, Agricultural Division fertilizer plant with a large supply of both ammonia and synthesis gas (nitrogen and hydrogen) which were the remaining raw materials required for caprolactam manufacture.

The caprolactam plant began operation in 1954 with the first purified caprolactam produced in February of 1955. The initial plant was designed to produce 20 million pounds per year. In the next ten years the capacity of the plant was first increased to 30 million pounds per year then in sequence 80 million pounds per year and 150 million pounds per year by 1965.

The Hopewell fertilizer plant started out in 1926 as the world’s largest synthetic ammonia plant. It produced both ammonia and the fertilizer, ammonium nitrate.

By 1970 the fertilizer operations were terminated and the plant, now producing only ammonia was merged with the caprolactam plant to form the current chemical plant.

The small town of Hopewell is nestled near the confluence of the Appomattox and James Rivers in Virginia.. The fibers operation was located on the other side of the Appomattox from the caprolactam plant. In an hour, more or less, one can drive from Hopewell to Williamsburg or Jamestown or Petersburg or Richmond. Here, Indians had harassed early settlers. British ships passed this way during the Revolution. During the Civil War, Hopewell was a major staging area prior to the assault on Richmond. Despite its historical background, the character of the town is industrial. During World War I, DuPont built a major explosive plant there, on the banks of the James. The river was a ready source of water and a convenient disposal site. DuPont also built hundreds of small homes for employees. These homes are still occupied and give the town its industrial flavor.

Today, Nylon 6 producers, wherever they may be, need caprolactam so the Hopewell plant continues to grind out hundreds of millions of pounds per year providing Honeywell with a great source of revenue.

Comments and suggestions are encouraged and always welcome. Please cleck here: Comments