Borosolvay Plant

The following history of Borosolvay is taken for the “OL Timer” Newsletter of the SVHS Volume IV-No. 5 to Volume VI No. 1. The original source is excerpts from an article written by H.P. “Nix” Knight who worked for the Borosolvay Company in the early years.

“Notable among ventures of the Pacific Borax Company outside of its own major field was the undertaking in 1916, in partnership with the Solvay Process Company, to produce potash from Searles Lake when World War One Had created a critical shortage of this essential material in this country.

“A plant and complete supporting village were constructed in a record time at Borosolvay and with a total investment of approximately 1.75 million dollars produced close to 20,000 tons of muriate of potash between the end of March 1917 and January 21, 1921. Operations were never resumed and the plant was completely dismantled in 1937-38.

A brief review of the history of this project goes back to 1910 when Solvay engineers made a detailed investigation of Searles Lake as a possible source of soda.

Soda recovery experiments carried out with brine developed the basic outline of a plan for recovering potassium chloride (also referred to as potash, etc.) with further recovery of borax as a by-product.

A the the time the matter was purely of technical interest but when the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1914 and consequent cessation of potash imports, shortages brought renewed interest in local sources. Two Solvay chemists Dr. Louis C. Jones and Dr. Fred L. Grover, resumed their researches and by the end of 1915 were ready for pilot plant test of their process.

Because Pacific Coast Borax Company already owned patented claims, Solvay at once sought their cooperation.

Dr. George Hecker was assigned to collaborate and early in 1916 arrangements were made whereby Dr. Grover and Dr. Hecker began a series of semi-commercial scale experiments at PCB’s Alameda, California refinery the precipitate in quantity on cooling. Borax was recoverable from the same liquor after the potash had be removed.

While Jones and Grover prepared for patent applications, which were made August 30,1916, negotiations for a working agreement between the two companies began. On September 1, 1916, PCB and Solvay signed a partnership agreement to run 20 years from that date, PCB holding 51% interest.

Solvay being the originator of the process to be used, and having large technical forces from which to draw a staff, was given full operating control and the business was carried on under their name. PCB was to handle sales and other business features. A 20 acre mill site, later expanded, was leased from San Bernardino Borax Mining Company legal owner of PCB patented lands of Searles Lake; and the name “Borosolvay” was adopted for the plant and village as being significant of the partnership. Operations were directed solely toward recovery of potash. The agreement also provided that PCB maintain a resident technical rep. with full participation in staff affairs. Dr. Decker occupied this position from the beginning until his recall to London in May 1920. He was succeeded by H.P. Knight who transformed from Alameda. Knight took over complete supervision of the property in 1924 and remained there until June 1939 when the village was leased to American Potash & Chemical Corporation.

Ground was broken at Borosolvay October 1916. The first finished potash was loaded out the latter part of the following March. Production steadily maintained thereafter until January 21, 1921. An accumulation of potash filled all available storage and forced a halt.

(to be continued)

Today: Solvay Minerals, Inc. based in Houston, is a major U.S. producer of soda ash from trona, a naturally occurring mineral. A joint venture subsidiary operates a mine and plant near Green River, Wyoming, with a capacity of 2.3 million tons of soda ash per year.

Borosolvay  1917-1918 — J. Whitelaw Collection

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