It all started with Buna


The history of the Marl site dates back to the founding of Chemische Werke Hüls GmbH, known as Hüls, for short, on May 9, 1938. The company was 74-percent owned by I.G. Farbenindustrie AG and 26-percent by Bergwerksgesellschaft Hibernia AG, a subsidiary of the then state-owned VEBA AG. The plant was built for the production of the synthetic rubber Buna as part of the Four Year Program aimed at preparing the German economy for efficient wartime production. Until 1970 the departments and sub companies of Hüls were based at the Marl site as well.

Construction of the plant, 1939
Construction of the plant, 1939

The Marl site was built in the open countryside near the river Lippe on the northern edge of the Ruhr industrial area. The main reasons for choosing Marl were economic and geographic. Bergwerksgesellschaft Hibernia supplied exhaust gas from its hydrogenation plant; employing the arc method, it was used to produce acetylene, ethylene and hydrogen. Since 1928, this process technology had been developed by I.G. Farben in collaboration with the US company, Standard Oil of New Jersey. The hydrogen was supplied to Hibernia’s Scholven hydrogenation plant, where it was used in the production of synthetic benzene. During a multistage process, the acetylene was converted into the synthetic rubber, Buna; the ethylene was processed via ethylene oxide to produce an anti-freeze agent.

In Marl, start of production took place against the background of the National Socialist policy of self-sufficiency and the 1936 Four Year Plan; these strategies were aimed at making the German economy as independent as possible of foreign supplies and at switching to efficient production methods in line with wartime requirements. Rubber production, without the use of imported raw materials, was extremely important to the mobilization of the armed forces. The first development stage produced a capacity of 18,000 metric tons per year. The first bales of Buna left the production lines on August 29, 1940. By this time, just two years after the founding of Hüls, 3,000 employees had moved to Marl; these employees came mainly from Ludwigshafen, but also from Leverkusen and Schkopau, the site of the first Buna plant. A housing estate was built for them.

During the Second World War, forced laborers were increasingly employed at the Marl plant. About of 10,000 people were employed at the plant during the war years; about a third of these were forced laborers, mainly from Eastern Europe.

In addition to its own water-treatment system, the plant also had its own power station that used electrostatic filters to extract the dust from the flue gas. At that time, the new dust-extraction method based on electrostatic filters as well as the combined heat and power generation principle were advanced technologies.

The war and its consequences

In 1943, the full force of the aerial bombing of Germany also hit Marl. A daylight attack on June 22 closed the plant for three months. On March 31, 1945, US troops occupied the site. Just before this, the head of production, Paul Baumann, had succeeded in preventing the demolition of the plant. As part of the I.G. Farben group, Hüls came under special Allied control, which was aimed at the break-up of the group. However, Buna production was initially allowed to continue since the plant, situated in the British occupation zone, was Great Britain’s only source of rubber as its own plantations were out of operation as a result of the war in Asia.

At the end of the war in May 1945, the plant was in a state of disaster. Although it had just about managed to escape further damage from subsequent aerial attacks, it was lacking many of the resources required for the rapid resumption of operations. There was no sales organization and no accounting system, no research and only limited production. Ownership was initially unresolved and there was an ever-present threat of a ban on Buna production or, worse still, the complete dismantling of the facilities by the British occupying power. When Buna production was again up and running a few weeks after the end of the war, production had fallen to a fifth of its wartime level. This was not a result of the bomb damage, which was only minor, but of the problems associated with the procurement of raw materials.

On June 30, 1948, the British government finally made the decision that had long been feared at the plant: it banned the production of Buna. The new production lines that had already been established, for example, for detergents and cleaning agents, dyestuffs and solvents, were unable to absorb all of the employees who now found themselves without work. The company fell into financial difficulties and was not allowed to raise credit. This resulted in redundancies due to economic reasons. During the Korean War at the beginning of the 1950s, Buna production was again permitted and the sale of other products also increased; this meant that it was again possible to take on new employees.

The emergence of Chemische Werke Hüls AG

The decartelization of I.G. Farben and the foundation of Chemische Werke Hüls AG on December 19, 1953 marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the plant. It became a location for basic chemicals, particularly in the polymer field. For example, it started to produce polyethylene and polypropylene. In 1958, a state-of-the-art Buna plant was constructed that, under the name of Bunawerke Hüls GmbH, was operated together with the IG Farbenindustrie successor companies.

The new production areas generated an increased demand for energy. For this reason, in 1956 another power station went into operation. It was the world’s first power station to operate under supercritical steam conditions and thus attained a coal efficiency that was a third higher than conventional power stations. Today, it continues to generate electricity for the site.

In 1960s, on the one hand, the Marl site was defined by the manufacture of innovative products under the direct management of Hüls. In 1964, this included, for example, biodegradable detergent additives. On the other hand, the company was also experiencing a period of expansion as a result of the establishment of several international joint ventures. These included the founding of Katalysatorenwerke Houdry Hüls GmbH in 1960 and, one year later, Faserwerke Hüls GmbH, which was founded together with Eastman Kodak.

In 1975, together with the US company General Aniline & Films (GAF), GAF-Hüls Chemie GmbH was founded for the production of 1,4 butandiol and tetrahydrofurane from acetylene. This represented cooperation between the then largest acetylene producer in the world, Chemische Werke Hüls AG, and the company that led the field in acetylene chemistry and technology.

January 1976 saw the start-up of a plant for an innovative, eco-friendly product, namely methyl-t-butylether (abbreviation: MTBE), that is added to benzene as a lead replacement – to this day it is an important product of Evonik Industries.

On January 1, 1979, Chemische Werke Hüls AG became the chemical sector of VEBA AG, the new sole owner of Hüls. The Marl plant was the company’s largest site and, in 1985, the company was renamed Hüls AG.

Marl site, aerial view 2002
Marl site, aerial view 2002

Realignment: the Marl Chemical Park

The 1990s were shaped largely by the reorganization of the site. In 1992, production of the acrylic acid, butyl acrylate, started as raw material for superabsorbents from Stockhausen. However, production of polypropylene and polyethylene was halted in 1993. Vestolit GmbH was founded in 1995 for the manufacture and marketing of polyvinyl chloride (PVC); this operates as an independent company. In 1994, the production of Buna, which has a long tradition, went to Bayer, which continued with the production at the site. Then, in 1998, the Marl site was reorganized as the “Marl Chemical Park.” Production of styrene and surfactant was divested to subsidiaries, which were sold to BP and Sasol. Katalysatorenwerke Hüls and the shares in GAF-Hüls Chemie GmbH were gradually sold. The GAF-Hüls Chemie GmbH remained in Marl but under a different name.

Former New Degussa, Chemicals Business Area from Evonik

The production areas still owned by Hüls, namely polyamide and MTBE, became part of the new Degussa AG through Degussa-Hüls, which was absorbed into Evonik Industries in 2007. The company now employs about 7,000 people at its largest site in Marl.