Monday, August 29, 2016

Linde Air Products: Extracting Oxygen and Building the Bomb

By Matthew Shoen

I think we are all well aware of Buffalo’s historic industries and the important companies that shaped this city. Companies like the Lackawanna Steel Plant are nationally known, and on this blog we’ve covered smaller industrial compounds like the Mentholatum Factory and Kreiner Malthouse. One factory complex in North Buffalo has however slipped under the radar. This factory is a nationally significant complex located at 155 Chandler Street. The complex was once the Linde Air Products Factory, the first producer of purified liquid oxygen in the United States.

Liquid oxygen isn’t flashy like steel mills, or quirky like Mentholatum ointment, but the liquid oxygen produced at the Linde Air Products Factory was crucial for the development of this country in ways that might require a bid of chemistry to understand.

Historically, pure oxygen was extracted from the decay of either potassium chlorate or barium oxide. The most common use of this extracted oxygen was the creation of limelights an early stage lighting tool used in theaters. Limelight production sustained many early oxygen-producing companies but the market was incredibly constrained by the limited uses people had for purified oxygen. In the 1890s this changed when a French scientist named Henri le Chatelier discovered that when he mixed acetylene with pure oxygen he could create a flame that burned at 3200C the highest temperature mankind had obtained to that point. Le Chatelier’s discovery sparked a growing demand in pure oxygen as new uses for oxyacetylene were experimented with. Early on there were attempts to use it in lighting but these plans quickly faded as incandescent lightbulbs and electricity became the standard bearers of illumination. Though it was an inefficient lighting source, oxyacetylene found a major market in the welding and metal cutting industries. Oxyacetylene torches became crucial to steel cutting, bridge building, ship construction, and many other industrial processes. The benefits of these new torches were felt initially in Europe as European scientists had been the ones to experiment with oxygen separation and acetylene production. One European, a German man named Carl Von Linde, whose air rectification process made him one of the premiere suppliers of liquid oxygen in the world, wanted to grow his company, and saw America as a market primed for expansion. In 1906 he began soliciting for investors and in 1907, on Thanksgiving Day, the first Linde Air Products oxygen factory was opened in Buffalo.

The Linde Air Products Factory was found quick success and quickly outstripped its German parent company. Feeling constrained by management from overseas, the American investors in Linde Air Products began pulling away from the German company. Tensions between the branches were only exacerbated by the growing tensions between America and German. The two branches separated when the United States entered World War I, and in 1917 the American Branch of Linde Air came under ownership of the Union Carbide Company a major seller of acetylene and oxyacetylene torches from Niagara Falls. The merger of these two companies, along with the addition of a  few small acetylene producing companies, made Union Carbide one of the most powerful dealers of welding equipment and industrial gases in the western hemisphere. 

Had Linde Air Products been nothing more than America’s first oxygen production company its importance would have been clear. However, Linde Air Products was an important part of one of the defining moments of twentieth century American history. Primarily in the company’s Tonawanda facility, but also with support from the lab on Chandler Street, Linde Air Products worked on the Manhattan Project, helping to enrich uranium for the atomic bomb.

By the outbreak of World War II, the Chandler Street facility had transitioned from an oxygen producing factory to a research laboratory. The Linde ceramics factory already had experience utilizing uranium for ceramic glazing and in 1943 it was chosen to enrich uranium for the atomic bombs. The Chandler Street facility likely provided support to the scientists working in Tonawanda. Though I wasn’t able to find any explanation of how the Chandler Street lab and Tonawanda facility worked together it is clear that employees at both facilities were involved in the Manhattan Project. In 1945, just after the war ended, General Leslie Groves the commander in chief of the country’s atomic division came to Buffalo and gave medals to the Linde employees who’d been involved in the Manhattan Project. Among them was Louis Ayres who worked in the Chandler Street Lab. Who is Louis Ayres and what was his involvement in the Manhattan Project? Unfortunately the intense level of secrecy surrounding the development of atomic weaponry has made researching Linde’s role in the creation of nuclear weapons difficult to pin down. The company constantly offered positions in its plants for experienced chemists and lab assistants, likely to assist in the uranium enrichment process, but these advertisements offer nothing more than hints to the scope of the company’s role in the Manhattan Project.  The Tonawanda plant’s involvement in uranium ore enrichment has been well documented, however the contributions of the Chandler Street lab have never been disclosed and remain classified.
Linde Air in Tonawanda, site of Uranium Enrichment for the Atomic Bomb.
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Unfortunately the effects of Linde’s uranium enrichment in Tonawanda have been well documented in recent decades. 37 million gallons of radioactive water and sludge were dumped into shallow wells in Tonawanda between 1944-46 providing a continued question of how to best deal with this waste and the effects it might have on future generations. Given the long half-life of so many of these radioactive materials they will certainly affect Western New York for hundreds of years.

Because of this radioactive dumping Linde Air Products holds a dubious place in the history of Western New York. While the company brought oxygen extraction to America and became part of one of the most powerful chemical companies in the country, it also was responsible for creating major environmental hazards through its work on the Manhattan Project. The company’s technological advances make it one of the most significant businesses in Buffalo, but the manner in which those technologies were put to use has created lasting issues.  Further, I’m still curious to know how the Chandler Street Plant was used. More than likely it supported operations in the Linde ceramics factory and had no real impact on the Manhattan Project. Still, the plant’s status as a classified site has me curious. If we know the army was enriching uranium in Tonawanda who knows what they were doing on Chandler Street?

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