Ernest Solvay (1838–1922)

Ernest Solvay’s innovations transformed the chemical industry throughout Europe, and were the starting point for a company involved in a wide range of industrial activities that is important in many countries.

He was the son of a quarry master at Rebecq-Regnoz in Belgium. Ill-health prevented his attendance at university, instead of which he worked for an uncle at a gasworks where his interest in chemistry developed as he sought to find uses for the ammonia that was the by-product of gasmaking.

In 1861 he developed the complex series of operations for making sodium carbonate (i.e. soda ash or alkali) that is known as the Solvay process. Sodium Chloride in the form of brine is saturated with ammonia, then with carbon dioxide under pressure, producing sodium bicarbonate and ammonium chloride. The sodium bicarbonate is precipitated, and heated to produce soda ash.

Solvay set up his first commercial plant at Cuillet near Charleroi in 1863, the same year in which he founded Solvay et Cie with his brother. In the 1870s the company became a global operation with the estalishment of plants in France at Dombasle near Nancy and at Tavaux in France Comte, and in Germany, Russia and the United States.

The process was introduced to Great Britain in 1874 at Northwich by John Brunner (1842-1919) and Ludwig Mond (1839-1919). The Solvay process superseded the method of making soda ash devised by Nicholas Leblanc (1742-1806), which created large-scale pollution. The process was usually carried on at very large plants that became involved in a wide range of chemical manufactures.

Solvay gained a reputation as an enlightened employer, and established institutes for the study of medical and social sciences at the University of Brussels. His company became involved in mining, producing coal, limestone and salt for use in chemical works, and still operates about 70 plants world-wide.