A Stroke of Genius - Wacker Chemie AG


A Stroke of Genius

100 Years of WACKER also stands for 100 years of technological progress. New and improved processes have driven forward the transition from a small family business into a globally active company. Behind this constant transformation are people like former head of research Dr. Reinhard Jira (85) and operations manager Dr. Brigitte Patsch (36).

Dr. Brigitte Patsch and Dr. Reinhard Jira at the Burghausen site by the plaque commemorating the “2nd WACKER Process,” which made chemistry history.

Next to Dr. Brigitte Patsch’s desk a meter-high schedule hangs on the wall. The operations manager points proudly to one of the entries right at the bottom of the paper. “That’s when our new plant goes into operation, in the second quarter of 2015,” explains the young woman. Brigitte Patch’s team will be running the new facility for the production of specialty monomers from one of the oldest buildings on the Burghausen site: LP1. There is still a lot to do before then. The chemist exchanges her black ankle boots for protective work boots and heads for the plant.

The yellow LP1 building is also significant with respect to Dr. Reinhard Jira’s legacy. It was right here that WACKER first started producing acetic acid almost 100 years ago. And it was for this very procedure that Jira and his fellow researchers developed a production process to obtain the starting material acetaldehyde on the basis of ethylene, a petrochemical raw material.

When the young chemist came to the WACKER consortium in 1955, the chemical industry was facing a period of considerable upheaval, namely the replacement of coal with petrochemical raw materials. The existing production process for the base material acetic acid was no longer financially viable. “Following Walter Hafner’s discovery, we only had a couple of months to research and implement the process. Back then, our research approach was far from laid back,” recalls the man with thick snow-white hair.

What he and his colleagues working with Dr. Walter Hafner discovered at the time would go on to make history: the procedure for the production of acetaldehyde based on petrochemicals was a stroke of genius and went down in chemistry history as the “2nd WACKER Process”. It also laid the foundation for the years of the economical miracle.

“Opportunities to work on such an innovative new procedure don’t come around very often,” says Brigitte Patsch today. For her, building a high-tech new plant in the historic LP1 building is an honor. Over the decades a number of new, higher warehouses and offices have been built in the surrounding area. On the first floor the native Austrian shows an empty cordoned off area. This is where the new production facility is soon to be built. Her team is already running the new procedure in a pilot plant. Years of planning and research have gone into the project.

Brigitte Patsch has become fond of the view from her window of the broad and narrow piping. The chemist imagines she may well remain in production for quite a while. Reinhard Jira, too, always appreciated the sense of continuity at WACKER. These days he occasionally helps out at the company’s historic corporate archives. The former head of research worked at WACKER for 37 years. “Why should I have left?” he says. “I always received recognition for my work.”