Nitolee - Catawba River near Great Falls, SC A failed plan to use excess hydroelectric power to make fertilizer.
In the early years of the 20 th century, when the central Piedmont was growing, some men had plans to become industrial giants, almost all waterfalls and rapids along the larger rivers were thought of as dam sites and how many horsepower could be installed at a particular location. At Nitrolee, where Fishing Creek flows into the Catawba River, was an undeveloped waterfall of 20,000 hp. Duke Power planned to build a hydroelectric power plant there and did in 1916. Also Duke Power’s Southern Electro-Chemical Company started in 1911, but never finished, an electric arc plant to manufacture 4000 t/yr. of Ca2NO3 to replace Chilean sodium nitrate deposits a resource that was limited and subject to monopoly pricing. The process designed to use an electric arc, the nitrogen in air, plus water, sulfuric acid and limestone (marble) to make the fertilizer calcium nitrate. The formula chemistry is as follows: NO2 + 2H2O + H2SO4 + CaCO3 + electricity = H2CO3 + CaNO3 NO2 (in air) + 2H2O (water) + H2SO4 (sulpheric acid) + CaCO3 (marble or limestone) + electricity = H2CO3(sodium bicarbonate) + CaNO3(calcium nitrate)
Figure 1 is a picture of the buildings on the site in 1911 or 1912 during construction. Duke brought in laborers from Germany to construct 75-foot high porcelain cooling towers. They imported brick from Germany.
The plant at Nitrolee was never completed probably because Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch of Germany developed the Haber - Bosch process, which proved to be more economical replacing all other processes. In the Haber - Bosch process the reaction between nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas produces ammonia. The process requires high temperatures and very high pressures along with catalysts or the yields are very small and the reaction very slow.
Three elements are necessary in large quantities for plant growth: potassium (K), phosphorus (P), and nitrogen (N). These inorganic fertilizer elements were all originally mineral deposits. From the 1840's to the present day various deposits of phosphate rocks and potash have been found to provide adequate sources of the elements phosphorus and potassium. The process and techniques of fertilizer preparation and production have changed but the chemical reaction and concepts that are involved continue to remain basically the same. Plants can not directly convert atmospheric nitrogen to soluble nitrogen compounds.
One source for nitrogen where the Chile saltpeter (NaNO 3 ), deposits that accounted for more than 60% of the world's supply for most of the 19th century. Other sources of nitrogen such as guano were discovered periodically, but were usually depleted within a few years. Ammonia and nitrates were also produced from the destructive distillation of coal and as industrial by-products of other chemical processes. Fertilizer with high nitrogen content provided good crop yield. These inorganic fertilizer elements were all originally extracted from mineral deposits. Deposits of phosphate rocks and potash have been mined and used to provide sources of phosphorus and potassium. The only large mineral source of nitrogen, were Chile saltpeter (NaNO3) deposits. Using a fertilizer with high nitrogen content provided good crop yield. The use of ammonia in fertilizer has made it the second most important chemical in the United States. It is the most important source of nitrogen in fertilizers today
Nitrogen fixation occurs in nature by the actions of lightning and bacteria. A flash of lightning unites nitrogen with oxygen to form nitric oxide (NO), which changes to nitrogen dioxide (NO 2 ) upon cooling. Nitrogen dioxide combines with water to form nitric acid (HNO 3 ). The dilute acid falls to the earth and reacts with minerals in the soil to produce nitrates. The nitrate form compounds necessary for cell growth. A greater amount of nitrogen is fixed by the action of bacteria in the soil and plant roots.
The electric arc process never had a chance, William Lee’s plans to capture part of the fertilizer business was history.
The site is now wooded, the buildings decaying, some with only foundations, some in amazingly good shape. In the main arc building, the transformer coils still hang ghostly in the two story red brick building.