News Release

Location, infrastructure and middle classes were keys to development of chemical industry in Bizkaia

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Elhuyar Fundazioa

This release is available in Spanish.

The foundation of the La Dinamita factory (Galdakao, 1872) was a watershed in the chemical industry in Bizkaia (the Basque province centred around Bilbao). Basing itself on the patent obtained by Alfred Nobel five years previously, it became the fifth most important dynamite factory in the world and started one of the most fruitful sectors of the XX century in the region. With this as a starting point, Mr Luis Ángel García studied how and why the chemical industry developed in Bizkaia, its decline due to various reasons and its possible future. His PhD, defended at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), is entitled History of the introduction and development of the Chemical Industry in Bizkaia.

The thesis takes on the history of the chemical industry from a technological and business perspective. Mr García individualised the research, focusing on 13 Bizkaian chemical companies and based his PhD mainly on interviews with their workers.

An industry that arrived later

He explains that the appearance of the Bizkaian chemical sector came later than other industries, there being high investment costs involved and because financing was difficult to come by, due to the poor internal demand for chemical products at the beginning of industrialisation. In fact, it can be concluded that most of the chemical factories studied for this PhD were founded at a later date, due to the demand for chemical products by other, already established, productive sectors.

Mr García points out that the strategic location of Bizkaia and its logistic and transport infrastructure were decisive for the installation of the chemical industry in the province, together with business activity by the Bilbao bourgeoisie. They sent delegates to Paris to convince Nobel to cede his patent in order to create the La Dinamita factory, as well as French investors, who were attracted by the commercial possibilities of the port of Bilbao and the railway network which communicated with the rest of the Spanish State. In fact, as with other enterprises a posteriori (Maderas & Alquitranes, Metalquímica del Nervión, and so on), La Dinamita benefited from its location close to the iron ore and coal mines for its production, and from the infrastructure for covering demand outside of the province of Bizkaia.

Rise in the 60s, drop in the 70s

As regards the Bizkaian chemical sector in the XX century, in the 60s there was an important phase of expansion, led by the plastics, synthetic fibres and fertiliser sectors and, at a state-wide level, also by the cosmetics and detergents sector. The crisis of the 70s, however, particularly affected the Bizkaian chemical sector (with factory closures and takeovers by multinationals), initiating a decline which, aggravated by the social response to environmental contamination and industrial delocating, has continued until today. According to the thesis, in 1959 there were 11 Bizkaian chemical companies amongst the top 50 in Spain, five in 1973 and just one in 1997 (UEE, with head office in Madrid). It also points to the current crisis affecting the Bizkaian chemical industry, due to the downturn in the automobile and construction sectors and the bottom falling out of the car sales market.

Recycling companies - the future

As positive points, the thesis holds that this industry has a high degree of atomisation in Bizkaia; they are small enterprises but highly diversified as regards specialisation, facilitating the search for their own market quota. It should also be remembered that the Bizkaian chemical industry has cut greenhouse effect gas emissions by 20 % and energy consumption over the past two decades.

With the future in mind, Mr García points to recycling companies (plastics, tyres, and so on) as heirs to that leadership of the Bizkaian chemical industry in the XXI century. He makes special mention of the mechanical biological treatment plant that is expected to be inaugurated in 2012, as well as a future composting plant.


About the author

Luis Ángel García Castresana (Bilbao, 1957) is an industrial engineer. He drew up his PhD thesis under the direction of Doctor Inés Pellón González, lecturer at the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Environment in the Higher Technical School for Naval Engineering (UPV/EHU). He presented his thesis at the Department of Physical Theory and History of Science in the Faculty of Science and Technology. For his thesis, he worked with the Bizkaian Association of Chemical Companies (AVEQ). Mr García is currently working at the Department of Chemical Engineering in the Faculty of Science and Technology at the UPV/EHU.

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