KWAN Man Bun

Hou Debang, a chemical engineer committed to the industrial development of China, established a reputation by creating a way to eliminate calcium chloride as a waste product. This technique, called the Hou process, along with his work with the Ministry of Chemical Industries and China’s Society for Chemical Industries, has left a lasting impression on the chemical engineering business in China.

Hou Debang was born in 1890 to a farmer’s family in Changsha, a village outside Fuzhou (the capital of Fujian Province, on China’s east coast). From 1903 to 1906 he studied at the Anglo-Chinese College, a school sponsored by the American Methodist Episcopal Mission. Expelled for his participation in the Anti-American Boycott of 1905, he attended Chen Baochen’s Quanmin xuetang (Fujian Academy) before enrolling at the Fujian-Anhui Railroad School in Shanghai. After graduation in 1910 he spent three months as an engineer apprentice before being admitted to the Qinghua preparatory academy for studies in the United States. From 1913 to 1916 he attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a scholarship, majoring in chemical engineering. After graduation he attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for a certificate in chemical tanning. He graduated from New York’s Columbia University with a dissertation on iron tannage in 1921.

Before Hou had obtained his doctorate, he already had begun a lifelong association with Fan Rui’s Pacific Alkali Co. (Yongli Chemical Industries, founded 1917). Although W. D. Mount, a retired engineer, had sold Fan a set of plant plans, unraveling the Solvay process (a process for making soda from common salt) proved daunting. Returning to China in 1922, Hou was appointed chief engineer and spent the next three years preparing the plant for commissioning. Regular production began in 1926, with Hou and Li Zhuchen rotating as plant manager. In 1931 Hou took leave from the company to share his expertise with the world by publishing a practical treatise on the manufacture of soda. In 1934 Hou Debang was dispatched by Fan Xudong to New York to undertake another major project: design and purchase equipment for an ammonia sulfate plant in Nanjing. With the help of the Nitrogen Engineering Corporation and the Wah Chang Trading Corp., Hou completed the tasks, and the new plant began production three years later.

World War II, however, interrupted Hou’s work. He was evacuated to Sichuan Province in 1938 and found a new challenge in adapting the Solvay process to local conditions. He left for Europe and the United States in 1939 to develop a new approach and to procure equipment for Yongli’s new plant in Sichuan. The result was the Hou process, which eliminated calcium chloride as a waste product and created a by-product, ammonium chloride, used as a fertilizer. His reputation established, Tata Industries in India retained him as chief consulting engineer for its soda ash plant from 1947 to 1949.

Hou, however, remained committed to China’s industrial development. After Fan Xudong’s death, he became general manager of Yongli and steered it through the turbulent civil war years. In 1950, together with Li Duchen, he proposed to place Yongli Chemical Industries and Jiuda Salt Industries under joint state-private management, thus launching the socialist campaign to transform capitalist enterprises in heavy industries. He was reappointed general manager of the new enterprise in 1952 and served until his departure for the Ministry of Chemical Industries in 1958. Continuing work on his Hou process, he also served as the executive director of China’s Society for Chemical Industries until his death in Beijing.

Further Reading

Hou Te-pang. (1933). Manufacture of soda, with special reference to the ammonia process: A practical treatise (American Chemical Society Monograph Series No. 65). New York: Chemical Catalog Co.

Li Zhichuan., & Chen Xinwen. (1986). Hou Debang. Tianjin, China: Nankai daxue chubanshe.

Li Zhichuan, & Chen Xinwen (1990). Hou Debang xuanji. [Selected writings of Hou Debang]. Beijing: Yejin gongye chubanshe.

Source: Kwan, Man Bun. (2009). HOU Debang. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1064–1065. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

HOU Debang (Hóu Déb?ng ???)|Hóu Déb?ng ??? (HOU Debang)

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