Chemist, industrialist and philanthropist, (1838 - 1922)
Born at Rebecq in 1838, he was prevented from going to university by illness, and so began work in his uncle's chemical works aged 21. He used his self-taught knowledge of chemistry to make many improvements to the processes used, and, in 1861, he discovered the process for manufacturing industrial soda (sodium carbonate) that today bears his name. In the Solvay process, limestone is mixed with sodium chloride solution (brine) and ammonia to obtain industrial soda much more cheaply that using the old Leblanc process. Industrial soda is used in manufacturing glass, steel and detergents.
Solvay patented his process in 1861 and opened his first factory at Couillet in 1863. Demand was huge, and his business grew rapidly. By 1900, the Solvay process was used to manufacture 95% of the world’s industrial soda, and Solvay’s business empire spanned the Atlantic, with factories in Europe and the USA. Today, around 70 Solvay-process plants are in operation worldwide.
Solvay used much of his considerable personal fortune for philanthropic purposes, including the establishment in 1894 in Brussels of several scientific institutes (of Sociology, Physics and Chemistry among others) as part of a plan for a technical university. He later shelved this plan, and instead endowed the Solvay Business School at the Free University of Brussels. In 1911, he held the first of several influential Solvay Conferences on Physics, whose participants and speakers included such luminaries as Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, Marie Curie, Henri Poincaré, and Albert Einstein.
He was twice elected to the Belgian Senate and served as a Minister of State from 1918 onwards. He helped to co-ordinate food relief in Europe during and after the First World War and ensured that workers in his factories enjoyed unusually-advanced conditions and benefits. He set up the Solvay Foundation to build low-cost social housing in Belgium’s cities. The town where his first US factory was built was even renamed Solvay (NY)!
He died in Brussels in 1922 and is buried in Ixelles Cemetery.