Bromine (chemical symbol Br) is a highly corrosive, reddish-brown, volatile element found in liquid form. Bromine—along with fluorine, chlorine, and iodine—is part of a family of elements known as the halogens. Arkansas ranks first in the world in the production of bromine, the basis for many widely used chemical compounds. Bromine, along with petroleum and natural gas, is one of the top three minerals produced in Arkansas.
The West Gulf Coastal Plain encompasses most of southern Arkansas. During the Paleozoic era (543 to 248 million years ago), this natural division was covered by seawater. Bromine, which occurs naturally in seawater, was extracted from the water by seaweed and plankton. As these organisms decomposed during the Jurassic period (206 to 144 million years ago), bromine was released, leaving heavy salt concentrations called brines in Union and Columbia counties. The Smackover Formation contains the richest of these brines at a depth of 7,500 to 8,500 feet.
When oil was discovered in south Arkansas in 1921, oil field brines were considered a worthless byproduct of drilling, and the oil producers had problems disposing of the salt water. Then, chemists from the Arkansas Geological Commission (now the Arkansas Geological Survey) discovered that the Smackover brines had high bromine content—seventy times greater than that of ocean water. Bromine production followed oil production in Union County in 1957 and has continued ever since. Bromine production in Union and Columbia counties contributes significantly to the local and state economy and employs over 1,000 people. The Albemarle Corporation and Ethyl Corporation in Magnolia (Columbia County) were involved in bromine production in the beginning days. Great Lakes Chemical Corporation built the world’s largest bromine plant in South Arkansas in 1961. TETRA Technologies operates a processing plant in West Memphis (Crittenden County).
Although there are many uses for bromine, nearly one-half of the bromine consumed annually is used in flame retardants. Other uses of bromine include insect and fungus sprays, anti-knock compounds for leaded gasoline, disinfectants, photographic preparations and chemicals, solvents, water-treatment compounds, dyes, insulating foam, hair-care products, and oil well–drilling fluids.
Bromine production is not without controversy, because bromine-derived chemicals negatively affect human health and the environment. According to CorpWatch, an organization that monitors the environmental impact of corporations, Great Lakes Chemical Corporation in Union County, the world’s largest producer of bromine, was shown to be the number-one polluter in Arkansas. The company was fined $190,000 for water pollution in Arkansas in 1994. Bromine is dangerous if it comes in contact with skin, and its vapor is harmful if inhaled. For these reasons, worker safety at the sites of production is a cause for concern. On April 29, 2005, one Great Lakes Chemical Corporation worker died and eleven others were injured when a bromine-based material was accidentally released.
Great Lakes Chemical Corporation merged with Crompton Corporation in 2005 to create Chemtura Corporation.
Albemarle Corporation has facilities located in Magnolia and El Dorado (Union County) that produce forty percent of the world’s bromine. Brines in the Arkansas locations and the Dead Sea are almost identical except for their geological and geographic locations.
For additional information:
Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources. Smackover, Arkansas.
Price, D. Bromine Compounds: Chemistry and Applications. New York: Elsevier Science Ltd., 1988.
Arkansas Geographic Alliance
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