Laundering used to be a labor-intensive drudgery that commonly took several days. Housewives first had to soak the laundry in soapy water, then bring it to a boil in large vats and finally scrub it back and forth on a washing board until all dirt was finally released. After that, laundry was spread on the grass to bleach out the toughest stains in the sunlight.
The introduction of modern detergent chemicals in the early 20th century put an end to this laborious chore. In June 1907, the business owner Fritz Henkel for the first time advertised his company’s new detergent, Persil, in the Düsseldorf newspaper, promising that it would result in “dazzlingly white laundry without effort or scrubbing with a single washing cycle”.
Breakthrough based on active oxygen
To keep this promise, the Düsseldorf-based company relied on “Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt formerly Roessler,” which would later become Degussa AG, a predecessor company of Evonik. That company offered one of the two most important components for the detergent: The Degussa chemist Dr. Otto Liebknecht had synthesized sodium perborate, an active oxygen that releases oxygen when heated and thus acts as a bleaching agent. Together with silicate, a substance that enhances the cleaning power of suds, perborate became part of the detergent name that is known to this day: “Per-sil”.
Henkel's detergent brought a breakthrough for Degussa's sodium perborate after initial attempts to market the product to commercial laundries had failed. Although the Düsseldorf-based company only ordered 50 kg a day in the beginning, quantities began to increase rapidly - some 660 metric tons of the detergent were sold one year after the 1907 market launch. This success came in spite of the relatively high consumer price: half a pound of Persil cost 35 pfennigs, almost three times the price of a conventional detergent.
Market success in Europe
Degussa soon moved its sodium perborate production from the testing facility in Frankfurt to a larger plant in Rheinfelden, where the number of employees on site rose from 60 to 340 within a short time. The production was continuously expanded and improved. An electrolytic process was introduced in 1922 to make the manufacture of active oxygen more economical. Prior to World War II, perborates alone accounted for some 73% of the entire production at the site. By 1964, Rheinfelden produced sodium perborate in 141 crucibles, and capacities kept growing. Another production facility was added in Antwerp, Belgium, later on.
An attempt to replicate the European success of Persil in the United States proved unsuccessful. A U.S. subsidiary of Degussa was initiated together with Henkel in New Jersey in 1909 amid big plans, but U.S. customers simply found the price for Persil too high, and production in the United States was completely discontinued in 1914.
Although Evonik continues to manufacture the ingredient sodium perborate, in the mid-1990s many laundry detergent manufacturers began to convert their formulations to the more environmentally friendly sodium percarbonate—an active oxygen that the Evonik predecessor Degussa had been producing since 1916. The Evonik product portfolio also includes numerous other environmentally friendly ingredients for detergents and cleaning agents. Examples include an innovative cationic surfactant, which enables the production of fabric softeners at low temperatures. There is also Rewoferm, the first completely bio-based surfactant, which combines outstanding cleaning properties and an excellent ecological profile. Some 110 years after the invention of the first automatic washing powder, manufacturers and customers today are most interested in detergents that not only result in clean laundry, but also are harmless to the environment.