Dr Wilhelm NormanThe people at Johnson Matthey have a century of experience, research and manufacturing behind them. This enables us to offer a range of catalysts suited to today’s needs in the Fats & Oils and Oleochemicals industry.

The catalysts have evolved to satisfy the requirements of the hydrogenation industry and we at Johnson Matthey endeavour to continue this tradition. The goal to produce a catalyst that can hydrogenate oils while generating lower trans fatty acid isomers is one such requirement. As always, there is the requirement to operate ever more cost effectively. These and other customer drivers will direct our research and development.

In the 21st century, we intend to continue the tradition of creating catalysis technology and process solutions for the Fats & Oils and Oleochemicals industries.

It is more than 100 years ago since Dr. Wilhelm Normann filed patent number 1515: "Process for Converting Unsaturated Fatty Acids or their Glycerides into Saturated Compounds" at the British Patent Office (21st Jan 1903). He went on to be instrumental in the creation of “Oelwerke Germania” – a fat hardening plant at Emmerich, Germany. Dr. Normann led the commissioning of this factory in 1911. Fat hardening was also introduced by Dr. Normann to England – at the company Crosfield, in Warrington. The hydrogenation catalyst divisions of both enterprises have survived through the century to their present incarnation within Johnson Matthey. Both nickel slurry phase and nickel fixed bed catalysts for hydrogenation are manufactured at the Johnson Matthey site in Emmerich – the same location where Dr. Normann worked more than 90 years ago.

Dr Norman's sketch of lab apparatus


 The first industrial hydrogenation units used a type of sponge nickel catalyst. This had very low activity compared to today’s catalyst (50 to 100 times less active!) and large dosages were required. Almost by accident it was discovered that the addition of kieselguhr – a naturally occurring diatomaceous earth - to the nickel, created a more active catalyst. This was the first supported nickel slurry phase catalyst. A supported nickel powder catalyst is essentially a hard ceramic ‘sponge’ with nickel dispersed over its large surface area.

During the 1960s and 70s, research efforts were directed towards creating a more active and more consistent hydrogenation catalyst. Nickel remained the metal of choice – despite exploration of others; e.g. Copper – but new supports were created. This was the beginning of ‘artificial’ supports – supports that could be tailor-made to give the catalyst manufacturer control over particle size and distribution, and pore size in the catalyst.

This led to great improvements in the ability to manufacture consistent catalyst and control the characteristics of the catalyst – activity, selectivity, resistance to dissolution, etc. The first such support used was silica, which led to the multi-purpose catalyst, PRICAT 9910. Later in the 1980s in an effort to create an even more selective catalyst, PRICAT 9920 was developed on an alumina support. Another catalyst development was the pre-sulphided nickel catalyst. Re-used nickel catalyst had long been used to generate steep melting curve fats, but the inherent unpredictability involved in this process led to the development of PRICAT 9908 for this purpose.