Methionine - a success story

Evonik and livestock

Degussa

Methionine is a sulfurous amino acid that is manufactured from the primary materials acrolein, methyl mercaptan and hydrogen cyanide. Amino acids are the building blocks of all proteins and are therefore vital nutrients for humans and animals. Some of them, including methionine, cannot be made by the body, and must therefore be supplied in food. Fowl in particular require a lot of methionine in their food. As a rule, the methionine occurring naturally in the raw feedstuff (e.g. cereals, soya grain) is not sufficient to meet the animals’ requirements. Industrially manufactured D,L-methionine closes this supply gap.

The story of methionine begins in the early years of the last century. In 1922, J. H. Müller, a researcher at Columbia University in New York, isolated a “sulfurous amino acid” submitted, however, an incorrect summation formula. Three years later, his colleague Odake in Japan corrected the formula and gave the amino acid the name “methionine.” Six years later, G. Barger and F. P. Coyne defined the structure of this amino acid.

Researchers at Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt (Degussa AG since 1980 of Evonik) followed up these findings during the post-war years. The intention in Germany was to use the synthetic amino acid methionine to treat the widespread nutritional edema, the result of chronic protein insufficiency suffered by soldiers returning home from the war. The first technically feasible synthesis of D,L-methionine at Degussa was achieved by Werner Schwarze, Hans Wagner and Hermann Schulz in 1946/47.

As Degussa was able to manufacture the most important initial products for methionine - acrolein and hydrocyanic acid (in 1936 Wagner and Schulze synthesized acrolein from acetaldehyde and formaldehyde), work began at the research laboratory which had been moved to Konstanz in 1946. As early as June 1948, Werner Schwarze was able to present the scientific manager at Chemiewerk Homburg AG, a pharmaceutical subsidiary of Degussa at that time, with the first 1 kg sample. Production of D,L-methionine began in the factory in Konstanz.

It took only one year to develop the experimental facility with a capacity of 300 kg per month into a production plant with a capacity of 30 metric tons per month. The methionine from Konstanz was pharmaceutical grade and shortly afterwards Chemiewerk Homburg AG launched the first medication containing D,L-methionine (0.5 g per tablet) on the market under the name of “Thiomedon.”

A further application for methionine came along a few years later when an experiment conducted with hens showed that methionine improved laying performance. However, Degussa did not initially have any in-house expertise in animal nutrition. The working group “Introduction and promotion of D,L-methionine and similar products” was not set up until 1953 after the first feeding attempts. In the same year, the Ministry for Agriculture in Bonn licensed methionine for use in animal feed. An amino acid laboratory for quantitative and qualitative identification of amino acids in feedstuff, mixed feed and feed premixes was set up in 1961. With the increasing success of the methionine business, the field of activity was broadened and new amino acids developed.

In 1967 the Wesseling factory in Germany began producing methionine; seven years later, the methionine plant in the location in Antwerp, Belgium, was put into operation with an initial capacity of 12,000 metric tons per annum. This was followed by production in the location in Mobile, Alabama, USA, in 1977. In the years that followed, the production capacity in the existing facilities was expanded steadily to 230,000 metric tons annually. Finally, in October 2006, a new methionine facility in Antwerp started. It is the largest in the world with a capacity of 120,000 metric tons per year.

Today, Evonik Industries AG offers a wide range of amino acids for animal feeds, foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals. The main area of application is animal feed. Methionine production is part of the Chemicals Business Area of Evonik.

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