Expansion thanks to Persil
The history of the factory and industry at the Rheinfelden site extends back to the 19th century. The plant was created when two originally separate chemical sites were merged. They belonged to companies that were merged in Evonik Industries - Hüls AG and Degussa AG.
Both companies were prompted to set up production locations in Rheinfelden by the water power available there. In cooperation with Aluminium Co., Degussa AG founded the Elektro-Chemische Fabrik Natrium GmbH. In 1899, the energy-intensive production of sodium and sodium peroxide was set up close to a hydroelectric plant. However, the site remained relatively small initially—a situation that changed rapidly after 1907, the year that saw the market launch of Persil, which, as the advertisements at the time promised, was the “first self-acting laundry detergent in the world.” The per in the product name stands for the active oxygen component (sodium) perborate, a bleach invented by Degussa; sil stands for silicate, denoting Henkel’s washing soda.
Perborate operation, 1952
The number of employees rose from 60 in 1899 to around 340 in 1907. As Rheinfelden was the main, and for a long time the only, plant producing perborate, the factory profited from the rapid rise of Persil. During the First World War, a shortage of borax, which was a key ingredient in the manufacture of perborate, production of sodium percarbonate was started. Today, this is the most important detergent component produced by Evonik Industries. The Elektro-Chemische Fabrik Natrium was taken over completely by Degussa in 1919.
Before World War II, perborate alone accounted for 73 percent of total production at the plant. Owing to its relatively isolated location, it suffered hardly any war damage. However, the plant used for the production of hydrogen peroxide was completely dismantled and transported to the Soviet Union. Hydrogen peroxide had been used as an initial component for the detergent base materials in Rheinfelden since 1930. It was initially manufactured in an electrochemical process and then, from 1965, in the anthraquinone process developed in Rheinfelden. Hydrogen peroxide is still produced in the same process around the world today. As an environmentally friendly chemical, hydrogen peroxide is used very widely, in applications ranging from bleaching paper and cellulose, to purifying waste water and air, to disinfecting packaging materials.
Active oxygen products have also played an important part in Rheinfelden over recent decades. In 1944, production was expanded to include AEROSIL fumed silica. As the result of several more product enhancements to sodium perborate, AEROSIL and sodium percarbonate, the site has undergone thorough renovation since the period following the war.
The foundation of the south section of the factory
Water power was also the deciding factor in the establishment of a new site. The story of the Rheinfelden site belonging to the company, which was later to become Hüls AG, began in 1895 when Walter Rathenau founded the Elektrochemische Werke Rheinfelden GmbH. Technical problems, however, forced him to hand over his company two years later to the chemical factory Griesheim-Elektron AG.
At first, the focus of activity at the newly built factory was the production of caustic soda for soap, dyes, cellulose and rayon. Manufacture of the by-product chlorine subsequently became increasingly important. Chlorinated lime for disinfecting and bleaching was produced in large quantities at Rheinfelden, until production of chlorinated hydrocarbon as a solvent and degreasing agent started in 1923. With the advent of petrochemistry, chlorinated paraffin for mixing with rubber, and pentachlorophenol for wood preservatives, were also manufactured there. The latter product first disappeared from the market as late as the 1980s.
Thanks to the availability of the initial components chlorine, hydrogen and acetylene, Rheinfelden in 1929 became the location for the production of two more important chlorine derivatives: vinyl chloride and its polymerized form, polyvinyl chloride (PVC). With this production, the importance of the location, which had belonged to I.G. Farbenindustrie since 1925, increased. Production in this area did not cease until 1967.
During World War II, a cooperative venture was set up with Degussa nearby in Rheinfelden. After 1945 and under French occupation, production continued at a low level. Various compensation goods were among those manufactured. Later, spray cans using vinyl chloride as a propellant were launched onto the market. The most important new product was silicone tetrachloride, an indicator of the change from a chlorine-producing operation for the heavy industries to a specialty chemicals company.
Merging of the factory parts
In 1989 Hüls AG took over all the activities of Dynamite Nobel. The amalgamation of Hüls and Degussa to Degussa-Hüls AG in 1999 also merged the two parts of the factory.
Rheinfelden site, 1985
Today at the Rheinfelden site, Evonik Industries produces bleaching and oxidation agents, detergent base materials, filler materials and matting agents, and silane for a very varied range of applications. Many of the initial and intermediate products from which the valuable end products are made, are produced at Rheinfelden itself.
The factory covers an area of 378,000 square meters which is equivalent to roughly 68 football fields. With approximately 1,200 employees, the Rheinfelden site is one of the largest employers in the region.