Catalytic Reactions of Nickel powder on the Manufacture of Margarine


Speaking of the main component of butter-oil, which is no stranger to us, it is an essential nutrient for our human bodies. In our daily life, there are quite a few of food rich in fat. Grease contained in butter, lard and other animal oil is usually solid, that is also why people call it the fat. While liquid oils extracted from soybeans, peanuts, sunflowers and other oil-rich plants and their fruits as well, people call them the oil. In fact, grease is general name of solid fat and liquid oil.

There are usually many saturated fatty acid esters in butter, lard, butter and other solid animal fats. Saturated fatty acid ester is an ester formed by saturated fatty acid, that is, its molecules do not contain carbon-carbon double bonds any more, while instead containing a maximum (i.e., saturated) of hydrogen atoms. Conversely, soybean oil, peanut oil and other liquid vegetable oils contain more unsaturated fatty acid esters. Unsaturated fatty acid ester carries with it a certain amount of carbon-carbon double bonds in molecules, while hydrogen atoms are not saturated. The foremost reason contributing to the solid state of animal fats and liquid state of vegetable oil is due to the unsaturated state of hydrogen atoms in the molecules.

Those being the case, then things seem to become pretty simple. As long as we can turn unsaturated fatty acid esters into saturated fatty acid esters, then the “historic changes” turning animal fats into vegetable oils can be achieved? This change is possible theoretically, having the unsaturated fatty acid ester react with hydrogen, turning carbon-carbon double bond into a single bond and adding a hydrogen atom to each of the original double-linked carbon atoms during the reaction process. This reaction is called “addition reaction” or “hydrogenation reaction” chemically. “Hydrogenation reaction” may seem simple, but difficult to effectively implement this reaction. Simply mixing vegetable oils with hydrogen might take a few hours, days or even much longer without seeing any evidence of reaction. Till now, you might have realized that the catalyst will be needed to achieve this reaction successfully.

Late of 19th century, French chemist Sabatier first discovered that nickel powder has high catalytic reaction on hydrogenation in the study of organic compounds, and utilized nickel powder as a catalyst to achieve catalytic hydrogenation reactions. Sabatier won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1912 for this important discovery and devoted his life to organic catalysis studies. In addition to catalytic hydrogenation, he also established himself in researches on organic reactions, such as catalytic dehydrogenation, hydration, and dehydration and so on. In 1902, German chemist Norman Saba applied Sabatier’s theory into the oil industry, conducting studies on catalytic hydrogenation reaction of oils. He used nickel powder as a catalyst, causing vegetable oil to go through “hydrogenation reaction” and harden gradually, and then getting saturated fat, which was referred to as “hydrogenated vegetable oil.”

Usually the cream produced by “hydrogenated vegetable oil” is called “margarine”. Due to the reason that its raw materials are no longer dependent on animal fat, instead it can be replaced with cheap cotton seed oil, peanut oil and other vegetable oil. So once this method comes out, it was vigorously promoted. Since then, a variety of “margarine” food was made available; replacing natural cream in many cases, and its output has exceeded that of natural cream.