Lecithin is the most important by product of the oilseed processing industry. In the US alone nearly 100 million kilograms annually are used in a host of foods and non-food applications.
The origins and development of the modern lecithin and pharmaceutical industries can be traced back to the work of three German technologists beginning over a hundred years ago. Bollmann and Rewald developed the extraction technology while Buer brought lecithin to the pharmaceutical arena. Not only did the industries thrive in Europe but eventually in the United States as well. Although many US chemists and technologists contributed to the growth of the lecithin industry, three stand out from the 1930-1945 era. (Jordan, Julian, Eichberg).
Hermann Bollmann was born in Hamburg Germany in 1880. Bollmann's parents were wealthy and he was sent to a private school where he was told to leave school at age 17 because he had learned everything being taught.
From about 1910 until his death in 1934, his contributions to the fats and oils industry are well documented. There is no doubt that Bollmann and Bruno Rewald were the fathers of the modern lecithin industry .Although soybeans had been grown for thousands of years in China, their entrance into Europe and North America did not occur until about 1910 when Bollmann imported beans from Manchuria. Bollmann immediately recognized the potential of soybean oil and by 1911 had (presumably with his father's help) constructed the plant Die Hansa Muhle (The Hansa Mill) in Hamburg. Bollmann was not the first to look into lecithin. Heinrich Buer (1875-1962) began to search for replacements for egg yolk as a lecithin source and began research on soybeans in 1909 and received a US Patent in 1912. The Buer process consisted of boiling leguminous seeds with alcohol to recover lecithin. However, his interest was not to commercialize lecithin for mass production but rather to promote its therapeutic benefits. Prior to 1910 some 15 medicinal lecithin preparations were marketed in Europe. Lecithin sources included egg yolks, brains and bone marrow. (Wendel, Inform, 2000) Many of the products contained other ingredients as well (hemoglobin, albumin, cod liver oil, wine). Buer and and his, Carl received 20 patents (3 US) and introduced pure lecithin in 1930 .The product was made from commercial de-oiled soy lecithin. Buer was convinced of the health benefits of lecithin and published a book on the subject. By the end of World War 2 Buer introduced additional products still known today as Buer Lecithin. The Buer company was taken over by Pfizer and ultimately by Roland Lipoid KG. Although others entered the lecithin pharmaceutical field Buer can claim to be the father of that industry.
Bollmann received a number of US and German patents on the recovery of lecithin from soybean and other seed oils (US 1 464 557, 1923; US 1 667 767, 1928). The experimental work was carried out in the laboratory with a solvent system containing alcohol, benzene and petroleum ether. Whereas hexane alone will remove about 50% of the soybean phosphatides, Bollmann's reagent give nearly complete extraction. Knowing that his solvent system could never be adopted commercially, Bollmann designed and patented a solvent extraction system based on soybean flakes moving continuously through a solvent bed while contained in baskets. Although the US Patent 1 414 154 "Extraction of fat and oil from raw materials" was issued in 1922, Bollmann filed applications in Germany (1916, 1918), Belgium (1919), Norway (1919), the Netherlands, (1919), Austria (1919), Sweden (1919), Switzerland and Czechoslovakia (1919). In total, Bollmann held 17 US Patents. Bollmann extraction plants were very popular in the US during the 1930-1950 era. Coconut, peanut, rapeseed, linseed, sunflower, and soybeans could be processed (100 tons/day) with a residual oil of 1% or less. In the mid 1930's a 400 ton/day Bollmann plant was constructed to process soybeans by solvent extraction. Material balance data demonstrated excellent extraction efficiency and solvent recovery (see Kruse et al., Ind. Eng. Chem. 40 (1948) 186). This plant was the first to process lecithin from soybeans extracted with hexane. After the removal of the solvent the crude oil was treated with water and steam followed by separation of the coagulated lecithin by centrifugation. The process produced lecithin free of bitter taste. A patent was issued to Sorensen and Beal (US 2 024 398, 1935) with the rights assigned to ALC.
Bollmann played a major role in the development of the American lecithin industry. About 1928, Joseph Eichberg (1906-1997) learned of the Hansa Mill and a few years later visited the mill and proposed to Bollmann that he would represent Hansa in the US. In 1928 Hansa and Rewald visited the US to discuss the patents held by Hansa. By 1930 The American Lecithin Company (ALC) was formed with rights to distribute lecithin in the United States. Prior to 1934 all imported lecithin came from Hansa and was distributed by ALC and Ross and Rowe. In that year ADM and Glidden constructed plants to produce lecithin and by then Hansa had gone bankrupt and changed hands. Apparently the US producers formed a patent holding licensing agreement with stock in ALC which was eventually terminated by mutual consent in 1946.
Hansa was deeply affected by the great depression of 1929 and the entrance of other companies into the lecithin market. Hansa declared bankruptcy and was acquired by another company (GmbH). As a result Bollmann was demoted from his position as director and left the Company. Bollmann attempted to start over but his patents were owned by others. Ironically Bollmann died in 1934 while visiting the patent office in Berlin.
Bruno Rewald (1882-1947) played a major role in the lecithin industry as an assistant to Bollmann at Hansa and had worked to form the ALC with Eichberg. Rewald had promoted the growing of soybeans in the Balkins with little success. Nonetheless he recognized the potential of soybean lecithin in non-food applications. Born in Germany Rewald moved to England in 1933 where he helped build a lecithin plant. Rewald visited the US a number of times (1928, 1946 and 1947) as a consultant to the industry and to promote soybeans and lecithin as food ingredients. Rewald died in Minneapolis on his final trip to the US. It is safe to say that Rewald had a hand in every known use for lecithin during his lifetime. As early as 1925, Bollmann found that lecithin improved the solubility of cocoa powder. By the end of the 1920s Rewald showed that lecithin could reduce the amount of cocoa butter used in chocolates. ALC commercialized the product "Alcolec" in 1929. It was advertised "Alcolec saves cocoa butter, time, and power, lowers costs, improves working properties and quality, stabilizes viscosity, and extends shelf life." Addition of lecithin to chocolate became state of the art and remains so today. An excellent review of lecithin in the chocolate industry is found in INFORM. (A. Wendel, Vol. 12 pp821-823, 2001)
Rewald held a number of US patents on lecithin uses in a variety of industrial products including textiles, leather, rubber, meat, insecticides, egg yolk substitutes, stable emulsions, and nutritional foods.
Stroud Jordan (1885-1947) was an early worker in the lecithin applications arena. Jordan held a number of positions including chief chemist for a large candy manufacturer, as managing director of the Applied Sugar Laboratory and established the Stroud Jordan Laboratories in New York City. Jordan finished his career (1938-1947) as director of research for the American Sugar Refining Laboratory. Jordan recognized the potential of lecithin in candy. Between 1932 and 1942 he received a number of US patents on water dispersible lecithin, viscosity lowering preparations, lecithin-based flavoring, and bakery products based on lecithin. Early in his career Jordan worked on tobacco and received a patent for toasting which was used to produce "Lucky Strike" cigarettes. The American Candy Technologists presents an Achievement Award in his name.
A considerable amount of lecithin research was conducted by Percy Julian (1899-1975, a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences) a chemist and director of research at Glidden (1936-1954) and Co. Julian held a number of lecithin patents including the function of lecithin in chocolate as a viscosity modifier. Other discoveries included granular de-oiled and alcohol-fractionated lecithins. (Davis and Iveson, US 2 910 362, 1959) Julian left Glidden in 1954 and a few years later Central Soya leased the Glidden Chemurgy Division and purchased it outright in 1961. Alcohol fractionated products were discontinued but the de-oiled product remained on the market trademarked as "Centrolex". Eventually Central Soya became Solae and the de-oiled lecithin became Solec TM and remains on the market.
Joseph Eichberg along with Bollmann and Rewald played a central role in bringing the lecithin industry to the US through the formation of the American Lecithin Company (ALC) in 1930. ALC became the distributor of lecithin in the US. However, by 1935, several lecithin plants were operational under a patent licensing agreement between ALC, Hansa, ADM and Glidden. The Glidden plant was destroyed by a fire and explosion from a hexane leak in October 1935 but was quickly rebuilt. Eichberg held about a dozen patents most of which were directed at industrial uses of lecithin including corrosion inhibitors, metal oxides in paints, coating compounds, pigment modification and turpentine. Eichberg patented a unique method for increasing the hydrophilic properties of commercial lecithin by treatment with yeast. These products showed improved emulsification and anti-spattering properties in margarine (US 2 893 612).
Notes and further reading:
Much of the information given here is credited to Armin Wendel who published a comprehensive history of the lecithin industries (INFORM 11 (2000) 885-897 and INFORM 12 (2001) 821-823) Wendel is the managing director of Nattermann Phospholipids GmbH, Cologne, Germany
The patents of Bollmann, Rewald and Buer are matters of public record and were examined by the author. The number of patents (US and Foreign) issued to Bollmann, Rewald, and Buer number about 65.
Percy Julian was the first black American Chemist to earn a doctorate in chemistry albeit in Vienna, Austria, He was the first to synthesize the alkaloid physostigmine which is considered a classic research accomplishment. Julian pioneered work leading to the synthesis of sex hormones. His life story was documented in the ACS sponsored program "Percy Julian the forgotten genius." The program was aired on the Nova Series on public television. Dr. James Kenar wrote an article on Julian's remarkable career (See Giants of the Past INFORM, 19 pp. 411-414). A detailed biography of Julian can be found on the NAS Website (B. Witkop, Percy Lavon Julian 1899-1975, Biographical Memoirs National
An account of the History of lecithin is given by Shurtleff and Aoyagi (http://www.soyinfocenter.com).
A biography of Stroud Jordan can be found on http://www.ncpedia.org/biography/JordanStroud (William S. Powell, 1988)