The History Of Hydrogen Peroxide

by Jessica Clifton

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is a colourless, weak acid which is miscible with water. It is pale blue in its pure form, although since it’s an unstable compound and decomposes when exposed to heat, hydrogen peroxide is commonly kept in a slightly acidic solution containing a stabiliser. But what is the history of hydrogen peroxide?

When Was Hydrogen Peroxide Discovered?

The eloquently named Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt was a polymath, geographer, naturalist, explorer, philosopher and scientist who first synthesized a peroxide. (He also presumably didn’t get much sleep.) He accomplished this in 1799 when he produced barium peroxide as a by-product of his trials of decomposing air.

Almost 20 years later, French chemist Louis Jacques Thénard realised that barium peroxide could be used for the preparation of a completely new compound which he called eau oxygénée (French for oxygenated water). This compound is what we now know as hydrogen peroxide.

The History Of Hydrogen Peroxide: 19th Century

Thénard discovered hydrogen peroxide while burning barium salts to make barium peroxide. When he dissolved the barium peroxide in water, hydrogen peroxide was produced. Eventually, Thénard and his colleagues discovered that peroxides were very effective at bleaching natural dyes, but attempts to produce hydrogen peroxide on industrial scale failed.

It wasn’t until 1873 in Berlin that the first factory started producing hydrogen peroxide in large quantities, and it was yet another 20 or so years until vacuum distillation was discovered by Richard Wolffenstein and 100% hydrogen peroxide was extracted from water.

Hydrogen peroxide was also being identified in nature around this time. An 1888 entry in the Journal of the American Medical Association references an 1863 experiment which proved the presence of hydrogen peroxide in rainwater.

The History Of Hydrogen Peroxide - discovery in nature

By the turn of the century, many formulas for hydrogen peroxide were considered, and the correct formula – H2O2 – eventually proven by Georgian chemist Petre Melikishvili.

The History Of Hydrogen Peroxide: 1900s To Present Day

The beginning of the 1900s saw the discovery of a more efficient way of synthesising hydrogen peroxide by electrolysis with sulfuric acid, and during the 1930s the anthraquinone process was developed by German chemical company IG Farben (now BASF).

Better production methods and rising demand have meant that annual production of hydrogen peroxide has grown from 35,000 tonnes in 1950 to over three million tonnes worldwide today.

Rising Demand For Many Uses

The History Of Hydrogen Peroxide - uses

Hydrogen peroxide has many industrial and domestic uses, hence the massive increase in production over the last century. It has been used as a rocket fuel, for example in the German V2 rocket of the Second World War, as a bleaching agent, an anti-bacterial agent, in the cosmetic industry, as a detergent – and even in glow sticks.

While you can’t buy glow sticks or rocket fuel from ReAgent, you can buy hydrogen peroxide in varying strengths and quantities. If you would like to discuss your requirements, just contact one of our friendly team today.


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