Salt: producing an essential ingredient for 100 years

Exactly 100 years ago this month the Royal Dutch Salt Industry (Koninklijke Nederlandse Zoutindustrie or KNZ) was established to start the first commercial salt production in the Netherlands. A century after its founding on July 13, 1918, the heritage of KNZ is still a significant part of AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals, not only as the ZO of ‘AKZO’, but also as the backbone of the company’s Industrial Chemicals business.

What started as small venture for table salt under brand names such as JOZO is now a large-scale operation which forms a key foundation of the modern chemical industry. Today, AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals produces over 6 million tons of high-purity salt worldwide for use in the chemical industry, food, pharmaceuticals and to de-ice roads.

General Manager Industrial Salt & Salt Specialties, Nils van der Plas, says: “Salt is perhaps a surprising, but essential raw material for many products, including plastics used in lightweight cars and wind turbines, as well as solar panels and insulation materials. It remains the basis for many products we use every day and we continue working to meet demand in a safe and sustainable way.”

A remnant of ancient seas

Salt was deposited in the Netherlands over 200 million years ago by the evaporation of seawater, leaving behind a thick underground layer of salt which stretches north as far as Denmark. It was discovered in the Dutch region of Twente in 1887 when a local lord was looking for water on his estate. The high salt content made the water he found undrinkable, but offered other opportunities, and an application was filed for a mining permit. In 1918, KNZ broke ground on its first factory in Boekelo, set to produce 5000 tons of salt each year.

The basis of a new industry

Initially the salt was used only for consumption and de-icing roads, but in 1931 KNZ established its first plant for manufacturing chlorine and other chemicals from salt in Hengelo. While Hengelo was the cornerstone of the salt and chlorine business, soon enough the business expanded beyond the city’s borders. In 1956, the construction of a modern chlorine electrolysis plant in Delfzijl began and the first calcined (water-free) soda was manufactured the following year. In 1959, salt production started in Delfzijl as well. KNZ was also active in Stade and Ibbenbüren (Germany).

Growing together

In 100 years a lot of change takes place, and the chemicals industry was no exception. Through several mergers and acquisitions, KNZ evolved to become a key part of the globally active company AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals is today.

The first big acquisition took place in 1954; KNZ acquired Stork-Chemie, followed by a merger with the Dutch sulfuric acid manufacturer Koninklijke Zwavelzuurfabrieken (formerly Ketjen) in 1961. Having combined forces to become Koninklijke Zout-Ketjen (KZK), a major research center opened in Hengelo in the same year, and three years later, the production of pesticides started in Rotterdam and construction of a salt plant started in Mariager in Denmark.

Another exciting year came in 1967: Broxo® brand water softening pellets were launched in response to the growing number of dishwashers in people’s homes. At this time KZK was selling more than two million tons of salt a year, making it the largest salt producer in the world. This was also the year KZK also decided to merge with Koninklijke Zwanenberg-Organon (KZO) to create Koninklijke Zout-Organon (KZO).

In the early ‘70s, the name Akzo was established, and in 1994 the name AkzoNobel was created with the merger of the Swedish concern Nobel Industries. During the formation of AkzoNobel, the position of the salt business was significantly enhanced.

A long history with a sustainable future

"Over the past century salt has become the basis for products touching every aspect of our lives – from your house to your car to your medicine. To make sure we can produce this essential raw material, but also to make sure we can do so sustainably, we have invested over €100 million in new pipelines and techniques,” says Nils van der Plas.

Increasingly, AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals sources the energy needed for salt production from sustainable sources, such as wind energy or steam generated from waste. In 2017 the company also started delivering steam to the heat network in Hengelo. AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals made great strides in using more renewable energy with the aim to use 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Knut Schwalenberg, Executive Committee Member responsible for Industrial Chemicals: “Current annual salt production has grown to over 6 million tons and our salt is distributed to over 80 countries worldwide. AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals is constantly evolving and with the intended sale to The Carlyle Group and GIC, another exciting chapter will be added to story.”

Learn more about the history of salt in this timeline.