Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring organic compound composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. It has a simple chemical structure of CH2O. Formaldehyde was first reported in 1859 by Alexander Mikhailovich Butlerov when he attempted to synthesize methylene glycol. However, formaldehyde wasn’t conclusively identified until 1868, when August Wilhelm von Hofmann, a professor of chemistry and director of the laboratory of the University of Berlin, set out to clearly establish both the structure and identity of formaldehyde. The method that Hoffman used to identify formaldehyde laid the foundation for the modern formaldehyde manufacturing process.
Commercial production of formaldehyde began in Germany in the 1880’s and was taken up by Belgium, France and the United States by the early 1900s. During this time formaldehyde was mainly used as an embalming agent or medical preservative, but these early uses represent less than 1% of total formaldehyde sales today. Formaldehyde was initially manufactured in small quantities (5-20kg) for use in a few factories and university laboratories, but improvements to the manufacturing process eventually led to large-scale production of formaldehyde.
The demand for formaldehyde has risen steadily through the past century, driven by developments in science and technology that have led to the discovery of a wide variety of applications for which formaldehyde is a key building block. For example, in 1907 a Belgian chemist, Dr. Leo Baekeland, used a phenol formaldehyde resin to invent Bakelite, a hard moldable plastic that is generally regarded as the first synthetic polymeric material. The first commercial-grade particleboard was produced at a factory in Bremen, Germany in the 1940s and launched a revolution in the construction and furniture industries.
Commercial applications for formaldehyde continue to grow. In 2010, over 3.6 million tonnes of formaldehyde were produced by European manufacturers for use in a number of different industries including: