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Key Note

Session chair: Mondschein, Anke, Dr (FILK gGmbH, Freiberg, Germany); Prabakar, Sujay, Dr (New Zealand Leather & Shoe Research Association, Palmerston North, New Zealand)
Shortcut: KN1
Date: Wednesday, 26 June, 2019, 1:00 PM – 1:20 PM
Room: Hall 1/2
Session type: Key Note


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1:00 PM KN1-01

Sulfide unhairing: rethinking the received wisdom. (#228)

W. R. Wise1, A. D. Ballantyne1, A. D. Covington1

1 University of Northampton, Institute for Creative Leather Technologies (ICLT), Northampton, United Kingdom


The removal of hair from a hide or skin by dissolving it with a mixture of lime and sulfide is a fundamentally understood feature of leather technology.  Or is it?

For a long time, it has been accepted within the leather literature that, in water, sulfide may be present as either hydrogen sulfide (H2S), hydrosulfide (HS-) or sulfide (S2-), depending on the pH.

pH < 6            6 < pH < 12            pH > 12
H2S(aq)    ⇌        HS-(aq)       ⇌      S2-(aq)

The generally accepted mechanism of hair burning is sulfide attack at the cystine disulfide linkages in keratin. Also, it is believed that the unhairing reaction only proceeds at an appreciable rate in the presence of the dianionic S2- species, because that fits with the technological observation that unhairing reactions only proceed at pH greater than 12.

However, recent publications have provided substantive proof that the S2- species does not exist in aqueous media at any pH: researchers were unable to observe any evidence of the S2- species in a solution of Na2S dissolved in hyper-concentrated NaOH and CsOH using Raman spectroscopy.  The assigned second pKa for removal of the second proton has now been estimated to be 19, making the concentration of S2- (see below) vanishingly small.

HS- ⇋ S2- + H+

There is a clear contradiction between the currently accepted mechanism for sulfide unhairing with the evidenced speciation of sulfide species in aqueous environment.  Here the implications for this important process are discussed and possible alternative mechanisms postulated that fit with the new knowledge.


It is a truism that we must understand the mechanistic principles of a process in order to control it.  Here, we have a big change in thinking for ‘sulfide unhairing’, so it is vital that we understand the implications for leather science and leather technology of that change.

Equation 1
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Equation 2
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Keywords: sulfide, hydrosulfide, unhairing, mechanism, pKa