Bubbling over

01 October 1998 00:00  [Source: PCE]

Increased public awareness of the environmental impact of detergents continues to have a major impact on the market. Jo Winter reports

Western Europe remains the world's largest producer of detergents and the global market is currently dominated by large US and European companies. Faced with an economic downturn in Asia and the increasing cost of environmental compliance, the larger companies are having to restructure and refocus their businesses while the smaller companies suffer.

The customer is dictating many of the changes in the market. Consumers are increasingly demanding high-performance, 'greener' detergents. This is particularly evident in the household and personal care markets. And as the detergent market has matured in Europe and the US, companies are having to rely on innovations to gain a competitive edge. Multifunctionality is now seen by many as the key to gaining market share as customers demand less product with more capabilities. As a result, value-adding chemicals like optical brighteners, fragrances, speciality polymers and additive technology generally are becoming increasingly important to the detergent market.

Elsewhere in the world, as incomes have risen in emerging markets, so too has demand for soaps and detergents, particularly for personal care and consumer products. In spite of the current economic turmoil, it seems likely that consumers in the developing nations of Latin America and Asia will become increasingly sophisticated in their demands, so the market will require more complex formulations. Increased detergent consumption is expected to be stimulated by population growth and higher living standards well into the next century. This is good news for the producers in North America and Europe who have dominated the supply of the more complex formulations.

In the past, linear alkylbenzene sulphonates (LAS) and branched-chain alkylbenzene sulphonates (BAS) accounted for much of the detergent market in the US and Europe. Now, LAS accounts for a third, but fatty alcohol sulphates (AS), such as lauryl sulphate are reappearing. Environmental issues and changing consumer tastes are again driving this shift. In household laundry, for example, there has been a move towards low foaming detergents that can clean at lower temperatures and can accommodate enzymes. Non-ionic surfactants, primarily alkylphenol ethoxylates (APE) and fatty alcohol ethoxylates (AE), which can be used without phosphate builders are also growing stronger in the market. Methyl ester ethoxylates (MEES) are also expected to make an increasing impact on the detergent market. MEES are produced direct from methyl esters and promise to be low foaming like AE, but with the added advantage of being cheaper. Another development is that as phosphate use is increasingly being restricted, and in many detergent formulations zeolites have replaced phosphates as water softening agents.

The use of higher alcohols is a major area of growth: according to one report from Colin A Houston & Associates, its use is growing by as much as 6%/year. And more of these alcohol derivatives are finding their way into detergent applications than ever before with an estimated 4%/year growth.

By 2000 world fatty alcohol capacity is forecast to be some 1.8m tonne, of which over 50% is likely to come from 'natural' oils and fats. Filipino company United Coconut Chemicals believes that world capacity of 'natural' fatty alcohols will be as much as 980 000 tonne by 2000, with Asia accounting for half. Alkyl polyglycosides (APGs) are now a major end use of fatty alcohol, and their importance is expected to increase. Henkel has a capacity of 25 000 tonne in the US and Europe, Akzo Nobel has been promoting their use in industrial cleaners, and Union Carbide has been producing them for both the industrial and the domestic detergent market.

And it is a major market. Next year it is expected that the oleochemicals market in the EU alone will be worth over $3bn. The main oils used are coconut, palm oil, palm kernel and tallow. In Europe, the market is dominated by two companies: Unichema, formerly part of Unilever and now part of ICI, and German company Henkel. Unichema produces more than 500 000 tonne/year of oleochemicals, from natural oils and fats at its sites across Europe, the US and Asia. Henkel also has a worldwide presence and produces over 10 000 products.

Many companies are now moving away from the use of petrochemical-based products and are increasing capacity in more 'natural' ones derived from oils and fats. Kvaerner Process Technology has recently set up its first plant using its natural detergent process (NDA). A second plant is now planned for Taiwan. The company says that this NDA process is a natural progression of its existing esterification technology, which was first developed for the production of 1,4-butanediol from maleic anhydride. In the NDA process, fatty acids from coconut and palm kernel oil-derived feedstocks are esterified with methanol. Fatty acid methyl esters are formed, which are then hydrogenated to produce crude alcohols which are then refined. Prime Chem, a Filipino coconut oil producer chose the technology for a plant which is designed to produce 30 000 tonne/year of detergent alcohols. KPT says that there is a definite trend throughout the world towards more environmentally friendly detergents. Southeast Asia is no exception it says, with Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, which produce the raw materials, particularly good opportunities for growth.

In the Philippines, detergent products made with domestic coconut oil surfactants are actually favoured by law. Recently the United Coconut Associations of the Philippines (Ucap) petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the import of petrochemical-based detergents. The chairman of Ucap, Jesus Arranza, said that he was concerned about the prospect of countries that have suffered devaluation since last year dumping petrochemical-based detergents on the Filipino market. Arranza said that 60% of detergents sold domestically 'must be made of surfactants manufactured from coconut oil to protect the environment and the crucial coconut industry'.

Condea Augusta, a subsidiary of REW-DEA, is expanding linear alkylbenzene (LAB) production in Italy. Output at its August plant will increase by 100 000 tonne/year to 220 000 tonne/year. The expansion will include Detal and PEP process units, which Condea expects to be online by July 2000. The Detal unit is a solid-bed alkylation process for the production of LAB from detergent-range linear olefins and benzene, while the PEP process selectively removes aromatics from the feed stream of the Detal process unit, which leads to increased LAB yields.

US company Pilot is investing $10m to more than double its sulphonation capacity at its New Jersy plant. An air/SO3 sulphonation facility will also be expanded. The facility uses Pilot's proprietary ice-cold speciality sulphonation process. According to the company this extra capacity will support their core business in detergent surfactants, oil additives and emulsion polymer additives.

Despite the maturity of the European market, companies are confident that there are still profits to be made. David Connor, vice president and general manager of Albright & Wilson's European surfactants business, noted that opportunities still exist in Europe.

'In the UK, detergent powders of standard concentration have shown to be preferred by the consumer, whereas in the main markets of continental Europe, concentrate powders continue to dominate. On the other hand, for laundry liquids, the UK has seen very strong growth in the demand for concentrated liquids and a continuing strong popularity for liquids per se. In Europe, there is considerable scope for further sales development of laundry liquids, particularly in the concentrated liquid sector.' He added: 'With regard to personal care products, mildness claims and performance continue to be important themes. However, formulation innovation has been impeded to some extent by cost concerns.'

It is not an easy time for the detergents industry. High levels of competition, currency fluctuations and price pressure in the more mature markets of Europe and the US mean that for many companies the only way to turn a profit is to keep developing high value-added innovative formulations, which is an expensive business. Like other areas of the chemical industry, companies are busy restructuring their businesses to cut costs and try to remain competitive. Consumer expectations are also higher than ever in terms of both performance and environmental friendliness, but as this has further encouraged the development of new products from renewable resources, it is not such a bad thing for the industry. It may not be easy for the producer, but the customer will undoubtedly benefit. Unfortunately, the one area which seemed to offer the greatest opportunities for growth and profit has been in the grip of an economic crisis for over a year now, and although the Asian market is still growing, it is far from stable. Nevertheless, the market for detergents continues to grow at a more than respectable rate and if companies respond to the changing market conditions, they should be in good shape.

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