Development and demand for sugar-based surfactants are on the rise

08 May 2011 11:18  [Source: ICB]

Sugar-based surfactant development gains ground, riding on the success of growing demand for APG

Growing demand for alkyl polyglucoside (APG) - a non-ionic surfactant made from vegetable oils and starch - is driving new developments and increasing marketing for other sugar-based surfactants. These products could replace traditional petroleum and even other natural oils-based surfactants.


James Rickwood

Natural surfactants continue to gain traction, especially in the mass-market product categories such as personal care, laundry detergent and home care cleaning products. Growth in naturally derived specialty surfactants, which account for only 10% of the overall $600m (€413m) global specialty surfactants market, is expected to grow by 4% yearly through 2013, led by APG, according to Anna Ibbotson, industry manager for chemicals and materials at US consultancy Kline & Co.

Germany-based Cognis, now owned by compatriot firm BASF, is the world's largest APG surfactant producer. Other suppliers include European chemical firms Clariant, Croda and SEPPIC, and South Korea-based LG Household & Health Care.

Cognis expanded its APG capacity last year with a new 25,000 tonne/year plant in Jinshan, China, citing increased demand as the major driver for the investment. The chemical business division of LG Household & Health Care also expanded its APG plant in Onsan, South Korea, in January because of high demand. It did not disclose the plant's capacity.

"The recent expansion is our second, following the first expansion project completed in 2009," the company said in a statement. "We started APG production in 2000 and have been continuously expanding our capacity because of high demand for environmentally friendly surfactants."

APG surfactants initially were developed for home care and body wash applications, but have been expanded to facial cleansing lotions, shampoos, oral care products, wipes, laundry detergents, hard surface cleaners and industrial and institutional cleaning applications, according to Cognis.

US-based Colonial Chemical has been producing sugar surfactants made from corn syrup and coconut oil since 2002. The company sells the products worldwide under the brands Suga and PolySuga in drum and bulk quantities for various personal care, household and industrial cleaners and even oil field applications, says Colonial Chemical president David Anderson.

"The exact pounds sold are proprietary. However, the volume is significant now, and growing each year in sales and acceptance by the market," says Anderson. "Our goal is to assist the formulating chemists who have been using traditional sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) products to consider using our Suga and PolySuga products."

The sugar surfactants outperform traditional surfactants such as SLES and SLS in terms of mildness, solubility of essential oils and the ability to clean at lower concentrations, says Anderson. The surfactants also outperform APGs in terms of higher foam, lower irritation, better solubility and provide thickening viscosity when combined with betaines.

"In certain instances, our products are maybe up to 25% more expensive than regular APGs. However, they outperform APGs by a great deal more," says Anderson. "Compared to petroleum-derived surfactants, we are also narrowing the cost gap more every day as the price of oil moves up."

Italian chemical company Lamberti says APG esters offer significant advantages as well, such as low surface tension and lower foaming compared with APGs.

The company patented the synthesis of esters of APG in 1987, and since then has been heavily involved in developing sugar-based surfactant derivatives, says Don Leming, business development manager of agrochemicals at Pennsylvania-based Lamberti USA.

The company notes several APG esters ­are already commercially available and others are still in development.

"Our Eucarol AGE (alkyl glucose ester) shows outstanding mildness and is able to ­reduce the irritation level of liquid soaps, shampoos and detergents," says Leming. "The economics of APGs and APG esters is very similar when considering both cost and usage rates. The major challenge is to persuade surfactant formulators to move from using standard and quite cheap commodities into the more environment-friendly and very much milder compounds."

Colonial Chemical's Anderson agrees that it is not easy for formulators to break old habits in using traditional surfactants. "The industry has been stuck on sulfates and ether sulfate technology for over 60 years largely because they are still inexpensive and easy to use," says Anderson. "However, sulfates are irritating to eyes and skin and may utilize some very questionable manufacturing processes in regards to safety. Getting our customers familiar with sugar surfactants and having time to work with them is the challenge."

Despite the challenges, the immense potential profits to gain within the 28.6bn lb/year (12.9m tonnes/year) global surfactants market is attracting several newcomers offering alternative green materials.

France-based WheatOleo, a joint venture formed last year between Belgian oleochemical company Oleon and France-based agrobusinesses consortium ARD, is selling alkyl polypentosides (APPs) surfactants made from combined natural fatty alcohols and pentose sugars coming from agricultural by-products wheat bran and straw.

"Competition is fierce with several newcomers knocking at the door. On the other hand, demand from market is growing and there is room for alternative solutions," says Wheat-Oleo business manager Philippe Lapeyre.

WheatOleo did not disclose how much it is currently producing, but says that it aims to produce several thousand tonnes in the near future. Sales of APPs began in 2008 and are now being sold through Oleon and France-based cosmetic ingredients company Soliance, owned by ARD. No other company is producing or marketing APPs, in which ARD holds a strong patent position, says Lapeyre.

"The sugar part of our surfactant comes from lignocellulosic biomass and therefore does not enter into competition with food compared with glucose-based raw materials," says Lapeyre. "Pentoses derived from wheat bran and straw also have the main advantage of being very reactive, leading to a low temperature process, low polymerization degree and reduced post-treatments."

Price and performance for APPs are competitive with APGs, says Lapeyre. "Our raw materials are widely available and our production processes are fully under control now, so our next challenges are to expand our surfactant line to offer to the market a more complete product range, as well as to convince the market the added value of our ­surfactants in terms of performance, cost ­effectiveness and environmental profile."

Read Doris de Guzman's green chemicals blog for the latest news on green surfactants


Green surfactant feedstock
It is not easy for new technologies to enter the low-priced, high-volume household cleaning detergents sector, which accounts for the largest end-use market for surfactants.

But newcomers such as US-based Elevance Renewable Sciences, Solazyme and Codexis are eager to participate. Elevance plans to enter the commodity surfactants market using its drop-in oleochemicals and renewable olefins produced via metathesis olefins technology.

"Our renewable olefins can replace petroleum-derived n-paraffins, a key feedstock in making linear alkylbenzene [LAB] and linear alkylbenzene sulfonates," says Andy Shafer, vice president of sales and market development at Elevance.

"Our oleochemicals provide detergent grade esters from sources other than palm kernel or coconut oils that can be used to make fatty acids, alcohols and derivatives providing surfactant manufacturers a unique and advantaged feedstock option."

Elevance is collaborating with Indonesian oleochemical company Wilmar to construct a biorefinery, which the company claims will be the world's largest, with initial capacity of 180,000 tonnes/year expected to start in the fourth quarter of 2011. Elevance plans to expand the biorefinery to 360,000 tonnes/year as customers incorporate products into their business.

"This scale and capacity is critical for the large-volume requirements of the surfactants industry. Commodity surfactants are a large, highly-competitive market. Ingredients targeting these surfactants must be available at large scale and provide drop-in performance and economics," says Shafer. Commercialization is well underway for the company's surfactants, he adds.

"We are now completing a major scale-up run to provide customers with sufficient quantities for scale-up and qualification. We will begin shipping customers product from a 500 tonne/year toll production run this quarter."

Elevance also is entering the specialty surfactants market through its collaboration with US surfactant producer Stepan.

US biotechnology firm Codexis says it plans to enter the detergent alcohols market using its cellulosic sugar platform. "The technology we are developing with Shell on cellulosic-based biofuels can also be applied to develop renewable detergent alcohols," Robert Lawson, Codexis senior vice president and chief financial officer, said during a presentation at the Jefferies Global Clean Technology conference held in New York City in February. "We have already produced laboratory-scale detergent alcohols today. We first plan on using sugar as feedstock and proceed to biomass in the near future."

Approximately 75% of the global detergent alcohol is derived from conversion of natural fats and oils, and the remaining 25% is produced synthetically from petroleum, noted Lawson. "There is a correlation between fluctuating crude oil prices and vegetable oil process, which results in unpredictable costs and volatile margins for consumer product companies that formulate these alcohols into final products. We believe that our renewable detergent alcohols can address concerns of both sustainability and price volatility," he added.

US algae technology developer Solazyme also hopes to address the price volatility of natural fats and oils used in surfactants with its tailored oils. According to Solazyme's initial public offering (IPO) filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on March 11, the company identifies soap and detergents as near-term product application for its oils.

"With our tailored oils, we can increase percentage of desired fatty alcohols or fatty acids per liter of oil compared with oleochemical feedstock - palm kernel and coconut oils. We can reduce cost and increase return on invested capital for oleochemical partners," Solazyme reported.

Palm kernel oil is primarily used as a raw material for oleochemical facilities to derive key fatty acid components such as capric, lauric and myristic acids, which are further processed and used in detergents, liquid soaps and other consumer and industrial products.

Solazyme pointed out that an oleochemical facility utilizing its tailored oil versus standard palm kernel oil could increase its output of the desired fatty acid components such as capric, lauric and myristic by more than 30%.

By: Doris de Guzman
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