Amyris partners with Wilmar in surfactants

This is an interesting development on the green surfactants sector with the news that Amyris is partnering with Singapore-based palm products (and oleochemicals) producer Wilmar.

According to Amyris, it will establish a development, production and commercialization venture with Wilmar which will use Amyris’ Biofene molecule in surfactant manufacture. Surfactants are used in a variety of consumer and industrial applications – the largest of which are in detergent products.

Amyris said this family of new surfactants can replace nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), which are being phased out in several regions across the globe because of environmental problems. The current market for NPEs, according to Amyris is more than $1bn/year.

Fortunately, I’ve written a bit about surfactants before and so I’m familiar with NPEs. There is a chemical profile for nonylphenol published in June 2007 by ICIS Chemical Business. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also published its report on NPE last year, which is really helpful for those not familiar with surfactants.

Over the years, many surfactant companies such as AkzoNobel, Rhodia, Evonik, BASF/Cognis, Dow Chemical, Shell, etc., have been developing substitutes to NPEs. Many of these products are usually based on alcohol ethoxylates where fatty alcohols (a large volume are based on vegetable oils/fats) are added with ethylene oxide.

Cleaning products companies (like SC Johnson, Clorox, P&G, Unilever, etc) as well as retailers (like Walmart) have also banned NPEs in their products for the past several years.

What’s so interesting about this announcement is that Elevance Renewable Sciences also has a joint venture with Wilmar and is currently finishing up construction of their 180,000 tonne/year biorefinery (expandable to 360,000 tonne/year) in Surabaya, Indonesia, which is expected to start up in Q4 this year. Elevance is also working to develop their own bio-based surfactants. The company said it is working on renewable olefins which are expected to replace petroleum-derived n-paraffins, a key feedstock in making linear alkylbenzene (LAB).

I believe LABs (and derivatives) also compete with alcohol ethoxylates (and derivatives). LABs are also undergoing regulatory scrutiny especially in Europe because of concerns on biodegradability in water systems.

I am not sure if Elevance is working with Wilmar on the development of these LAB surfactant feedstock but the company is working with US surfactant producer Stepan for development, production and potential commercialization of specialty renewable-based surfactants.

Back to Amyris, the company expects Wilmar to do the marketing for these NPE-alternative surfactants. A possibility of exclusive Biofene manufacture for captive use in this joint venture is also in the table.

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