Fats and oils aim for industrial comeback
Doris De Guzman
After decades on the back burner, will fats and oils return to prominence as renewable chemical feedstocks?
IN THE beginning, there were fats and oils – and most of them, squeezed from plants, fish and animals, were made into useful consumer products and chemicals.
That was then, but many in the chemical industry are hoping it will be so again. The petroleum industry may have taken over many of the industrial applications that the fats and oils industry once supplied, but trends toward environmentally friendly and renewable-based products are expected to drive a comeback.
History notes that soap was already being produced from animal fat and wood ash around 100-200 AD, but the animal fats market only began to boom in the late 1700s to early 1800s, according to a Fats and Oils Chronology reported by the Journal of American Oil Chemists Society (JAOCS) in November 1987.
Back then, animal fat started to become widely used in the manufacture of soap and candles.
In 1768, the candle industry in New England, US, which used spermaceti (wax from sperm whales) and tallow, had already begun shipping 500,000 lbs/year (227 tonnes/year) of candles to the West Indies and large quantities to England. Glycerin was discovered in 1779, and in 1806 Colgate started its first soap production in New York City.
“The modern fats and oils industry evolved first with the animal fats, such as butter, lard and beef tallow, which lasted from about the end of the Civil War  until about 1900,” says Gary List, retired lead scientist at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and former JAOCS editor.
In the 1800s, tallow from a slaughtered cow, especially on the West Coast, was said to be worth more than the meat, says Kent Swisher, vice president, International Programs at the National Renderers Association (NRA). “The rendering industry really developed when companies discovered that it was more efficient to produce tallow to sell to the soap manufacturer than to make tallow, turn it into soap and then market and sell the soap,” Swisher says.
On the East Coast, one of the earliest companies in the rendering industry was Corenco, now part of California-based Baker Commodities. On the West Coast, Peterson Tallow Company was formed in thelate 1800s.
“San Francisco hog farmer Nels Peterson collected waste suet and bones from local butcher shops to supplement his animal diet. His wife boiled off the fat on their kitchen stove and the accumulated tallow was shipped to the East Coast soap industry,” he notes.
Peterson later became a part of Texas-based Darling International.
According to a March 1897 article published by Oil, Paint and Drug Reporter (OPD), a predecessor of ICIS Chemical Business every New York soap manufacturer at the time depended largely upon the house grease being collected by men who went from house to house with pails. “Today no manufacturer buys any but the regularly rendered tallow and grease,” the OPD said.
THE FALL AND RISE OF OILS
For lubrication and burning purposes, whale and sperm oils were the kings of industrial oil in the mid-1800s, according to the OPD.
The waterfront of New Bedford, Massachusetts, US, was had acres of wharves loaded with sperm oil, whale oil, and oils from porpoise, walrus, blackfish, sea elephant, and other marine creatures.
In the 1850s, production of sperm oil averaged over 100,000 bbl/year, and whale oil over 250,000 bbl/year, according to the OPD.
But by around 1870, growing availability and increasingly low price helped petroleum rapidly displace marine oils from lighting and lubrication.
“Nature seems to have destined petroleum [to be] not only… a cheap illuminant but the best and most effective lubricant for all classes of machinery,” reported the OPD in 1897. “Even the progress of petroleum wax in the United Kingdom, which a few years ago only consumed 5,000 tons for candle use, is now in the neighborhood of 45,000 tons, representing 95% of the candle-making material used in that country,” the article noted.
By 1893, the stock of sperm oil was only 5,500 bbl and 710 bbl for whale oil. “Whale oil lamp now embellishes the windows of the auction mart and curiosity shop, while brass candlesticks are now but souvenirs and heirlooms,” said William F. Nye of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in the OPD.
The use of marine oil might have been virtually extinguished, but a new era for vegetable oil was emerging.
“Around 1900 saw the dawn of the cottonseed oil industry,” List notes. “In that year, David Wesson developed a process to refine cottonseed oil and this leads to the introduction of compound shortenings which were blends of liquid cottonseed and lard or beef tallow.”
A major development occurred in 1910 when US consumer products giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) introduced a process for hydrogenating vegetable oils, says List. By June 1911, Crisco shortening was on grocery store shelves and the object of a massive advertising promotion by P&G.
“It was advertised as a healthier alternative to animal fats and more economical than butter,” says List. “Crisco became popular almost immediately. Sales in 1912 rose to 2.6m lb and reached 60m lb by 1916.”
Shortly after Crisco hit the market, another vegetable shortening called Kream Krisp appeared, manufactured by Berlin Mills of New Hampshire, US.
“This produced a long court battle over hydrogenation patents,” says List. “The P&G patents were invalidated by the US Supreme Court, which resulted in the expansion of hydrogenation as a processing tool in the vegetable oil industry.”
The golden age of the US fats and oils industry, however, occurred around 1935-1940, with increasing research for industrial use, List adds.
THE BIRTH OF OLEOCHEMICALS
Fatty acids production went big time in the 1920s and 1930s as a way of making soap more quickly and cheaply than the kettle boiling process, says oleochemical consultant Alan Brunskill, a former managing director of Malaysia-based FPG Oleochemicals.
“This was important because of the introduction of soap powders for laundry use as a major improvement for bars. Washing machines also started to become available at the same time,” he explains.
In the mid 1930s, Ralph Potts, of Chicago-based Armour & Co, developed a method for the fractional distillation of fatty acids, while in 1936, the University of Illinois established a laboratory for studying industrial applications for soybeans, according to the JAOCS.
The big oleo producers at that time were also the big soapers – for example, P&G, Lever (now the Anglo-Dutch consumer product giant known as Unilever) and their German rival Henkel, says Brunskill.
P&G was already selling glycerin under the brand Star by 1858, says P&G Chemicals spokesman Ross Holthouse. The company started building its fatty acid and glycerin facilities in the US and Europe in the 1930s.
“P&G began producing candles in 1837 using stearic acid and reselling red oil (oleic acid) as a coproduct in Cincinnati, Ohio,” says Holthouse. “Star glycerin, one of P&G’s first and oldest branded products, remains one of our key products today.”
Soap for laundry use was severely curtailed with the entrance of synthetic detergents, especially after the Second World War.
“The soapers after that were looking for alternative uses for capacity no longer needed, and the oleochem business as we know it was born,” Brunskill says.
The Second World War saw a rise in animal fat demand for explosives and artillery. One pound of fat was said to contain enough glycerin to make a pound of black powder, enough for six 75mm shells.
The US government formed the Fat Salvage Campaign in order to reclaim used kitchen fats. The National Renderers Association, along with the Association of American Soap and Glycerine Producers, forerunner of the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA), joined the American Fats Salvage Committee to collect household fat totaling over 924m lb, according to the SDA, .
“Housewives turned in fat in one pound-cans to local meat dealers and were paid from 5 cents to 15 cents/lb of fat. The estimated collection of cans would have stretched 43,795 miles [70,466km] if lined up,” the SDA notes in its 2006 book The Evolution of Clean.
After the war, the US soap industry turned to petrochemical-based detergents in a key turning point for animal fats producers. Tallow producers lost 40% of their market, says Swisher, and fat prices dropped to less than 3 cents/lb in just a couple of years.
“The rendering industry decided to work on promoting its products to the global marketplace,” he notes. “By 1956, at least half of tallow and grease production was exported, making up for the lost market domestically.”
For the vegetable oil industry, the dark age began in the 1970s, notes List.
“Many mergers took place, and companies either stopped doing research altogether or reverted to doing quality control and customer trouble-shooting,” he says. “The dark age was further accelerated by attacks on saturated and trans fatty acids by consumer groups and uneducated popular press, which started in the mid-1980s.”
Although the USDA has found many industrial uses again for fats and oils such as lubricants, inks, hydraulic fluids and biofuels, List notes that even today, only a handful of companies are doing basic research.
“The main lesson to learn from history is that not doing research is counterproductive,” he says.
The animal fats industry is optimistic that long-term growth and development for US fats-based industrial products will be stronger, although the NRA admits it is currently struggling.
“Of course, the current economic crisis has curbed demand for products that are derived from animal fats, and prices for animal fats have become very volatile,” says Swisher. “Also, the future use of animal fats for biofuel is an important variable and is very much dependent on the price of crude oil and natural gas.”
One use for fats that is gaining attention, he notes, is substitution for residual fuel oil or natural gas in industrial applications.
The biodiesel boom, although beneficial for the fats and oils industry, was regarded as a catastrophe for the oleochemical businesses, Brunskill notes. Glycerin is a by-product of biodiesel production.
“It has ruined the revenue from the glycerin stream,” says Brunskill. “Still, the best thing that happened post-biodiesel is the new uses being developed for glycerin.”
TALL OIL: A SHORT TALE
Another fatty material source competing with the vegetable oil and animal fats is crude tall oil (CTO), a by-product of the kraft pulping process for paper production.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) first reported commercial production and sale statistics of [unfractionated] CTO in 1937, says Don Stauffer, president of US-based consultancy International Development Associates. CTO production at that time was 4,717 tonnes, he says.
“The first successful separation of CTO into high-purity tall-oil fatty acids (TOFA) and tall-oil rosin (TOR) was performed by Arizona Chemical at Panama City, Florida, in 1949,” Stauffer notes. “Commercial production and sale of TOR was initiated in 1950 by the USDA, with production between 1951-1953 averaged 7,961 tonnes/year.”
By 1961, there were 13 tall-oil fractionation plants in the US. The industry reached its golden age in 1966, says Stauffer, when it recovered a total of 576,500 tonnes of combined TOR, TOFA and distilled tall oil.
Research and development (R&D) was also high at that time, as well as in the 1970s, says Walter Jones, president of the US-based Pine Chemicals Association (PCA). The group was first formed as the Tall Oil Association in July 1947.
“During the 1960s and ’70s, a number of new tall oil fractionating plants were constructed with increasing levels of efficiency. A number of new tall oil products were also developed during that period for inks, coatings, and adhesives,” he adds.
On the R&D front, the period of lowest productivity was in the 1990s, says Jones. “Very little in the way of new products were developed, but considerable effort went into improving existing processes.”
Production of tall oil products had been irregular since 1997, says Stauffer, and dropped to as low as 447,000 tonnes in 2001.
“Because of continuing loss of production of paper pulp in the US for the near future, we see little hope for continuing growth of the CTO fractionation industry in the US,” notes Stauffer.
Jones, however, is optimistic. “Given the emphasis on green chemistry today, I think the outlook for tall oil products and derivatives is positive,” he says. “With the renewable raw material base for tall oil derivatives, where else can you find a product that is clean as well as green?”
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