Surfactant manufacturers look for green but cheap petro-alternatives

Author: Doris De Guzman


For surfactant formulators, price and performance come before green. But oleo alcohols and bio-surfactants gain ground

Green and eco-friendly are two of the big buzzwords in the marketing of laundry detergents and other household and personal cleaning products. For product formulators, however, it is still not easy combining high performance with cheaper, renewable-based surfactants.



The challenge for manufacturers still lies in the ability to increase the level of green ingredients in formulations without compromising performance, according to Ulrich Issberner, global marketing director for personal care at Germany-based specialty chemical firm Cognis.

"Not only must manufacturers ask: 'How far down the green road are we willing to go?' but also: 'How far down the green road are we really able to go?'" says Issberner.

In end-markets where brands tightly compete, manufacturers who want to profit demand "naturals" in order to differentiate themselves from their competitors, he adds.

Despite the downturn last year, user demand for renewable-based surfactants in the home and personal care sector remained robust in mature markets and has continued to grow in emerging markets, reports Cognis.

"For the home and personal care market, the green consumer trend has gained further momentum in the Asia-Pacific region. Latin America also remains an important driver of sales growth of our ingredients for natural products," says Issberner.

Cognis's APG (alkyl polyglucoside) non-ionic surfactant derived from vegetable oil and starch has been particularly successful in the last few years. Consumption of APGs in Japan and China has doubled in the last five years, says Anna Ibbotson, industry manager, chemicals and materials at US consultancy Kline & Co.

Forecast growth for APG significantly exceeds the average prediction for specialty surfactants within personal care applications, says Ibbotson.

"Consumption of APGs [has] significantly grown in recent years due to the naturals trend. As a whole, natural surfactants at a global level are on average growing around 4%, in contrast to their synthetic counterparts, whose outlook is less rosy at 2%," she adds.

Cognis has expanded its global APG capacity this year with a new facility in Jinshan, China, which started in May. The company is also producing APG at its Dusseldorf, Germany, and Cincinnati, US, plants.

Total capacity of Cognis' three APG plants is estimated at 75,000 tonnes/year, each with 25,000 tonnes/year of capacity, says Neil Burns, managing partner for US-based consultancy Neil A. Burns.

"Cognis is the key producer of APG and has carved out a very respectable niche in key household and personal care formulations worldwide," says Burns. Other minor APG producers include France-based Seppic and China-based Sinochem.

"Cognis has a very strong patent position on its APG and so it is unlikely another major competitor will emerge until the patents expire," Burns adds.

In laundry detergents, however, manufacturers are more sensitive to the volatility of raw materials, given the difficulty of passing on price increases to consumers in this highly competitive and depressed market.

"The green consumer trend has gained further momentum in the Asia-Pacific region"
Ulrich Issberner
Global marketing director, personal care, Cognis 

Instead of using more renewable-based ingredients in order to market their products as "green," most detergent manufacturers, unlike personal care producers, emphasize reducing energy use, water, and packaging volume.

Some also reduce the level of surfactant use but still maintain minimum performance standards to cut costs and at the same time promote their products as green with reduced use of chemicals, says Hossein Janshekar, senior consultant at US market research firm SRI Consulting (SRIC).

"For detergent manufacturers, green products are cold-water laundry detergents, which lower energy costs in the washing process; and concentrated cleaning products, which lower transportation costs, since less water needs to shipped and packaging volume has been reduced," says Janshekar.

When it comes to low temperature wash, oleochemical surfactants usually fail, he says. In order for detergents to work at lower temperatures, more complex surfactant formulations and a carefully balanced blend of components are needed.

"What counts for detergent manufacturers is the sustainability of their products, which has a broader definition than renewability of raw material or if it is natural-based such as applied to oleochemicals," Janshekar adds.

Procter & Gamble (P&G) is a case in point. It announced in September its plan to compact its entire US and Canadian portfolio of powder laundry detergents beginning February 2011. P&G says the compacted products will use less detergent but will still have the same cleaning benefits using the same number of loads compared to noncompacted formulas.

"The compacted formulas and smaller cartons also allow for increased efficiency including reduced fuel consumption and a reduction in packaging," says P&G.

The amount of surfactants reduced in P&G's compacted powder detergents will likely be a tightly guarded secret until the products hit the shelves, muses Norman Ellard, director of Singapore-based consulting and trading company Rohen. Ellard is the former director of P&G Chemicals Asia.

"I would guess that any innovation from this move would be protected by intellectual property. P&G has long been looking for ways to achieve detergent sustainability and most of it revolves around new technology to improve efficiency of surfactants and maybe incorporate new surfactants," he adds.

Laundry detergents and hand dishwashing liquids account for 95% of surfactant consumption in household detergents, according to SRIC. The growing popularity of liquid laundry detergents has affected consumption of surfactants, says Janshekar, since liquid detergents use less surfactant levels per washload as compared with powders.

"High surfactant prices in 2005-2008 resulted in efforts to also offset these cost increases by lowering surfactant levels. Last year, surfactant prices did not drop much, despite sharp price declines in crude oil and plant oils, the feedstock sources of surfactants," he adds.

While the green trend is certainly a compelling reason to use oleochemical-based surfactants, much of the impetus for the switch against petrochemical-based surfactants is supply availability and costs.

High petroleum prices and growing supply of Asian palm oil has driven the replacement of petrochemical-based alcohols with oleochemical-derived ones for several years. Alcohol is a major raw material for surfactant manufacture.

"There has been business expansion into oleochemicals but this is not as a move towards becoming more green but the fact that the oleo alcohols are particularly competitive in Southeast Asia," says Janshekar.

Oleo alcohols accounted for 60% of the global detergent alcohols market five years ago, says Burns. "Today it is almost 70% and the trend continues with planned investments in oleo alcohol production capacity."

Continued long supply of lauryl, cetyl and stearyl alcohols are also driving their increased use in personal care formulations, he adds.

Despite increasing supply, the oleochemical market, however, is also seeing volatility in pricing year after year tied to natural oil costs and continued consolidation in the global oleochemical industry.

This is leading detergent manufacturers such as Germany's Henkel to look into biotechnology-based materials, says Karl-Heinz Maurer, global director of biotechnology at Henkel.

This year, Henkel started using sophorolipids surfactant in some of its regional branded glass cleaning products, such as Sidolin, Instanet, Sonasol, Tenn, and Breff sold in Europe.

The bio-surfactant is produced by fermenting either fats and oils, glycerin or soy molasses using a certain yeast. Sophorolipids will be used in almost all Henkel glass cleaners in Europe within less than a month, says Maurer.

"We have a very strong focus on sustainability and we see biotechnology as a major tool towards this direction," he says. "However, we are not driven just because it is renewable-based or environmentally compatible. We also have to make sure it is an optimum material for us with respect to performance and price," Maurer adds.

Other benefits in using biotechnology-based surfactants include lowering energy consumption, reducing solvent use, and potential antimicrobial properties that are critical in certain applications, such as kitchen cleaners.

The current challenge for bio-surfactants use is price economics, says Maurer. Production capacity of bio-surfactants worldwide is very small.

"Price will typically improve as soon as there's a commitment from soaps and detergents producers to use more of them, which in turn, will drive more fermentation space available for bio-surfactant production," Maurer says. "When prices go down, developers will look for more beneficial effects of bio-surfactants and the next step is for product manufacturers to advertise those effects to consumers," he adds.

Industry sources note that current sophorolipids producers include Belgium-based Ecover, France-based Groupe Soliance, Japan-based Saraya and South Korea-based MG Intobio. Henkel did not provide the name of its sophorolipids supplier.

Other bio-surfactants Henkel is looking into include rhamnolipids, which can be produced by fermenting a C18 fatty acid source using a certain bacteria, and mannosylerythritol lipids, which can be produced via microbial conversion of glycerin.

Maurer says Henkel is working with partners for bio-surfactant research and development (R&D). Ecover started its research on sophorolipids and rhamnolipids in 2002 and has since then focused on sophorolipids, says Dirk Develter, Ecover R&D manager.

"We're currently using a mere 30 tonnes of sophorolipids in a product range of hard surface cleaners. Early this year, we launched this range involving an all-purpose cleaner, a ready-to-use interior cleaning spray, a window spray, a heavy duty power cleaner, and a car wash and wax cleaner," he adds.

Sophorolipids' main beneficial properties, according to Ecover, are its mild nature, very low aquatic toxicity, and comparable surface activity compared with APG. Sophorolipids are said to be well suited in low-foaming applications such as hard surface and auto-dish cleaning products.

The challenges are in foam control, constant quality and downstream processing, says Develter. "The current production scale is also too small for sophorolipids to be competitive, although its superior performance in hard surface cleaning compensates for some of the extra cost," he adds.

Ecover is looking into expanding sophorolipid applications in other non-detergent markets in order to spur larger production runs and become more cost effective.

"When produced on a massive scale of around several thousand tonnes, price will approach that of APGs and will allow price competitive applications such as adjuvants or active ingredients in agricultural pest control, as well as conventional oriented cosmetic and cleaning products," says Develter.

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The potential of methyl ester sulfonates (MES) as a green surfactant alternative to petroleum-based linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS) has been hurt by the lack of commercial producers for years.

But this year, Lion of Japan is actively pursuing commercialization of MES surfactants with the start-up of its new 25,000 tonne/year plant in Malaysia via its subsidiary Lion Eco Chemicals, in December 2009.

Lion officially entered into commercial production in May, says Mitsuharu Kachi, managing director of Lion Eco Chemicals.

Lion has been producing MES in Japan since 1991 for captive use in its branded laundry powder detergents

"The purpose of Lion Eco Chemicals, which was founded in Malaysia in 2007, is to establish MES supply to the detergent industries worldwide.

Requests from various detergent companies for MES supply have become too great for us to limit the use of MES within Japan," says Kachi.

Lion's joint venture and subsidiaries in Asia have also started sourcing MES from the Malaysian plant.

 "MES has high detergency at low surfactant concentration"
Mitsuharu Kachi
Managing director, Lion Eco

In May, Lion introduced the Beat Drum brand of powdered laundry detergent in South Korea, which is said to be Lion's first MES-containing detergent sold outside Japan. The company expects to continue introducing more MES-based detergent brands to Northeast Asia and the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region.

The biggest challenge for MES is its limitation in liquid detergent application. Lion's MES is currently used only for heavy-duty laundry powder (HDLP), says Kachi.

"MES is not ideal for liquid products, due to the stability at low temperature. Still, we expect increasing demand for environment-friendly HDLP coming from developing countries," he adds.

Unlike LAS acid, MES is also not as flexible and easy to adopt into the final detergent product. Lion says it was able to develop unique technology to make free-flowing MES granules, based on its 20 years of experience in MES application in its branded products in Japan.

The company expects MES demand to increase easily up to 1m tonnes in the short term without any problems.

"MES has high detergency at low surfactant concentration or low detergent dosage, even in high calcium-contained washing water. In this respect, it is rather easy to make concentrated powder detergents with MES," says Kachi.

Lion plans to debottleneck the new facility in order to double the capacity in a short period of time.

"We have already secured from customers up to 50,000 tonnes of the plant's capacity. We also plan to expand it to 100,000 tonnes/year in the near future," adds Kachi.

Aside from Lion, US-based Sun Products, formerly Huish Detergents, is the only other significant MES producer worldwide, notes Neil A. Burns, managing partner for US-based consultancy Neil A. Burns.

"MES is a good surfactant and can be cost effective in laundry formulations but it is very hard to make. That is the primary reason for its slow growth," says Burns.

Still, there are many companies, especially in Asia Pacific, that are interested in producing MES, says Kachi.

"There are several companies that already announced plans to produce MES although no commercial production has yet commenced. It is reported that a few plants will start commercial production soon in Malaysia and China," Kachi adds.

Industry sources indicate Malaysia-based Kuala Lumpur Kepong as one of those planning to enter the MES commercial market next year, as the company prepares to start up its new plant later this year.

Capacity of the plant has not been disclosed.

A 50,000 tonne/year MES plant in Guangzhou, China, owned by Guangzhou Keylink Chemical is also expected to be completed later this year.