Special report: Surfactants' natural progression

23 June 2014 00:00 Source:ICIS Chemical Business

Changing buying habits prompted by more stringent legislation, consumers’ heightened environmental awareness and a sustained push from 
retailers mean the shift towards bio-based surfactants is gathering pace.

Greener alternatives are finally starting to get a strong foothold. According to a report from US consulting firm MarketsandMarkets, the burgeoning surfactant sector is set to total $36.5bn (€26.9bn) globally by 2017 with the market share of bio-based surfactants expected to increase significantly.

Andy Corr, senior vice president of consumer and industrial ingredients at specialty chemicals producer Elevance Renewable Sciences, points to demand growth rates of 3-5%/year for the global surfactants market. The sector is dominated by linear alkyl benzene (LAB) and alcohols, he adds, the latter seeing a significant shift towards more oleo-based products in recent years. He notes that around a third of the market is currently bio-based, a stark contrast from a few decades ago.

Rex Features Consumers are willing to go green but demand performance

Rex Features

Consumers are willing to go green but demand performance

“We’ve been seeing a major transition to bio-based surfactants, from synthetics to oleo-alcohols, for the past 30 years and this is continuing to ramp up. We’re seeing more oleo-alcohol plants coming on line, and methyl ester sulphonates (MES) plants replacing synthetic alcohols and lauryl alkylbenzene sulphonates (LAS). At the same time, downstream from the regulatory and consumer product goods (CPG) companies’ standpoint, there is a dramatic pull towards more sustainable products and processes. This is a landmark change,” says Corr.

“Until now there’s been a lot of discussion about moving to bio-based, but there really required some sort of line in the sand to be drawn. I do think that the retailers are beginning to do this now.”

Despite bio-surfactants gaining prevalence, consumers are still resistant to paying a premium for products purely because they are environmentally friendly. Being green is not enough, he says: “To really be able to drive this industry and make it transform rapidly, you really need to have materials that provide both sustainability and a strong cost performance.”

Speaking at the 4th ICIS World Surfactants Conference in May, Corr had noted that brand leaders and retailers were increasingly committing to sustainable change, but vertical integration and close collaboration with other innovators is necessary to continue making advances.

Increased legislation is among the greatest challenges and that, he says, may hinder innovation. “The regulatory requirements and restrictions are making things more difficult and challenging for companies to introduce new innovative molecules into the surfactant market,” he says.

“Historically, innovation had always been driven by the bigger companies. In the 1970s, the growth of oleo-alcohols came from big CPG companies driven by economic issues because of oil. It’s really only in the last 10 years that we’ve started to see smaller companies really begin to try to find solutions.”


Elevance, he says, has made great strides in the past year. Notably, the company brought its new 180,000 tonne/year bio-chemical refinery on line in Gresik, Indonesia – a joint venture with Singapore-headquartered agribusiness Wilmar International.

“This bio-refinery has allowed us to have scale and be much more aggressive in the market in bringing on new products. We’re looking to launch many new products over the next year. Working directly with our development partners utilising our Inherent building blocks, we have begun to build a robust pipeline of high-performing products for applications across the surfactants market offering solutions to the market that are sustainable and better performing.”

A second 310,000 tonne/year bio-refinery is planned in Natchez, Mississippi, US, and is due to be commissioned in 2016, he adds.

Surfactant maker Stepan Company recently launched the first product from its joint development collaboration with Elevance. Stepan’s STEPOSOL MET-10U uses Elevance’s Inherent uC10 building block to produce a bio-based surfactant that is both sustainable and boasts good cleaning properties. Applications include adhesive removal, paint and coating removal, kitchen degreasers and all-purpose cleaners for both consumer and industrial use.

By Andy Brice