Bio-based Surfactants

– a group interview with
Clariant, Dow, Sasol and Weylchem

Can you explain the difference between bio surfactants and bio-based surfactants?

Christine Oberbillig, Marketing Manager Industrial & Home Care, Sustainability, Clariant: 

There is no legal / regulated description or differentiation between bio-based and bio-surfactants, but a widespread classification is the following:

Bio-based surfactants are produced via a classical chemical process reaction and are either partially or fully made from bio-based origins in a segregated production process or a mass-balanced production processes where there is a physical mixing of fossil and plant-based (or even renewable which includes recycled materials) materials. Clariant’s definition of bio-based is solely plant-based and excludes, for example, recycled material from plastic. Some other companies use the term renewable which also includes CO2 or recycled material as origins.

Bio-surfactants are produced via microbial processes, e.g. fermentation, and build an own chemical category. They differ significantly from bio-based surfactants in their structure, especially for the hydrophilic head of the molecule, which is usually composed natural building blocks like proteins or polysaccharidessbased on microbial origin. 

Several producers of bio-surfactants use the term bio-based surfactants as well so the terms are not always clear and easy to differentiate.  

Saugata Nad, Global R&D Transformational Leader & Principal Research Scientist-Home Personal Care EMEAI-Dow Europe:

All bio-based surfactants share certain commonalities in terms of their starting materials. According to US Code of Federal Regulations, bio-based surfactants are derived "in whole or a significant part from biological products or renewable domestic agricultural materials (including plant, animal, and marine materials) or forestry materials.” However, bio-based surfactants do not need to include 100% biobased and renewable raw materials to be categorized as bio-based. 

The term biosurfactant refers specifically to those surfactants containing bio-based feedstocks and that are also produced by sustainable and non-chemical means like fermentation. Biosurfactants are biologically produced, meaning they are produced directly from microorganisms comprising of lipid, protein, and/or carbohydrate moieties that are frequently associated with cell walls or membranes. Biosurfactants include molecules with varying complex chemical structures, which play different roles in the life cycle of each of these microorganisms. The production process uses fully renewable raw materials with no traditional chemical reactions.

Louis Snyders, Head of Home Care and I&I at Essential Care Chemicals, Sasol Chemicals:

Bio-based surfactants are drop-in chemicals with identical molecular structure to the currently available petrochemical surfactants. However, they are derived from biobased feedstocks instead of fossil feedstocks and typical sold as a mass-balanced final product. On the contrary, bio surfactants present unique molecular structures as being produced from biobased feedstocks/natural raw materials via fermentation using micro-organisms (yeasts, bacteria). Hence, bio surfactants are characterized by a fully natural production process while their unique molecular structures can give rise to additional and/or enhanced performance attributes. 

Dr. Konstanze Mayer, Head of Business Development Consumer Care, Weylchem: 

Bio surfactants are surface active molecules/compounds that are produced from natural feedstocks like vegetable oils, sugar, biomass, etc. by living organism/microorganisms through fermentation.

Bio-based surfactants are surface active molecules/compounds that are made from natural resources. They can be produced by biotechnology such as enzymatic or microbial synthesis or by chemical synthesis.

So the difference is that bio surfactants origin directly from nature while bio-based surfactants are me made using natural feedstock. 

What are the challenges for bio-based surfactants in the market?

Christine Oberbillig:

There are several challenges for bio-based surfactants in the market: 

The first one is price. They are still niche and generally used in eco or premium brands as they are not affordable for many traditional brands, especially in emerging markets.

Many surfactant chassis have been optimized over many years and an integration of bio-based surfactants in such chassis often requires full reformulation, both in IHC and PC, which often is expensive, time-consuming and resource intensive. 

The capacity and global availability of established, traditional primary and secondary surfactants s is high and very flexible and for large brands supply security is key. This makes it difficult for products with limited sources and lower capacity to crack the market.

Saugata Nad: 

One of the major factors hindering the growth and hampering the adoption of the bio-surfactant market is its high cost. Due to the shortage of homogenous and consistent feedstock, the production process at times is inefficient and the enzyme used is highly expensive. On top of it the performance profile of the bio-based surfactant may require reformulation and is not a simple “drop-in”, stability of biosurfactants may be a challenge at extreme pH.

Louis Snyders:

Key challenges for bio surfactants are threefold, (i) the relatively high production cost, (ii) sourcing the right biobased feedstocks (*see comment below for bio-based surfactants) and (iii) the time & efforts needed to reformulate or develop new formulations exploiting the unique features of bio surfactants maximally. Holiferm and Sasol aim in a partnership at mass commercialization of biosurfactants enabled by Holiferm’s unique fermentation technology and Sasol’s reputation and capabilities as one of the main global suppliers of surfactants.  

*The key challenge for bio-based surfactants is production cost and finding the right bio-based feedstock with favorable Product Carbon Footprint characteristics and avoiding/minimizing (indirect) Land Use Changes which ultimately can result in deforestation and serious loss of biodiversity and sensitive eco-systems.

Dr. Konstanze Mayer:

Key challenges are performance and cost competitiveness. Currently there are no significant benefits in performance and costs of bio-based surfactants in comparison with traditional petro-based surfactants.

Which are the claims producers can make when formulating with bio-based surfactants?

Christine Oberbillig:

Claims that can be made when formulating with bio-based surfactants include: mildness in most cases, Product Carbon Footprint savings, a high Renewable Carbon Index, their plant-based nature and, depending on the technology, a segregated value chain. 

Saugata Nad:

Formulate your products with our bio-based surfactants and promote your commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility. Our surfactants are readily biodegradable, CleanGredients® listed, meet US EPA Safer Choice criteria, and are suitable for ecolabelling. By choosing our bio-based surfactants, you can lower your carbon footprint while offering vegan and cruelty-free suitable products to your customers.

Louis Snyders:

For bio surfactants 100% natural both from a materials and process technology perspective and providing potentially unique and additional performance attributes amongst which skin-friendliness (e.g. anti-acne, anti-aging). 

For bio-based surfactants, the main and arguably only claim relative to the petrochemical peers is the use of renewable biobased raw materials.  When sourcing the right biobased feedstock, lower Product Carbon Footprints can be potentially also claimed, but not necessarily. For example, Palm (kernel) oil presents an example with actually higher average Product Carbon Footprints than the petrochemical peers due to GHG emissions associated with Deforestation/Land Use Change and continuous peat oxidation.  

Dr. Konstanze Mayer:

Low environmental impact, high biocompatibility and biodegradability, low toxicity, lower carbon foot-print, sometimes made of non-edible resources.

Bio-based surfactants that show better biocompatibility and digestibility can also be applied in the food or pharmaceutical industries.

How do bio-based surfactants compare to surfactants from fossil source?

Christine Oberbillig:

There is no single answer and it strongly depends on the technology. In principle it can be differentiated in two categories: 1:1 replacements (e.g. ethoxylates or amphoterics, mostly including MB solutions) and unique surfactant categories (e.g. APG). For example, for Clariant:

The Vita range of ethoxylates are one-to-one replacements with the same performance, the same properties and same regulatory profile, but with a better sustainability profile like PCF or increased RCI

GluoTain/GlucoPure is a separate, specific technology with a unique performance profile. Comparison strongly depends on benchmark, application and performance parameters, for example, in comparison to betaines, Glucamides perform similarly but have significantly reduced PCF and a higher RCI.

Saugata Nad:

In terms of environmental benefits, bio-based surfactants are much better than surfactants from fossil source. It enables lowering of carbon foot print. Moreover, the bio-based  surfactants have low to no 1,4-Dioxane levels, Vegan and Cruelty free suitable. 

Louis Snyders:

Bio surfactants will have by definition a different performance, which can be advantageous or disadvantageous whereas biobased surfactants have in generally very similar performance as petrochemical surfactants as long as molecular structures are largely similar. There are examples in the Biobased surfactants category though (like Alkyl Poly Glucosides) which can also deliver different performance on basis of a (less) different molecular structure. 

Dr. Konstanze Mayer:

Bio-based surfactants usually show lower performance in application than traditional petro-based surfactants.  Also bio-based surfactant have a higher price due to their high-cost production. 

Do bio-based surfactants really reduce the carbon footprint significantly?

Christine Oberbillig:

They definitely can, but it depends on the technology - on the origin and the complexity and the  footprint of the production process, which can also be influenced by the scope 1 and 2 emissions of the production process. As an example, Glucamides, based on raw oils like GlucoPure Sense (based on sunflower oil), have a very low carbon footprint, because of the low PCF origin and very few production steps.

Saugata Nad:

It depends upon the life cycle analysis (LCA), including feedstock but yes, it very often helps in lowering the carbon footprint.

Louis Snyders:

Yes, both biobased surfactants and bio surfactants can provide a reduction in carbon footprint provided that the right biobased feedstock is used and the process yields are decent. As explained above this is however not necessarily the case and, hence, a holistic analysis of the entire value chain with in-depth Life Cycle Analyses is needed to claim convincingly a reduced Product Carbon Footprint. 

Dr. Konstanze Mayer:

This depends. 

If huge reactors are needed to produce the bio-based surfactants (fermentation) the total energy consumption can be huge. Further there could be a lot of side-reactions which reduces the yield. So a detailed assessment will need to be done to really get a reduction of carbon footprint achieved. 

Generally over a long term and for mass production, there should be a significant reduction of carbon footprint possible. 

What are typical applications for bio-based surfactants?

Christine Oberbillig:

Currently there is still low usage in traditional detergent formulations such as dish, laundry and HSC,  and cosmetic cleaning products like shampoos and shower gels without natural/bio-based/sustainability claims, but significant growth and strong penetration of bio-based surfactants into classical cleaning products is expected in the coming years, mainly to meet PCF savings and the sustainability transformation targets of big brands. In the Personal Care industry, the emerging claims around ‘sulfate-free’ formulations also drive the use of bio-based surfactants. Success depends highly on their cost, capacity and global availability to compete with established fossil based solutions (LAS, AOS, CAPB, AO, fossil NIOs). 

They are more widely already used in green / eco brands within both home and personal care applications with a focus on cleaning products in IHC and PC, like shampoos, detergents and shower gels. There have been many launches, especially in hand dishwashing detergents and shampoos, which are products with more simple formulations suitable to play with and test the response of the market.

Saugata Nad:

Typical applications for bio-based surfactants include liquid laundry detergents, hand dishwashing liquids and hard surface cleaners.

Louis Snyders:

The main applications are in Fabric & Home Care, Personal Care & Cosmetics, but all other typical applications for surfactants like Industrial & Institutional Cleaning, Textile & Leather, Agro formulations, Paint & Coatings can be served with bio surfactants and bio-based surfactants. 

Dr. Konstanze Mayer:

Personal Care and Home Care if they can afford it. Mutifunctional properties can be an interesting point especially for Personal Care / Cosmetics. 

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