wave-surface
wave-surface
wave-surface

A clean sweep

Biosurfactants

Sparkling clean: Surfactants ensure that dishwashing liquids, shampoos, and household detergents do a thorough cleaning job. One particularly efficient class of surfactants are biosurfactants. They not only remove grease and dirt but are also especially environmentally friendly and gentle on the skin. However, for a long time it was impossible to produce them in large quantities—until the researchers at Evonik developed an innovative solution.

HOW DOES A DISHWASHING LIQUID MAKE IT EASIER TO REMOVE THE GREASE FROM A FRYING PAN?

HOW DOES A DISHWASHING LIQUID MAKE IT EASIER TO REMOVE THE GREASE FROM A FRYING PAN?

WHAT’S INSIDE THE SHOWER GELS AND SHAMPOOS THAT CLEANSE YOUR BODY AND YOUR HAIR?

THE ANSWER TO BOTH QUESTIONS IS: SURFACTANTS.

These are detergent substances with a molecular structure that especially promotes cleansing. Their molecules have a hydrophilic (water-loving) and a lipophilic (fat-loving) end. When a dirty plate is washed, the lipophilic end adheres to the dirt particles, while the hydrophilic end attaches itself to the water molecules. This loosens the dirt, dissolves it in the water—and the plate quickly becomes spotlessly clean.

hydrophilic

lipophilic

A GLOBAL MARKET

(2015, in million US$), Source: IHS Chemical, estimations, IHS 2015

Thanks to these special attributes, surfactants can be used in many different applications. Apart from washing, surfactants are also used in various industrial processes, such as wetting, dissolving, defoaming, and lubricating. The market volume for surfactants is currently US$34 billion. The regional differences are relatively small.

North America

9,959

Central and Eastern Europe

1,884

China

5,536

Japan

2,717

Western Europe

4,214

Middle East

999

Latin America (including Mexico)

3,270

Africa

597

rest of Asia

4,900

North America

9,959

Central and Eastern Europe

1,884

China

5,536

Japan

2,717

Western Europe

4,214

Middle East

999

Latin America (including Mexico)

3,270

Africa

597

rest of Asia

4,900

THE OLDEST SURFACTANT IS WELL KNOWN

At the same time, there’s a broad spectrum of surfactants. The oldest known surfactant can be found in every household: soap. It has been used for centuries to keep things clean. Soap is produced from natural raw materials, and as a result it’s environmentally friendly. However, it irritates the skin because of its high pH value, does not clean very thoroughly, and is not very stable in hard water.


In the 1960s, researchers developed synthetically produced surfactants as an alternative to soap. However, these surfactants were not very biodegradable. Images of foam piling up in lakes and rivers made the resulting environmental pollution very visible to the public.

BIOSURFACTANTS SPOIL THE ZERO-SUM GAME

The second generation of synthetic biosurfactants was more biodegradable, but it was less gentle to the skin, and besides it was made from petrochemical raw materials. All of these surfactants left much to be desired. If one attribute of the surfactant was improved, in many cases another attribute would become worse. It was a zero-sum game.


But with the latest generation of surfactants—the biosurfactants—it’s a different story. They not only have superb cleansing qualities but are also very environmentally friendly, because they are produced with the help of natural microorganisms. They also have a wide range of other positive attributes. Biosurfactants...

1

… are so gentle on the skin that they can be used in care products as well as cleansing products.

2

… have a strong cleansing effect and good foaming characteristics.

3

… interact more effectively with enzymes than conventional surfactants.

4

… are impervious to hard water.

5

… come from renewable non-tropical raw materials.

6

… are 100 percent biodegradable.

7

… are more easily tolerated by aquatic organisms than conventional surfactants.

1

… are so gentle on the skin that they can be used in care products as well as cleansing products.

2

… have a strong cleansing effect and good foaming characteristics.

3

… interact more effectively with enzymes than conventional surfactants.

4

… are impervious to hard water.

5

… come from renewable non-tropical raw materials.

6

… are 100 percent biodegradable.

LOOKING FOR A PRODUCTION METHOD — AND FINDING IT

The best example is the sophorolipids. They are produced from sugar and rapeseed oil, and yeasts are used for the conversion process. That’s about as environmentally friendly as it gets. The great potential of sophorolipids for cleansing agents was recognized as early as the 1980s. However, in the following decades they were available only in small amounts and were therefore expensive. There was no suitable method for producing them on an industrial scale.


Many researchers tried and failed to find such a method—until 2010, when Evonik tackled this challenge. More precisely, it was tackled by the Bio-based Materials unit, which today is part of the Nutrition & Care Segment. The team was supported by Creavis and the Process Technology unit. In an intense five-year research project, the scientists developed a market-ready biological production process that enabled the large-scale production of biosurfactants.

1. Extraction

Starch from plants is processed into simple sugars.

2. Microorganisms

Special microorganisms grow in a fermenter, feeding on the sugar and oil. These microorganisms produce a certain biosurfactant in their metabolism.

3. Purification

The biosurfactant must be purified in order to separate it from the microorganisms and their byproducts.

4. Storage

The purified product is stored in tanks until it is drawn off into containers for sale. It is ultimately used as a raw material for care and cleansing agents.

5. Decomposition

The biosurfactants in wastewater are broken down by microorganisms into carbon dioxide and water.

6. Nutrients

Carbon dioxide is once again absorbed by plants and used for photosynthesis.

1. Extraction

Starch from plants is processed into simple sugars.

2. Microorganisms

Special microorganisms grow in a fermenter, feeding on the sugar and oil. These microorganisms produce a certain biosurfactant in their metabolism.

3. Purification

The biosurfactant must be purified in order to separate it from the microorganisms and their byproducts.

4. Storage

The purified product is stored in tanks until it is drawn off into containers for sale. It is ultimately used as a raw material for care and cleansing agents.

5. Decomposition

The biosurfactants in wastewater are broken down by microorganisms into carbon dioxide and water.

6. Nutrients

Carbon dioxide is once again absorbed by plants and used for photosynthesis.

THE GOAL: LEADING THE MARKET FOR MILD SURFACTANTS

This success was due primarily to optimal networking. The interdisciplinary team consisted of specialists from a variety of departments and segments. In addition, the development was speeded up considerably by the team’s cooperation at an early stage of the project with an industrial partner that already had some experience with sophorolipids.


The step to industrial production was made by means of the successful scale-up at Evonik Fermas in the town of Slovenská Ľupča in Slovakia. The sophorolipids were launched on the market a few years ago. One of the first companies to use products containing the sophorolipids made by Evonik Fermas was Ecover, a leading supplier of organically produced washing and cleaning products.


In addition to sophorolipids, Evonik is also developing other biosurfactants that are made from materials such as coconut oil and used in shampoos and shower gels. It’s also developing biosurfactants that make baths more fun by generating thick, long-lasting foam in the bathtub. By means of all these innovations, Evonik is pursuing a single goal: becoming the market leader for mild surfactants over the long term.