Markets & Companies

Surfactants: Solving Challenges at Interfaces

Chemicals with a Variety of Applications from Detergents to Cosmetics to Crop Protection to Oil & Gas

11.04.2019 -

Surfactants are used in a wide spectrum of applications. This broad range of use, among other things, will be at the center of interest of the 11th World Surfactants Congress to be held in Munich in early June 2019. Staffan Asplund, president of CESIO, the European Committee of Organic Surfactants and their Intermediates, and Surfactants R&D Director at Nouryon, provides a status report on the surfactants business and technology.

More than 50% of the surfactants which are sold in the EU are used for household detergents, by far the largest application in terms of volume and total market value. We assume that approximately 10% are used for personal care as well as for textile finishing. Another 5% are I&I application — so we can say that three quarters of the total volume are sold to four fields of applications. The remaining 25% are used in many specific applications, e.g. crop protection, leather and paper manufacturing, oilfield or the construction industry. In terms of sales value, the picture is quite similar, though specialized performance products tailored to specific applications will trade at a higher unit value.

A Mature Business with Modest Volume Growth

“The overall surfactant market in Europe
is a mature business
with modest volume growth.”

What we can derive from the published production figures of our industry, the overall market situation for surfactants in Europe is stable, with limited growth in specific areas. This situation has been consistent over the past few years. But if we look into the different surfactant groups and applications, there is a general trend from commodities to specialty surfactants, which makes it even more important to develop surfactant systems that are specifically focused on the customers’ needs.

Whether there is a recession or a peak in our business trends, the consumers still need food, do their laundry, wash the dishes, use personal care products and wear textiles. They may spend more money in a booming situation and buy less or cheaper products in a downturn, but we can say that the overall surfactant market in Europe is a mature business with modest volume growth.
New capacity has come on stream but the trend from commodities to specialties has led to more complex chemistries requiring more processing time, which has compensated the growth and stabilized the total output of surfactants on a high level.

“We develop new business models
that are not necessarily based on growing volumes,
but on higher effectiveness
and quality of the surfactant systems.”

Nevertheless, our growth expectations are “restrained positive” — in the past we have discovered new applications for existing surfactants and industry continues to innovate in this way. We develop new business models that are not necessarily based on growing volumes, but on higher effectiveness of the surfactant systems.

Performance — Solution — Success — Surfactants

“Just as surfactants work across interfaces,
so innovation happens at interfaces.”

The congress theme of CESIO 2019 is „performance — solution — success — surfactants“. Surfactants in solutions and at interfaces — scientifically just fascinating! But surfactant science is not an end in itself — surfactants are the basis to solve challenges involving all kinds of interfaces and applications.  Surfactants are the key to providing successful solutions for consumers, e.g. related to cosmetics or household applications, or for professional uses such as I&I or agrochemicals and many others. This is because surfactants, are fundamental to achieving the desired product performance. And just as surfactants work across interfaces, so innovation happens at interfaces, not only between the science and application, but also between different disciplines and applications. That is why it is crucial to meet and communicate across borders!

“There is an ongoing process
in our industry to better understand
the application conditions of the
future surfactant value chain.”

The ­CESIO 2019 congress wants to demonstrate that there is an ongoing process in our industry to better understand the application conditions of the future surfactant value chain.

Challenges Open Up New Opportunities

The more complex the product formulation, the more surfactants are needed as key ingredients that help to combine substances, which otherwise would be incompatible or adversely affect the components’ value. In the field of household detergents, our customers have been quite successful in substituting chemicals in their formulations by enzymes. Many producers of surfactants have started to test and develop systems that contain surfactants together with enzymes. In other applications, customers are looking for processes and formulations that are more energy-efficient and need less resources overall, like crop protection requiring less active ingredients to achieve the same result or recycling road surfaces to save on energy and natural resources. These challenges demand better insight into the interaction of surfactants and other ingredients, and this in turn opens up new opportunities.

Hot Topics in Surfactants Innovation

There is a multitude of drivers of surfactant innovation as surfactants are used in many applications, each with their own specific drivers. Trying to generalize a bit, there are a few clear trends: eco-friendly solutions and bio-based products is an important trend although surfactants have been made from bio-based raw materials for many years. Related drivers are sharper regulations and voluntary certifications like eco-labels, providing clarity and confidence to downstream users in a variety of markets, including cleaning, personal care, asphalt and agrochemicals. Also important are solutions that allow users to use less resources, be it material or energy. Examples include low-temperature cleaning, laundry technology with reduced water use and more energy-efficient indus­trial processes. To capitalize on these trends, surfactant suppliers will need a thorough understanding of their target applications as well as the ability to innovate in collaboration with customers and technology providers.

Talking about the hot topics in surfactants R&D, an important overriding theme is the deeper understanding of complex mixtures of surfactants and other components like polymers, enzymes and small particles. These advanced formulations are scientifically fascinating and offer exciting business opportunities. Bio-surfactants are already mentioned as an important area where there is a lot of activity both on the products themselves and on biochemical production routes.
Maybe the next innovation leap will not be a new class of surfactants or even chemicals, but rather come in the way we develop and manufacture our products. Think of the lightning-fast development we now see in fields like artificial intelligence and computing power. We are at the verge of a revolution, which is likely to transform every field of industry, including chemicals, and of course surfactants.

Sustainability is More than a Buzz Word

Sustainability is critically important to the whole industry. Until now the surfactant industry has mainly focused on the ecological aspect, we use renewable raw materials, develop more biodegradable products etc. Sustainability has two other important pillars though, and it is becoming more and more clear that the challenges we are facing involve all three pillars; ecological, social and economic aspects.

If we look at raw material sourcing it is obvious to strive for renewable sources but this only works if the supply chain of the needed biomaterials come with sustainable social and economic conditions. A clear example is oils & fats; while surfactant production is a relatively small use compared to food or bio-fuels it is still critically important for our industry to establish a sustainable supply chain of natural oils like palm, coco and soy.
If we look at the product side the public debate, or “buzz” probably has most direct impact on value chains ending up in private consumption like home- and personal care although industrial users are also looking for sustainable solutions. A key here is communication along the value chain. Many consumers are increasingly looking at the origin of products, requiring transparency from suppliers and development of reliable and manageable certification standards for e.g. fair trade and eco-labels.

Natural raw materials are already used, and their importance will in­crease further. As just discussed though, “bio-based” is not sufficient to make a raw material source sustainable. Scientists, regulators and industry stakeholders are trying to determine what is truly sustainable — clearly a challenging situation.
Having said that, new raw materials bring a lot of new opportunities and it is not just about oils and fats. ­The emerging bio-economy is providing building blocks with new functionality and a different pricing logic than traditional chemicals. We also see new synthesis opportunities and altogether this opens paths to novel surfactants with unique properties.

Surfactants are fascinating materials with their affinity to interfaces, tendency to form aggregates and interaction with other ingredients. This also means that they are challenging to handle and “standard testing” for regulatory purposes can even be misleading. An important aspect of our industry organization, CESIO, is to provide knowledge and ensure that regulations are developed based on facts, science and correct testing.

CESIO (the European Committee of Organic Surfactants and their Intermediates) is an industry association that represents manufacturers and marketers in the European surfactants industry. CESIO was formed in 1974 to contribute to better understanding of surfactants and the many different ways in which they contribute to economic development and quality of life, and to address specific issues relating to human health and the environment in order to sustain their beneficial contribution to society.