The rise of biosurfactants Surfactants are a key ingredient in cleaning and personal care products and biosurfactants based on oils and sugars are expected to gain in popularity Serena Lim
Surfactants play a very important role in products that we use every day. They are in our soaps, facial cleansers, shampoos, shaving creams and even our toothpaste. They are in the cleaners we use to wash our countertops or cars; and in insect repellents and sun screen sprays that protect us when are outside. They are also a main constituent in paints, coatings and adhesives. “Just about anything that is sprayed, applied, brushed, wiped or smeared on probably has some form of surfactant in it,” says the IngredientsShop website. So what exactly are surfactants? Surfactants or surface active agents are compounds that lower the surface or interfacial tension between two liquids, between a gas and a liquid, or between a liquid and a solid. In a product, they reduce or break the surface tension so that the function will either be completed or easier to complete, acting as detergents, wetting agents, emulsifiers, foaming agents and dispersants. Surfactants are the most important ingredient in cleaning products, helping to break up and remove grease and grime by helping water wet things more uniformly. “You might think water gets you wet, and it does,” says British science writer Chris Woodford. “But it doesn’t get you nearly as wet as it might. That’s because of surface tension. Water molecules prefer their own company so they tend to stick 24 OFI – JULY/AUGUST 2020
together in drops. When rain falls on a window, it sticks to the surface in distinct droplets that gravity pulls down in streaks. To make water wash better, we have to reduce its surface tension so it wets things more uniformly. And that’s precisely what a surfactant does. “The surfactants in detergents improve water’s ability to wet things, spread over surfaces and seep into dirty clothes fibres.” Surfactants also do another important job, Woodford says. One end of their molecule is attracted to water, while the other end is attracted to dirt and grease. “So the surfactant molecules help water to get hold of grease, break it up and wash it away.”
The biggest market for surfactants is home and personal care, accounting for three-quarters of the US$40bn in annual surfactant sales, says industry veteran Neil Burns. Other large markets include cosmetics, agriculture, enhanced oil drilling and environmental remediation. According to Prof Douglas Hayes of the Department of Biosystems Engineering & Soil Science, University of Tennessee, USA, the surfactants and detergents market totalled some 20.9M tonnes in 2017. Household detergents comprised some 42% of the total, industrial surfactants around 29%, personal care 16% and pharmaceuticals 7%, he told
delegates at the 2019 International Palm Oil Congress & Exhibition (PIPOC). The market share between regions was 30.5% in Europe, 28.5% in North America and 26.3% in Asia/Pacific. Prof Hayes said bio-based surfactants make up nearly a quarter (24.2%) of the total surfactants and detergents market, totalling some 5.7M tonnes in 2017 and worth US$10.1bn. Europe accounts for 47.4% of the bio-based surfactants market, followed by North America (26.6%) and Asia/Pacific (18.1%). However, it is estimated that bio-based surfactants will account for 27.5% of the overall market in the future, with Asia/ Pacific as the greatest growth region. Biosurfactants are expected to gain in popularity, especially in niche markets such as cosmetics, personal care and pharmaceuticals.
What are biosurfactants?
Surfactants are mainly petroleum-based and are usually non-biodegradable, accumulating in the environment. Biosurfactants, on the other hand, are derived from living organisms. Commercially, they are made by large-scale fermentation of oil, sugar or a combination of the two. With increasing environmental regulations and consumer demand for milder ingredients that are bio-based, biodegradable and sustainable, the focus u www.ofimagazine.com