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Biobased Chemicals

Biosurfactant investment grows

New facilities and new products bolster the adoption of a promising cleaning agent

by Craig Bettenhausen
May 15, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 15


Two plastic bottles, about 350 ml, of a brown goo. The bottles read PuraSurf and Dispersa.
Credit: Craig Bettenhausen/C&EN
Dispera's first product, a blend of cyclic and linear sophorolipids, is aimed at industrial and institutional cleaning applications.

Competition is heating up in biosurfactants, an emerging family of ingredients for cleaning and personal care products. New suppliers are entering the market, while early movers are scaling up.

Made via fermentation, biosurfactants contain a hydrophilic sugar head and a hydrophobic fatty acid tail. They are gentle to skin, hair, and mucous membranes relative to conventional surfactants such as sodium lauryl ether sulfate.

The interest in biosurfactants was apparent at the recent ICIS World Surfactants Conference, hosted by the surfactants consultant Neil Burns. The start-up Dispersa took the opportunity to launch its first biosurfactant product, a mixture of two sophorolipids fermented from waste sugars and oils.

Using waste as a feedstock is key for Dispersa. Founder and CEO Nivatha Balendra said the firm can beat the carbon footprint of synthetic surfactants and avoid competing with food crops for agricultural land. And because surfactants are high-value ingredients, Balendra said she can outbid biofuel makers for feedstocks like used cooking oil.

The start-up AmphiStar recently raised $6.5 million to commercialize its fermentation process, which converts compost-type food waste to sophorolipids. Cofounder Sophie Roelants said that as much as 80% of the environmental impact of most biosurfactants comes from the purpose-grown crops used as feedstock. “We spent quite a lot of time working on the microbes,” she said.

More established biosurfactant makers are also on the move. Evonik Industries will cut the ribbon May 29 at its commercial-scale fermentation plant in Slovakia. The site will allow the firm to support Unilever’s global launch of a rhamnolipid-containing dishwashing liquid, according to Yann d’Hervé, who leads Evonik’s home and personal care. Evonik also makes sophorolipids there and is developing other biosurfactants.

Joana Pereira, commercial manager at the biosurfactant specialist Holiferm, said her firm has given a few partners samples of mannosylerythritol lipids, a newer biosurfactant. Holiferm already makes sophorolipids at its site near Liverpool, England. The firm will reach a capacity of 3,500 metric tons (t) per year by the end of 2024 and has funding secured to scale up to 15,000 t, Pereira said.

Few consumer products today contain biosurfactants. They are expensive relative to commodity surfactants, and researchers are still learning how they interact with other ingredients. But their mildness and low environmental impact put them in line with consumer trends.

“There’s a huge market shift underway around the feedstocks of the future and the chemistries that matter to the market,” said Charlie Silver, CEO of the biosurfactant maker Ruby Bio. “There’s a lot of money to be made standing up exactly the right platform.”


This story was updated on March 29, 2024, to correctly depict Holiferm’s current biosurfactant production. The firm produces sophorolipids and mannosylerythritol lipids but is no longer making rhamnolipids



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