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Biobased Chemicals

Indonesia halts exports of palm oil, a critical raw material for surfactants and other chemicals

by Craig Bettenhausen
April 30, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 15


A man picks up one large, spiky fruit as others sit stacked in front of him.
Credit: Shutterstock
A worker in Indonesia stacks palm fruit during a January harvest.

Indonesia halted the export of some types of palm oil April 28 in response to rising prices for cooking oil due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Palm oil is a component in an overwhelming variety of foods worldwide and is a critical raw material for surfactants and other biobased and semisynthetic chemicals. The conflict in eastern Europe is disrupting the edible oil market in part because Ukraine and Russia produce a large portion of the world’s sunflower oil, which is similarly used in cooking and as a biobased chemical feedstock. “Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, and they control 60% of palm oil exports,” says Shara Ticku, CEO of the biotech palm oil substitute maker C16 Biosciences. “With Indonesia’s surprise ban on exports, the world is really left without a backup plan.” Specialty chemical consultant Victoria Meyer says the ban will stress the surfactant industry and its customers, especially in personal care. But she expects it to be short lived because Indonesia makes a lot more palm oil than it consumes, and the exports are central to the nation’s economy. Indonesian economic ministers said in a press release that the ban will be removed when cooking oil prices drop to about $1/L, but it could widen to more grades of oil if the shortage gets worse instead.


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