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Green Chemistry

Biosurfactants scale up

Evonik starts industrial-scale production of rhamnolipids

by Craig Bettenhausen
January 25, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 3


A chemical plant.
Credit: Evonik Industries
Evonik Industries says it has completed its rhamnolipids plant in Slovakia ahead of schedule.

The specialty chemical maker Evonik Industries has begun production of rhamnolipids at its site in Slovakia. Evonik calls the plant the world’s first industrial-scale rhamnolipid surfactant facility, but the company isn’t the only one pursuing the market.

Evonik says the plant, which cost “in the low three-digit million-euro range,” will make double-digit metric kilotons of rhamnolipids per year. The firm has piloted rhamnolipid dish soap with the consumer product giant Unilever and says it is seeing strong demand from cleaning and personal care markets.

Chemical structure of a rhamnolipid.
Rhamnolipids feature rhamnose sugar heads to interact with water and fatty acid tails to grab onto oils.

Rhamnolipids are one type of an emerging class of ingredients called biosurfactants, which the industry defines as biodegradable, natural surfactants produced by microorganisms. Most, including rhamnolipids, use sugars as a hydrophilic group alongside hydrophobic fatty acid chains or rings.

Evonik’s process uses genetically modified Pseudomonas putida, a nonpathogenic bacteria, to ferment the surfactants from a sugar feedstock.

The German firm is one of a handful of companies commercializing biosurfactants, which are trending as ingredients in home and personal care products in part because they are biodegradable, mild, and generally harmless to aquatic organisms. They are also being adopted in agriculture, mining, and fossil fuel extraction.

The rhamnolipid specialist AGAE Technologies, which has been making rhamnolipids at smaller scales for more than a decade, says it is developing an industrial-scale plant and will launch its own line of home and personal care products based on rhamnolipids in February.

Locus Fermentation Solutions, which is supplying sophorolipids to Dow for home and personal care markets, recently tripled its capacity en route to target production of 2,500 metric tons (t) per year.

And Sasol is expanding its sophorolipid partnership with the biosurfactant firm Holiferm to include rhamnolipids and mannosylerythritol lipids. Holiferm raised $23 million in December to scale up to 15,000 t per year and will likely be the first to market with mannosylerythritol lipids.



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