Feature article - Oleochemicals: Applications, trends & recent innovations
Aashi Mishra shares some highlights from a recent Research Nester study
Oleochemicals are chemicals that are obtained from fats and oils, both vegetable and animal. They find use across diverse industries and are gaining popularity owing to their eco-friendly and sustainable characteristics.
Oleochemicals have a range of qualities, including being biodegradable, low toxicity levels and being derived from renewable sources. Moreover, they can be customised to exhibit attributes like enhanced lubrication or increased solubility.
Oleochemicals are renewable and sustainable, which makes them an eco-friendly substitute for petrochemicals. They are also biodegradable and decompose in the environment without causing pollution. Finally they have a wide range of applications in industries such as cosmetics, food and pharmaceuticals, making them a versatile ingredient for various products.
Sources of oleochemicals
Oleochemicals are predominantly sourced from palm oil, which accounts for than 60% of worldwide production. In the marketing year 2021-22 global palm oil production reached 72 million tones, a slight increase, from the previous year’s 71 million. Palm oil is obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree, which is mainly cultivated in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Soybean oil is widely used in the production of oleochemicals making up around 20% of the global output. In 2022, India manufactured more, than 1.3 million tonnes of soybean oil. This type of oil is extracted from soybeans, which are predominantly cultivated in the US, Brazil and Argentina.
Rapeseed oil, also referred to as canola oil, makes up around 5% of oleochemical production. In 2019, Canada, China and India were the largest producers of rapeseed oil contributing to a total production of 23 million tonnes worldwide.
Finally, oleochemicals can also be derived from animal fats like tallow and lard. These are obtained through the rendering process of animal by-products, such as bones and fatty tissues. Subsequently the fatty acids present undergo a series of processing steps to produce oleochemicals.
One of the commonly used methods for making oleochemicals is by hydrolysing fats and oils with water and a catalyst like sodium hydroxide or sulfuric acid. This process results in the production of fatty acids and glycerol, which can then be further processed into oleochemicals.
Fractionation is a technique that separates components of fats and oils based on their melting points. It is widely employed to derive fatty acids, fatty alcohols and esters.
Transesterification is used to produce biodiesel from vegetable oils and animal fats. This process involves reacting a fat or oil with an alcohol, methanol to yield fatty acid methyl esters and glycerol. Finally, saponification is a process that involves combining a fat or oil with an alkali, like sodium, to create soap and glycerol.
Oleochemicals are widely used in personal care products. The primary application here is in soap and detergents, which account for around 31% market share for fatty acids and 53% for fatty alcohols. These chemicals contribute to moisturising properties help enhance the texture and feel of these products.
In the food and beverage industry, oleochemicals serve as emulsifiers, stabilisers and thickening agents. They also play a role in enhancing flavours in the manufacturing of food packaging materials. In pharmaceuticals, oleochemicals are used to produce capsules, creams and ointments while serving as excipients that facilitate the delivery of ingredients to the body.
Oleochemicals also find application across industrial sectors. They are employed as lubricants, solvents and surfactants. Moreover they play a role in producing biodiesel and other renewable energy sources.
Trends in oleochemicals
With the rise of environmental awareness among consumers there is a noticeable surge in the need for eco friendly products. As a result there is an upswing in the popularity of oleochemicals, because of their aforementioned eco-friendly credentials.
More specifically, oleochemicals play a vital role in eco-friendly lubricants, which are gaining popularity for their ability to break down naturally and have minimal harm to the environment. Biobased lubricants are also considered more sustainable than conventional petroleum-based alternatives because they come from renewable resources.
Oleochemicals also play an important role in the manufacturing of biofuels. One recent advance in this area involves using waste cooking oil to create biodiesel. This breakthrough not only lessens the environmental effects but also offers a sustainable fuel source. Furthermore, oleochemicals are being used in the production of biofuels, like bioethanol and biogas.
As the inclination towards organic personal care products continues to rise there is a growing need for oleochemicals as a sustainable and natural substitute for synthetic components. Additionally, oleochemicals are highly regarded for their moisturising and emollient characteristics comparable to those of conventional petrochemical-based alternatives, which make them a favoured option in skin care products. Furthermore oleochemicals are being employed in the manufacturing of organic cosmetics, which are gaining popularity, among consumers.
Oleochemicals are gaining more significance in the general advance of Green Chemistry. Substituting petrochemicals with vegetable oils is a breakthrough, in this area. Vegetable oils have a smaller ecological footprint compared to petrochemicals. This advance has resulted in the creation of new oleochemical products, including biodegradable plastics and surfactants.
Market size & growth
A study by Research Nester predicts that the oleochemicals market will exceed $67 billion by 2035 with a growth rate of 6%/year between 2023 and 2035. In 2022, the market was valued at around $34 billion. Key players include KLK Oleo, IOI Group, Croda International, Vantage Specialty Chemicals, Wilmar International, Emery Oleochemicals and BASF.
The oleochemicals market is mainly influenced by the growing need for environmentally friendly products in different industries like soaps, detergents, personal care, and food and beverages. Furthermore, the increasing environmental concerns and regulations have prompted a transition towards eco-friendly products, thereby contributing to market expansion.
However, there are also certain factors that impede the expansion of the oleochemicals industry. A significant hurdle encountered in this market involves the instability of raw material prices, which directly impacts manufacturer’s profit margins. Furthermore, the presence of alternatives, like petrochemical-based products and synthetic substitutes limits the growth potential of the market in regions.
Fatty acids make up the largest portion of the oleochemicals market. They find applications in products like soaps, detergents and personal care items. The increasing desire for biobased products is anticipated to fuel the expansion of this segment.
Glycerol finds applications in sectors such as food and beverages personal care items and pharmaceuticals. The growing need for biofuels is anticipated to be a driving force behind the expansion of this particular segment.
The Asia-Pacific region accounts for more than half of global oleochemical demand. The rise in demand within this region can be credited to the growing need for natural products across all major consumer industries. China, India and Indonesia are the players driving this growth in the region.
The demand for environmentally friendly products in industries like personal care, pharmaceuticals, and food and beverages is also fuelling the growth of the oleochemicals market in North America. The US holds the largest share in this region’s market, with Canada and Mexico following closely behind.
As people become more aware of the environment there is a growing demand for products that are sustainable and can break down naturally. Oleochemicals offer a great alternative to non-renewable and environmentally harmful petrochemicals. Their future depends on their ability to meet the increasing demand for eco-friendly products in industries like cosmetics, detergents and lubricants.
Future growth also relies on advances in technology that allow for the production of high quality oleochemicals at a cost. Advanced new technologies, such as processes and microreactor technology, are currently being developed to enhance the efficiency and sustainability of oleochemical production. These will make oleochemicals more competitive with petrochemicals and encourage their wider use across various industries.
Senior Content Writer