Dish soap should foam, but not too much, feel good on your hands and most importantly, wash the dirt off the dishes properly.

This works with very different ingredients, but it is becoming increasingly important to consumers that the product is completely biodegradable.

Consumer goods manufacturers such as Unilever are therefore increasingly looking for sustainable ingredients, which in turn suppliers can help with.

For example, the Essen-based specialty chemicals group Evonik is investing a low three-digit million amount to set up a new production plant for so-called rhamnolipids in Slovakia, which are completely biodegradable.

The company announced this on Friday.

These rhamnolipids are made by fermenting sugar, eliminating the need for oils.

With this, Evonik is going one step further in the production of so-called biosurfactants.

The first surfactants were very practical soaps, they were made several thousand years ago, mostly with fossil oils.

They are mainly found in detergents and cleaning agents, and account for more than half of the approximately 20 million tons of surfactants produced annually.

In order to improve their ecological balance, however, many manufacturers increasingly want to use so-called biosurfactants, which are then produced on the basis of oil plants such as rapeseed, olives or flax.

They are also biological, but there is a heated debate about the use of oils.

This market for biosurfactants is still small, but it is growing strongly.

Sales of 5.52 billion dollars are forecast for this year, with a market volume for surfactants of more than 34 billion dollars.

Lots of research, few products

Researchers recognized the potential of biosurfactants for cleaning agents as early as the 1980s, but two aspects were missing for production: First, only small quantities were produced - and the demand was simply not there. There are now some industrial projects, in Germany, for example, in cooperation with companies such as the cleaning manufacturer Dalli-Werke, the consumer goods group Henkel and the chemical giant BASF together with research institutions such as the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology ( IGB).

Evonik has been researching this for more than ten years. Five years ago, the specialty chemicals group was the first supplier of a bio-based cleaning agent using so-called sophorolipids. The Belgian manufacturer Ecover had these additives supplied by the Evonik site in Slovenská Ľupča. Other companies use it to make skin creams, for example. Sophorolipids are also obtained from sugar and converted using yeast, although rapeseed oil is also used. Together with Unilever, the Essen-based M-Dax group therefore started testing the completely oil-free technology in 2019.

A challenge here is that not too much foam forms in large production quantities.

The products were well received in the test markets of Chile and Vietnam, which is why Unilever intends to expand this in the future.

Around 200 employees are currently working on the plant in Slovakia, and another 20 are to be added.

"Rhamnolipids have had a long journey from the initial idea to the finished product - and it was worth it," says Harald Schwager, Chief Innovation Officer at Evonik.

Phasing out fossil ingredients

The cooperation with Evonik is important for Unilever because the consumer goods group wants to completely replace fossil carbon in its cleaning agents by 2030. "The partnership with Evonik helps us to make our brands fossil-free without having to compromise on performance or price," says Peter Dekkers, who is responsible for Unilever's Central European business. In the future, such rhamnolipids can also be used in other products, such as shampoos, dental care or cosmetics. For now, however, production should be well utilized when it ramps up in 2024 with the partnership with Unilever.

With the investment, Evonik is venturing into a new area that could grow strongly. At the same time, it is a research area in which it was unclear for years whether the innovation could ever be converted into a product. It is precisely the fact that the oil is not used that could make the difference compared to other biosurfactants, i.e. cleaning agents.

Because the effect is the same everywhere: The cleaning agents need particles that are both water-loving and hydrophobic so that the dirt can be loosened and drained off quickly. The hydrophobic part of the lipid encloses the dirt particle and sweeps it away from the surface. Incidentally, the lipids that Evonik produces for the vaccine manufacturer Biontech work in a similar way – with the help of the fats, however, the mRNA active ingredients are transported in the body to where they belong.

The urge for more sustainability, which prevails both from consumers and from companies with a view to their own climate goals, of course brings with it new challenges - even if you say goodbye to oil-based plants.

In the case of rhamnolipids, it is sugar availability.

It comes from corn grown in Europe.

However, Evonik does not want to be in competition for food production in the future.