Biosurfactants To The Rescue
Evonik Is Building A Big Industrial Fermentation Facility
A reader recently asked me to write something about rhamnolipids based on this recent news from Evonik. I had to dust off some knowledge from graduate school and randomly enough I was telling another reader a few months ago, “I’d watch the biosurfactant space for industrial fermentation advances” Evonik drops the mic.
In January of 2022 Evonik announced they were building the world’s first industrial scale fermentation facility to produce a biosurfactant called a rhamnolipid. Evonik’s partner and I suspect main customer here is Unilever, a company that has been on a mission of transformation started by it’s former CEO Paul Polman. The site is going to be based in Slovakia and it will seek to transform sugar into a biosurfactant that has applications anywhere a surfactant is used now.
"With the construction of the world's first industrial-scale production facility, we can supply this rapidly growing market with excellent quality," says Johann-Caspar Gammelin, Head of the Nutrition & Care division. "At the same time, we are further expanding the share of system solutions in Nutrition & Care."
If you are still stuck on the word rhamnolipid don’t worry you’re not alone. The way I learned about rhamnolipids was actually through another biosurfactant called a sophorolipid. Both of these biosurfactants function similarly to how other surfactants work by possessing both a hydrophilic portion and a hydrophobic portion in the molecule. The “rhamno” refers to rhamnose, a sugar similar in atoms to glucose but with different stereochemistry, and this functions as the hydrophilic or water loving portion of the surfactant. The “lipid” refers to the fat that is attached to the sugar which provides the hydrophobic or non-water loving portion of the molecule. Here are some structures I took from the Sigma Aldrich website. Sophorolipids are similar, but sophorose is the main sugar and can exist as an acid (similar to rhamnolipids) or as a macrolactone. You can also polymerize sophorolipids with a Grubbs catalyst as a fellow graduate student of mine did during his PhD.
Why should you care about surfactants though?
You may have heard of alkylphenol ethoxylates or APEOs which can degrade into alkyl phenols such as nonylphenol which are known endocrine disruptors, but they belong to an important class of surfactants known as nonionic surfactants. The dish soap that you use on a daily basis is likely an ionic surfactant such as sodium dodecyl sulfate, but for applications like emulsion polymerizations or personal care products you need a wide array of surfactants and sometimes you need something that won’t interfere or salt out with another charged molecule you are trying to formulate.
All of the waterborne paint that is used in the world is reliant on surfactants keeping those polymers suspended in the water. Solvents were the first thing to be minimized in paint due to the hazards and the next biggest thing that I can remember has been the removal of APEOs. The next steps would be to switch the carbon value chain away from oil and rhamnolipids and their derivatives represent an example of how that might be done (even if you cannot use rhamnolipids in emulsion polymerizations).
Triton X-100 is another example of a non-ionic surfactant and it’s pretty nasty stuff via this safety data sheet and just reading Section 2 for a 5% solution of Triton X-100 in TBS (tris buffered saline).
Triton X-100’s issue is that it’s not easily degradable and can cause aquatic toxicity so kind of like the opposite issue of the APEOs, but both are bad. This is where a surfactant like a rhamnolipid can really shine. I also attended a talk about rhamnolipids from Oliver Thum at an ACS conference back when I was in graduate school 2012-2016 and essentially at that time the biotechnology team at Evonik had figured out how to ferment just about any rhamnolipid they could dream up from a wide variety of feedstocks. From the press release:
"We invest more than €400 million a year in our research and development," says Harald Schwager, Evonik's Chief Innovation Officer. "The journey of rhamnolipids from the initial idea to the finished product has been long, but it is worth it. This partnership with Unilever is a result of our expertise in biotechnology."
This means that Evonik has been working on rhamnolipids for at least a decade and I suspect probably two decades prior to announcing the construction of this facility. It sounds like these surfactants will be going into mostly personal care products where high priced raw materials can be used, but I suspect that as capacity increases and the price for rhamnolipids drop we might start seeing them in other places.
The real value here is that Evonik is going to be the first in this new class of specialty surfactants. I also suspect that their patent moat is deep and wide and that they see this as part of their growth strategy that also ticks all the boxes for a hungry ESG investor. Their journey has taken them a minimum of 10 years, I suspect even closer to 20 years, but this should be an example to investors and executive leadership teams that you need to invest for the future to win big.
We just need to wait and see how big Evonik and Unilever are going to win. What are you working on that has this potential for industrial change?