The American Cleaning Institute (ACI)

Rising to the 1.5°C Challenge: Evonik on Producing Biosurfactants to Reduce Carbon Impact

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Here at ACI, we have challenged our members to align their corporate climate strategy and targets with the 1.5°C ambition, which strives to reach net-zero global emissions by 2050. Across the cleaning products industry, companies are taking bold action to limit the global average temperature rise to less than 1.5°C.

Surface active agents, or surfactants, are an important component of laundry and dish detergents because they loosen and remove dirt from the surface. They also contribute to the carbon footprint of detergents because of the materials (feedstocks) and energy required to produce them. 

Using an innovative manufacturing process, Evonik has built the world’s first industrial-scale production plant to produce rhamnolipids, a type of surfactant (also known as a biosurfactant) that’s created through fermentation of fully renewable and natural feedstocks. 

ACI spoke with Derek Dagostino, the global head of marketing for Evonik’s Cleaning Solutions product line, to learn how biosurfactants, like rhamnolipids, conserve energy and natural resources while continuing to provide detergents with outstanding cleaning power.    

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

ACI: What role do surfactants play in the carbon footprint of laundry and dish detergents? 

According to Euromonitor, almost 7,000 kilotons of surfactants are used globally in laundry detergents each year, so surfactants have a large impact on the environmental footprint of today's cleaning products. Traditionally, surfactants use petroleum or tropical plant-based oil as feedstock and are produced by chemical reactions that consume energy. The harvesting of fossil fuels, long transportation routes often required to move raw materials to their final-use regions, and deforestation for the cultivation of tropical oils also contribute to climate change. 

ACI: How did Evonik identify surfactants as an important area to reduce carbon impact? 

Historically, Evonik has had institutional knowledge of surfactants, while also supporting society’s ambition to reduce global warming, and certainly the company is committed to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Given the large scale and use of surfactants in everyday products like laundry and dish detergents, the development of biosurfactants to reduce carbon impact was a logical progression for the company. 

ACI: How is the fermentation process used to derive a surfactant and why it is a more sustainable option in the manufacture of these chemistries? 

Fermentation draws on nature-identical processes to produce products, like biosurfactants, at mild temperatures, which require less energy, and with fewer chemicals compared to traditional chemistry. 

Evonik grows micro-organisms, like bacteria, in controlled conditions and feeds them sugar, air and other nutritional supplements to produce biosurfactants. The rhamnolipid (a type of biosurfactant) that Evonik produces uses only sugar as the feedstock. The sugar is cultivated from corn grown near the production plant. Rhamnolipids are 100% biodegradable, meaning that after it’s used in a detergent, it quickly decomposes back into nature. 

Taken all together, a low carbon footprint, responsible sourcing and biodiversity enable rhamnolipids to achieve a circular economy. 

ACI: Were there challenges in switching to a fermentation process and scaling up? 

There were certainly challenges. Evonik found that developing a fermentation process that could reach high product yields and still be brought to an industrial scale was the largest challenge initially. 

For example, rhamnolipids have excellent foaming properties, which created challenges in the fermentation vessel where we were trying to minimize foam while the vessel was being aerated to feed the microorganisms with oxygen. Once Evonik was able to overcome this obstacle, we shifted the focus to improving quality and optimizing the cost of manufacturing.  

ACI: What was the process like to develop a method for producing biosurfactants that would overcome these challenges? 

Evonik is well experienced in developing new technologies and bio-processes and bringing them from lab scale to commercial scale. The development process for biosurfactants was intense because the scope of the project required the identification of a robust micro-organism, fermentation development and downstream processing to refine the biosurfactant. Evonik set up an interdisciplinary team, including biologists, chemists and engineers, that worked together for years to achieve the success that is being celebrated today. 

ACI: How has Evonik’s work with biosurfactants helped detergent formulators make progress toward their climate targets? 

Rhamnolipids enable detergent formulators to develop highly effective cleaning products made from sustainable ingredients. For example, Evonik started from scratch and designed a liquid laundry detergent around the rhamnolipid, utilizing its multifunctional properties as both a primary and secondary surfactant. Compared to current best-selling and best performing green laundry detergents, the Evonik formulation cleaned better at half of the surfactant load. 

What rhamnolipids have done is reduce the complexity of cleaning formulations. When formulating with rhamnolipids, formulators can also reduce the amount of polymers, builders and stabilizers, and they don’t need to use solvents in the formulation. This results in less energy consumption related to transporting raw materials to the formulators’ plant, which contributes to a reduction in carbon footprint. 

Outside of laundry, Evonik expects that rhamnolipids will be adopted into a wide range of cleaning applications in the household, industrial, and institutional (HI&I) markets. 

ACI: Looking ahead, what climate targets does Evonik aim to achieve on the way to net-zero by 2050, and what role does the company see biosurfactants playing in its sustainability strategy going forward? 

Evonik has defined ambitious reduction targets for climate, water and energy. For example, looking at our sustainability report, one target is the reduction of absolute scope 1 and scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2025 (referencing a base year of 2008). Another target is the reduction of scope three emissions – which is related to the “raw material backpack” from the upstream value chain – by 15% by 2025, referencing a baseline of 2020. 

In addition to achieving those targets, Evonik will continue to develop and market products whose use, compared to conventional alternatives, makes a positive contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions for our customers. Utilizing bio-technology to produce new products, like biosurfactants, gives Evonik broad access to more sustainable feedstocks and safer processes. 

Evonik's long-term vision is to implement second-generation feedstock possibilities and then expand those innovative solutions into new applications areas. This approach aligns well with our customers’ needs and allows Evonik’s Care Solution Business Line to become the preferred sustainability specialties partner for our customers. If you’re interested in learning more about Evonik’s biosurfactants, please visit