Renewable surfactant alternatives for use in the beauty and personal care industry

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Chemistry


Since being introduced in the 20th century, the global production of surfactants is continually increasing and is currently in excess of 18.5 million tonnes annually. Surfactants are surface active molecules that find a use in a variety of applications such as, household detergents, lubricants, dispersants, emulsifiers, adjuvants and industrial cleaning.

Common surfactants used in the beauty and personal care industry are typically derived from petrochemical resources and it is expected that the Compound Annual Growth Rate of such will be 5.8% between 2019-2025. Therefore, the development of robust renewable surfactant alternatives will have a huge impact on the dependence of finite resources and significantly reduce their associated carbon footprint. In Europe alone, if renewable surfactants replaced those derived from petrochemicals, there would be a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions by 37%. There is, therefore, a strong need to develop such renewable alternatives.

Proposed solution and methodology

Renewable hydrophobes are easily accessible and, as a result, there has been an abundance of research into plant oils and fatty animal derived alternatives. Therefore, this project will primarily focus on the development of hydrophilic alternatives, the development of which present a greater challenge due to their more complex structure and require a higher degree of functionality.

Firstly, there will be a focus on both the isolation and synthesis of an array of hydrophilic head groups derived from biotech routes, e.g. considering routes to succinic anhydrides from levulinic acid. Following this, the succinic anhydrides, namely maleic anhydride, will undergo an ene reaction with a series of alkenes derived from biotech routes to form alkenyl succinic anhydrides.

In the next work package, these materials can be used to form oligomeric surfactants via polymerisation of various chain groups. There will be an investigation into the ring opening reaction of the alkenyl succinic anhydrides with various alcohols, namely sugar alcohols of glycerol and sorbitol to create oligomeric surfactants with controlled molecular weights.

The lead candidates will be carried forward for materials property evaluations, initially at the University of Nottingham, before undergoing specialised application performance testing within Unilever's formulation space at Port Sunlight. These results would ensure the materials have the required properties compared to current commercial surfactant systems and would demonstrate which candidates require iteration of synthesis and characterisation steps as required, using identified technical routes.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/S022236/1 01/10/2019 31/03/2028
2279283 Studentship EP/S022236/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Harriet Fowler