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.

Planned Impact

This CDT will deliver impact aligned to the following agendas:

A2P will provide over 60 PhD graduates with the skill sets required to deliver innovative sustainable products and processes into the UK chemicals manufacturing industry. A2P will inspire and develop leaders who will:
- understand the needs of industrial end-users;
- embed sustainability across a range of sectors; and
- catalyse the transition to a more productive and resilient UK economy.

A2P will promote a step change towards a circular economy that embraces resilience and efficiency in terms of atoms and energy. The benefits of adopting more sustainable design principles and smarter production are clear. For example, the global production of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) has been estimated at 65,000-100,000 tonnes per annum. The scale of associated waste is > 10 million tonnes per annum with a disposal cost of more than £15 billion. Consequently, even a modest efficiency increase by applying new, more sustainable chemical processes would deliver substantial economic savings and environmental wins. A2P will seek and deliver systematic gains across all sectors of the chemicals manufacturing industry. Our goals of providing cross-scale training in chemical sciences with economic and life- cycle awareness will drive uptake of sustainable best practice in UK industry, leading to improved economic competitiveness.

This CDT will deliver significant new knowledge in the development of more sustainable processes and products. It will integrate the philosophy of sustainability with catalysis, synthetic methodology, process engineering, and scale-up. Critical concepts such as energy/resource efficiency, life cycle analysis, recycling, and sustainability metrics will become seamlessly joined to what is considered a 'normal' approach to new molecular products. This knowledge and experience will be shared through publications, conferences and other engagement activities. A2P partners will provide efficient routes to market ensuring the efficient translation and transferal of new technologies is realised, ensuring impact is achieved.

The chemistry-using industries manufacture a rich portfolio of products that are critical in maintaining a high quality of life in the UK. A2P will provide highly trained people and new knowledge to develop smarter, better products, whilst increasing the efficiency and sustainability of chemicals manufacture.
To amplify the impacts of our CDT, effective public engagement and technology transfer will become crucially important. As a general comment, 'sustainability' styled research is often regarded in a positive light by society, however, the science that underpins its effective implementation is often poorly appreciated. The University of Nottingham has developed an effective communication portfolio (with dedicated outreach staff) to tackle this issue. In addition to more traditional routes of scientific communication and dissemination, A2P will develop a portfolio of engagement and outreach activities including blogs, webpages, public outreach events, and contribution of material to our award-winning YouTube channel,

A2P will build on our successful Sustainable Chemicals and Processes Industry Forum (SCIF), which will provide entry to networks with a wide range of chemical science end-users (spanning multinationals through to speciality SMEs), policy makers and regulators. We will share new scientific developments and best practice with leaders in these areas, to help realise the full impact of our CDT. Annual showcase events will provide a forum where knowledge may be disseminated to partners, we will broaden these events to include participants from thematically linked CDTs from across the UK, we will build on our track record of delivering hi-impact inter-CDT events with complementary centres hosted by the Universities of Bath and Bristol.


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