Typically derived from fossil fuels, surfactants are a critical ingredient for creating the foam and cleaning action of many household cleaning and laundry products, from dish soaps to fabric detergents. The new process now allows surfactants to be made using recycled carbon.
Recycled carbon is a key form of renewable carbon and is essential to eliminating the use of fossil fuels. A recent report published by the Nova Institute and Unilever in April 20211 estimates that demand for fossil-derived chemicals will more than double by 2050. Renewable carbon production will need to increase by a factor of 15 by 2050 to phase-out the use of fossil carbon in consumer products.
The process marks the first time a surfactant made using captured carbon emissions will come to market in a cleaning product. The new surfactant will be used in an OMO (Persil) laundry capsule, which will launch in China on April 22nd, World Earth Day. The product will come at no extra cost to consumers.
The product arrives to market as China continues to work towards its pledge of achieving net zero carbon by 2060, and consumers increasingly seek out environmentally friendly products and practices. Unilever consumer data from 2020 found that 87% of consumers in China considered climate change as serious a threat as Covid-19, the highest of all countries polled.
The breakthrough process involves primarily three stages:
- Capture: LanzaTech, the world leader in CarbonSmart™products, uses biotechnology to capture waste industrial emissions at its Beijing Shougang LanzaTech plant in China and converts these emissions to ethanol.
- Conversion: India Glycols Ltd converts the ethanol into ethylene oxide, a key feedstock to make surfactants at their site in India.
- Formulation: Unilever uses the surfactant in the new OMO laundry capsules, manufactured at its Hefei factory in China.
The partnership is just one in a series of innovations Unilever is investing in as part of its Clean Future strategy, announced in September 2020. Under Clean Future, Unilever seeks to eliminate fossil-fuel based chemicals from its cleaning and laundry product formulations by 2030.
Central to Clean Future is Unilever’s ‘Carbon Rainbow’, a framework that diversifies sources of carbon. The OMO innovation is an example of ‘purple carbon’: carbon captured from industrial emissions. The process LanzaTech is using to create ethanol from captured carbon cuts the GHG emissions from this process by 82% compared to the traditional fossil-fuel process, according to a LanzaTech study.
Peter ter Kulve, President Home Care, Unilever said: “Advancements in technology like this mean we can now reinvent the chemistry of our products. Instead of valuable carbon being released directly into the atmosphere, we can capture it and recycle it in our products instead of using fossil fuels.
“We want to make sustainability easy for everyone that uses our products. New innovations like this help move our iconic cleaning brands away from fossil fuels without compromising on performance or affordability. We’re excited by the potential that this breakthrough represents for future innovations across our portfolio and our industry.”
Jennifer Holmgren, CEO, LanzaTech said: “Our planet is running out of time and how we treat carbon requires urgent revision. By working with Unilever and IGL we can turn waste carbon into an opportunity, keeping fossil fuels in the ground and enabling new circular processes to make the products we use every day.”
Uma Shankar Bhartia ji, Chairman and Managing Director, IGL said: “At IGL, we have always been focusing on exploring novel ways to exploit renewable resources for making specialty products for our valued customers in different sectors. We are proud of being part of this consortium with Unilever and LanzaTech and creating the world’s first purple surfactant to launch in market.”