Surfactant Market Opportunity Study – 2008

By Dwight Rust

Surfactants or surface active agents are broadly defined as organic compounds that can
enhance cleaning efficiency, emulsifying, wetting, dispersing, solvency, foaming/defoaming and lubricity of water-based compositions.

The annual surfactant demand in the United States is estimated to be 7.7 billion pounds.
The largest end use market for surfactants is household cleaning detergents. These are
comprised of large volume, lower priced laundry and dishwashing detergent commodity
products that account for roughly one-half of the U.S. surfactant market. “Specialty
surfactants” are higher-priced, low-volume products used in a broad range of industrial and personal care market applications with annual demand estimated at 2 billion pounds or 26% of the total US surfactant market.

Surfactants are produced from petrochemical (synthetic) feedstocks or oleochemical
(natural) feedstocks. U.S. surfactant production is based on 40% petrochemical and 60%
oleochemical feedstocks. The basic petrochemical feedstocks are ethylene and benzene
which are derived from crude oil and converted to surfactant intermediates ethylene oxide
(EO), linear alkylbenzene (LAB) and detergent alcohols. The basic oleochemical
feedstocks are typically seed oils – palm and coconut – as well as tallow. Raw material
costs for these feedstocks are a prime determinant of surfactant pricing.

The U.S. surfactant market is extremely diverse and includes many primary product
manufacturing industries and segments which are described in this report. Surfactants are
used in formulated products to provide optimum performance.

The structure of the surfactant supply industry is stratified and complex. It consists of large surfactant manufacturers that produce surfactant raw materials, surfactant producers without a raw material position that typically modify basic surfactants by sulfonation or ethoxylation, smaller specialty surfactant producers and/or formulators and end users that are often focused on specific industries.

It is difficult to estimate the amount of soy-based surfactants being produced because of
the supply chain complexity. The largest volume of soy-based surfactants is represented
by lecithin. Examples can be found of soy-based surfactants in most of the markets
studied. Soybean oil and soy protein are used as the starting materials for surfactants;
however, soybean oil is currently the predominate feedstock used in the manufacture of
surfactants where soybeans are used.

One thing that is common in the surfactant industry is concern for the environment. This
concern ranges all the way from the impact of crude oil supply and demand to the
environmental impact of chemicals, energy usage and conservation of resources. The
interest in the “cradle to grave” use of products by both governmental organizations and
consumers has heightened environmental interests and created a growing trend in more
stringent environmental regulations impacting surfactants.

Increasing environmental awareness and the use of renewable resources provide
opportunities for the use of soybeans in surfactants through new technologies that are
emerging, especially in the field of protein-based surfactants.

Read the full report here Surfactants MOS – Jan 2009

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