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Recycling carbon to make a new kind of soap

Multinational consumer goods company Unilever has partnered with LanzaTech and India Glycols to produce a surfactant made from industrial carbon emission instead of fossil fuels.

Typically derived from fossil fuels, surfactants are a critical ingredient used to create the foam and cleaning action in many household cleaning and laundry products, from dish soaps to fabric detergents. This new process allows surfactants to be made using recycled CO2.

The shift in production utilises biotechnologies and a newly configured supply chain between the three partners. This is the first time London-headquartered Unilever has worked with carbon recycler LanzaTech and green petrochemical company India Glycols.

Recycled CO2 is a form of renewable carbon, essential to eliminating the use of fossil fuels. A recent report published by the Nova Institute and Unilever estimate that demand for fossil-derived chemicals will more than double by 2050. Renewable carbon production would thus 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 emission will come to market in a cleaning product. The surfactant will be used in an OMO (Persil) laundry capsule and was launched on World Earth Day (22 April) in China.

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Thinking differently how we use carbon

Peter Ter Kulve, president of home care at Unilever, pointed out that advancements in technology like this mean they can reinvent the chemistry of their 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.”

The process involves three stages:

  1. Capture: LanzaTech uses biotechnology to capture waste industrial emissions at its Beijing Shougang Lanzatech plant in China and converts the emissions to ethanol.
  2. Conversion: India Glycols converts the ethanol into ethylene oxide, a key feedstock to make surfactants at their site in India.
  3. Formulation: Unilever uses the surfactant in the laundry capsules, and manufactures it at its Hefei factory in China.

Unilever announced its Clean Future Strategy in September 2020. Central to this strategy is Unilever’s Carbon Rainbow, a framework explaining how it classifies sources of CO2. This new surfactant is classified as purple carbon, CO2 captured from industrial emissions.

The process LanzaTech is using to create the ethanol from captured carbon cuts the greenhouse gas emission from this process by 82% compared to the traditional fossil fuel process, according to a LanzaTech study.

Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech CEO, commented: “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 process to make the products we use every day.”

Theresa Smith
Theresa Smith is a Content Specialist for ESI Africa.

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