The Key to Sustainability Plants Will Save the Planet

Why Lion Chooses Plant-Based Ingredients

In 2007, Lion received the Grand Prize in the 16th Global Environment Awards for adopting plant-based ingredients in its detergents. At a time when the use of petroleum-derived raw materials for detergents was the norm, why did Lion venture into the development of detergents made from plant oils and fats? The reasons lie in our long history of research into plant oils and fats and our corporate philosophy of caring for the global environment.

Renewable Raw Materials: Reconsidered after the Oil Crisis

In the wake of the first oil crisis in 1973, Lion became determined to lead the industry in switching from a coal- and petroleum-centered approach to sustainable chemistry, and turned its attention to natural plant oils and fats as raw materials for detergents. This choice was inspired mainly by the fact that plants—as natural reactors that produce substances with complex chemical structures from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide—are a renewable resource endemic to the global environment.

Palm Oil Chosen for Its Suitability for Detergents and Stable Supply

In the course of our research, the oil palm drew our attention as a possible source of material, in part because of the massive scale of cultivation and oil production in Malaysia. Palm oil extracted from the fruit of the tree presented an excellent solution, both as a raw material for detergents and in terms of stable supply.

An outstanding characteristic of the oil palm is its crop yield. The fruit of one tree can be harvested five to six times a year, and the annual global harvest is as high as 260 million tons. Compared to soybeans, which are sometimes referred to as the king of oil plants, the oil palm is far more prolific, offering a per-hectare yield of about eight times that of soybeans (“Supply Stability and Economic Potential of Domestic Biomass Fuel,” Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry). Moreover, there are remarkable similarities between the components of oil extracted from the flesh of palm fruit and beef tallow, and between those of oil extracted from palm kernels and coconut oil. For Lion, the oil palm also offered the great advantages of compatibility with existing Lion technologies developed for palm oil and beef tallow as well as versatility that allows the creation of a wide range of compositions from a single raw material.

Adoption in Powder and Liquid Detergents as well as Fabric Softeners

The first ingredient that Lion developed using the oil palm was MES (methyl ester sulfonate) for use in compact powder laundry detergents. We first used it in the compact powder laundry detergent SPARK launched in 1991 as well as TOP powder laundry detergent. Another plant-based raw material is used to make the cationic surfactant TEQ (triethanolamine ester quaternary) used in our fabric softener SOFLAN.

For some time, the laundry detergent market has been shifting from powder to liquid laundry detergents. Our liquid laundry detergent NANOX is already being manufactured with the plant-based ingredient MEE (methyl ester ethoxylate),1 developed from the oil contained in palm fruit.

MEE: A detergent ingredient that offers a dramatic improvement in detergency over previous ingredients and is environmentally safe. Its production was made viable by a new technology that enabled a substantial improvement in the yield of desired products utilizing newly developed composite metal oxide catalysts in ethoxylation reactions, a key technology for manufacturing non-ionic surfactants. A paper on this technology titled “Development and Industrialization of New Ethoxylation Technology Utilizing Composite Metal Oxide Catalysts” received the JCIA Technology Award (overall award) in 2005.

Supplying Plant-Based Ingredients to Manufacturers around the World

MES is a detergent ingredient made from plant oils that Lion developed in 1991. Since then, as interest in renewable ingredients grows worldwide, inquiries about MES from detergent manufacturers around the world have increased.

In response to this demand, we established Lion Eco Chemicals Sdn. Bhd. to produce MES in Malaysia in 2007.2 Lion Eco Chemicals Sdn. Bhd. supplies MES to detergent manufacturers around the world, and aims to further expand its supply going forward.

MES: A detergent ingredient produced using a proprietary Lion technology that achieves superior gas-liquid dispersion, contributing to a high–quality, high-yield sulfonation reaction. A paper about this mixing technology, which is used in the sulfonation process to create surfactants from plant-based raw materials, titled “Development of Gas-Liquid Mixing for Extraordinary Large Gas Flow Rates by Pitched Blade Paddle Up-Pumping,” received the 2009 SCEJ Award for Outstanding Technological Development.

The World in 2050

The current population of the world is more than 7 billion and is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050. As an obvious consequence of this growth, food security will be a major challenge for humankind, and it will be necessary to expand supply by increasing the global amount of land under cultivation. Future prospects for the procurement of oil raw materials are already being researched from the perspective of responding to these issues over the long-term.

One source of raw materials being considered is Jatropha curcas. This plant grows even in arid regions, so it does not compete with food cultivation, and its seeds have a fat content of 30%. Jatropha curcas is characterized by its fast growth even in poor soils and resistance to drought and disease.

Another research subject is marine plants, including seaweeds, such as kelp, wakame and sargassum, as well as microalgae. With an eye to a future where land values escalate as acreage suitable for food production is maximally exploited, research on the procurement of oil raw materials and on expanding the range of areas from which to procure useful ingredients to the sea is now progressing.

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