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Learn why fermentation-produced biosurfactants are the superior choice with unmatched sustainability and performance benefits in the oilfield.

The growing need for increased domestic oil production and new SEC guidelines on climate risk disclosures are creating the need for bio-based, sustainable alternatives to traditional oilfield chemistries. One of the leading advancements has been the development of sustainable replacements to surfactants. However, with these new developments has come some confusion on terminology and the differences between offerings—from surfactants to bio-based surfactants to biosurfactants.

Surfactants in the Oilfield

Many across the oil & gas industry are familiar with the term surfactants. Surfactants, or surface-active agents, are compounds that contain a hydrophilic, or “water-loving” head, and a hydrophobic, or “water-fearing” tail—allowing them to lower the surface tension between liquids, gases or solids. In oilfield applications, surfactants are critical components of scale and corrosion inhibitors, hydraulic fracturing fluids, drilling muds and enhanced oil recovery treatments.

Most surfactants in the marketplace are sourced from non-renewable, petroleum-based feedstocks and raw materials. But sustainability has become a key focus for many major players in the surfactant industry—creating the need for ESG-friendly alternatives.

The Rise of Bio-Based Surfactants

Driven by environmental responsibility, regulatory changes and stakeholder demands, surfactant producers are aiming to reduce their carbon footprints by replacing petroleum-based raw materials with renewable feedstocks. Some of these manufacturers refer to their products as either bio-based surfactants or biosurfactants.

These terms are often used interchangeably, which causes confusion among end users. While all biosurfactants are bio-based surfactants, not all bio-based surfactants are biosurfactants. This article describes some key differences among bio-based surfactants that are manufactured chemically, and biosurfactants that are produced through fermentation processes that mirror Mother Nature.

Bio-Based Surfactants Are Not Always 100% Biobased

All bio-based surfactants share certain commonalities in terms of their starting materials. According to US Code of Federal Regulations, bio-based surfactants are derived “…in whole or a significant part from biological products or renewable domestic agricultural materials (including plant, animal, and marine materials) or forestry materials.” However, bio-based surfactants do not need to include 100% biobased and renewable raw materials to be categorized as bio-based.

Classifications like the Renewable Carbon Index (RCI) have been introduced to rank bio-based surfactants according to their bio content—the ratio of non-fossil organic carbon (from plant-sourced or agricultural-based elements) to total organic carbon from fossil fuels. Per these classifications, a surfactant can be considered bio-based even if it does not include 100% biobased and renewable raw materials. For example, according to the European Commission of Standardization (CEN):

  • A surfactant can be considered wholly bio-based if it contains greater than 95% of carbon from renewable feedstocks.
  • Surfactants are considered majority bio-based if they contain 50%–94% renewable carbon.
  • Minority bio-based surfactants contain 5%–49% renewable carbon.
  • Non-bio-based surfactants have less than 5% renewable carbon.

Bio-Based Surfactants Can Still Be Chemically Produced

Manufacturers of bio-based surfactants tout their bio content as a sustainability advantage. However, many bio-based surfactants are largely produced by traditional chemical reactions. Some of these chemical methods consume significant energy (heat and electricity) generated by hydrocarbon sources.

Alkyl polyglucosides (APGs) and glucamides are two well-known bio-based sugar surfactants produced at industrial scale by a number of global key players. Although they both use environmentally friendly starting materials (like fatty alcohols, glucose and triglycerides), APGs and glucamides are synthetically produced via traditional chemical reactions, not unlike conventional surfactants.

How Are Biosurfactants Different Than Bio-Based Surfactants?

Not all bio-based surfactants can be classified as biosurfactants nor do they offer the same benefits. And yet, some manufacturers refer to their bio-based surfactants as biosurfactants, simply because their products are derived from natural resources. There are key differences between bio-based surfactants and biosurfactants that end users may not realize.

Biosurfactants Are 100% Biobased and Biologically Produced

The term biosurfactant refers specifically to those surfactants containing bio-based feedstocks and that are also produced by sustainable and non-chemical means. Biosurfactants are biologically produced, meaning they are produced directly from microorganisms comprising of lipid, protein, and/or carbohydrate moieties that are frequently associated with cell walls or membranes. Biosurfactants include molecules with varying complex chemical structures, which play different roles in the life cycle of each of these microorganisms. The production process uses fully renewable raw materials with no traditional chemical reactions.

Most biosurfactants are currently produced at industrial scale by fermentation techniques using non-GMO microorganisms that are found in nature. Locus Bio-Energy Solutions specifically develops fermentation-produced biosurfactants for the oilfield using renewable raw agricultural materials, like canola oil and sugar. These fermentation-produced biosurfactants exceed other biosurfactants and bio-based surfactants in sustainability and performance benefits.

Fermentation-Produced Biosurfactants Are the Most Complex Molecules

The diverse properties of fermentation-produced biosurfactants offer an array of positive benefits in the oilfield. In addition to being 100% biobased, these biosurfactants offer unique multifunctionalities when compared to other biosurfactants, bio-based surfactants and petroleum-based surfactants, thanks to their complex structure and diversity. When compared to the chemical structures of traditional surfactants and common bio-based surfactants (APGs and glucamides), biosurfactants have the most complex molecules—which corresponds with their unmatched performance and robustness in oilfield applications.

The molecular structure of a traditional surfactant, compared to a well-known biobased surfactant and fermentation-produced biosurfactant.

Because of this complexity, fermentation-produced biosurfactants have proven success in key oilfield applications, including well remediation and well stimulation, as completion fluid additives for hydraulic fracturing, as saltwater disposal well (SWD) injection aids and more.

Fermentation-Produced Biosurfactants Do Not Need A Renewable Carbon Index Rating

Locus Bio-Energy Solutions’ biosurfactants are carbon-neutral. Unliked bio-based surfactants, these fermentation-produced biosurfactants are 100% biobased. Since they are not chemically produced, these biosurfactants are not required to be rated using the renewable carbon index; however, they would have the highest RCI.

Fermentation-Produced Biosurfactants Are the Superior Choice for Multifunctionality and Performance

While fermentation-produced biosurfactants currently represent a fraction of the total surfactant market, they are garnering the greatest interest. These biosurfactants are relatively nontoxic and readily biodegradable—making them a superior choice to meet ESG requirements. In addition, fermentation-produced biosurfactants can be tailor-made, resulting in unique structures that deliver excellent interfacial and biochemical properties.

Novel Fermentation Processes Make Biosurfactants Available for the Oil & Gas Industry

Locus Bio-Energy Solutions has leveraged advances in bioinformatics and applied microbiology to optimize fermentation processes, enabling the cost-effective production of carbon-neutral biosurfactants at commercially viable volumes. The ISO 9001 accredited process delivers these fermentation-produced biosurfactants at high yield and quality at a fraction of the cost. It makes them economically viable for oilfield applications that require specialty compounds.

Locus Bio-Energy Solutions’ fermentation processes produce biosurfactants at the volumes required for use in the oilfield.

Choose Biosurfactants for Unmatched Sustainability and Performance

Not all bio-based surfactants are created equal. Many surfactant suppliers promote their products as being 100% bio-based or environmentally friendly. But only biosurfactants—specifically fermentation-produced biosurfactants—deliver proven performance gains while minimizing environmental impact from start to finish. Thanks to Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, these biosurfactants are available for immediate use in the oilfield to produce low-carbon, low-cost barrels.

Want to learn how biosurfactants can lower your carbon footprint and deliver the performance you demand? Contact Us.