Biobased Chemicals: Fact or Fiction?

For years, retail consumers have been bombarded with “go green” marketing taglines touting eco-friendliness, soy cleaning power, biodegradability, and environmentally responsible performance. The number of these often dubious claims is so great that the term “greenwashing” arose to describe the phenomenon. Despite this confusion, consumers are now generally seeing new products that are better for the environment and safer to use in their homes.

Industrial users of performance chemicals, on the other hand, have watched this trend with skepticism. Some early adopters have even tried “green” products, but unfortunately, many early industrial alternative or biobased products were not advanced enough to withstand the rigors of an industrial setting or were far more expensive than traditional products.

So where does this leave the industrial user, a user who often has a greater need for a safer alternative to the chemicals he or she is using?  The perception is that safer options are more costly or inferior in performance, so without a corporate environmental mandate there is little reason for the industrial user to consider biobased technology – right? Not anymore.

The reality is that biobased chemical products, such as cleaners and lubricants, have come a long way in the last decade. Formulators and raw material suppliers, focused exclusively on this technical platform and the demands of the industrial environment, have developed safe, biodegradable alternatives that do not come with a noticeable tradeoff in performance or cost. In fact, there are companies who have been developing industrial biobased and biodegradable solutions for more than 10 years — including Renewable Lubricants, Gemtek Products, Terresolve Technologies, and Vertec Bio Solvents — and have products that in some cases perform better than traditional chemical products. Further, in many situations there are real cost benefits for making the switch.

The primary misconception for industrial users is that biobased products don’t work for their serious applications. The cleaning jobs are aggressive, and the conditions a lubricant sees are extreme. There is no time to waste with a product that works slowly. While ordinary soy cleaners can’t be used in place of phosphoric acid to rapidly clean a greasy truck rim, there are other biobased cleaners offered now that are every bit as effective as traditional cleaners for a wide variety of fleet and industrial cleaning applications.

But there is no one-size-fits-all solution. A heavy-duty, biobased cleaner designed to emulsify may be ideal for a spray and rinse application on metal parts. On the other hand, a complex formula of plant–based ingredients, which are designed to demulsify, might be a better solution for a pressurized equipment washing bay. An example of this technology can be seen with the Gunk powered by SafeCare Truck and Equipment Wash offered by RSC Bio Solutions. RSC is bringing Gemtek’s advanced SAFECARE technology to market under the GUNK brand, trusted for decades by automotive and industrial professionals.

Another area where new technology is allowing biobased products to solve problems earlier technology could not is in the production of lubricants and functional fluids. For decades, vegetable base stocks have been considered as an alternative to petroleum in applications like hydraulic fluids. They offer superior lubricity and anti-wear characteristics, plus they are readily biodegradable and do not create any hazardous conditions. Unfortunately, without innovative additives, early vegetable-based fluids failed in extreme conditions such as freezing temperatures and high pressures common in industrial hydraulic systems. Today, such products as EnviroLogic hydraulic fluids from Terresolve are readily biodegradable and performing 24 hours a day in some of the world’s most demanding environments, such as dredging equipment, offshore drilling rigs, and site excavation. These fluids have been approved and certified by dozens of global, industrial OEMs that have put the products through many hours of testing.

The second primary myth with biobased products is cost. While many business owners are starting to see that safer options can work without a performance tradeoff, some still believe the cost is prohibitive. To be truthful, it is rare that a product is simultaneously safer, works as well or better, and is priced the same or less than the previous product. To try to convince someone that this is the norm would be – well, greenwashing. While it is typical to find alternative technology more expensive when looking only at price per gallon (or pound), two things are now also true: The difference in cost per pound is getting smaller for a variety of reasons, and the actual cost in use can be the same or less when using biobased products, even when the price per gallon is higher.

Industrial users can think of safer, readily biodegradable technology as a cheap insurance policy. For many clients, using hazardous petroleum-based products brings along a list of risks and liabilities: fines associated with an accidental spill, workers’ compensation claims from exposed employees, and the time and cost to clean up materials that are not readily biodegradable. Plus, hazardous materials cost more to ship, store, and handle. When considering the performance advantages of biobased products – for example, the anti-wear characteristics of biobased lubricants allowing for increased fluid changeover intervals and cleaning formulas that can be used in a lower concentration – users can quantify the additional benefits. Spending a few dollars per gallon more for biobased products can be quickly offset when considering the costs and risks associated with using their more-dangerous counterparts.

Many industrial users are now switching to safe and readily biodegradable technology to reduce risk, meet corporate sustainability mandates, or to meet governmental requirements. But the switch no longer has to mean significant tradeoffs in cost or performance. There are a lot of confusing claims, and biobased products are not a panacea. Still, smart industrial end users can capture significant and quantifiable value if they find an expert supplier partner to explore safer alternatives for the right applications in their business.

About the Author

Mike Guggenheimer is vice president of business development for RSC Bio Solutions (