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The oleochemical company Oleon from Ertvelde has built a new plant to produce biobased building blocks from sunflower oil for the cosmetic industry, lubricants and coatings. ‘It is the first time that this kind of raw material will be used on an industrial scale for the production of these special building blocks,’ says director Eddy Feijen.
Pierre Gielen

Oleon is the European market leader in oleochemicals, which stands for base products and derivatives based on animal fats and vegetable oils. These green, renewable products are used in cosmetics, soaps, (animal) food, coatings, lubricants and other technical applications. The Ghent port zone (Ertvelde-Rieme) is home to the headquarters and production plant for the base products glycerine and fatty acids. There are also production units in Oelegem, Emmerich (Germany), Compiègne (France) and Port Klang (Malaysia). Oleon buys raw materials from all over the world and its end products are exported to more than 100 countries.

Patent application

In our new production unit we will use sunflowers from our French shareholder Groupe Avril,’ explains Eddy Feijen. ‘We already make similar products from rapeseed in Oelegem, but their composition is different to that of sunflower oil. You cannot simply replace the one oil by the other. That is why our own R&D department and engineers have to modify the process conditions and the catalyst of the new unit. A patent is pending for the new process.’

Dimerised fatty acids, among other things, will be made in the new plant which has a yearly production capacity of 14,000 tonnes. These acids serve in turn as building blocks for polyamides and polyesters which are used in automotive coatings and seawater-resistant coatings. Another product from this plant comprises high-grade branched fatty acids (isostearic acid). These remain in a liquid state down to extremely low temperatures and are therefore highly suitable as lubricants. What is more, their good air permeability makes these building blocks ideal for application in cosmetic creams and films that will feel light and scarcely greasy at all.

As far as volume goes, it is a slightly smaller activity,’ says Feijen. The total production in Ertvelde will be around 450,000 tonnes (including biodiesel). ‘But this activity does provide more added value and a quality advantage when compared with the products currently available on the market. We are certainly proud of this investment. It is a great process that allows us to convert sustainable vegetable oil into biobased building blocks for the European chemical industry.’

Biodiesel from animal fats

Oleon is a member of Flanders Biobased Valley. Deciding to become a member was based mainly on the fact that the company also produces biodiesel and wants to combine forces in this area with other manufacturers.

Oleon is currently facing the attempts by a number of biodiesel manufacturers to have animal fat classified as waste, which would make it possible for them to turn it into cheaper fuels. ‘That would be a great pity,’ says director Eddy Feijen. ‘We make biodiesel mainly from rapeseed, a by-product from the protein production. Animal fats contain many valuable substances from which we can recover high added value, for example by processing them in soaps and fabric softeners. You don’t want to throw that into diesel with subsidies.’

This article was created in cooperation with Flanders Biobased Valley