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In search of new chemical routes

Oxiteno introduces products made from palm, soybean and sugarcane oils to replace petrochemicals

Léo RamosFrom left to right: Márcio Lauria, Adriano Sales, Adão Mattos, Nádia Armelin (R&D managers) and André Conde, in charge of the areaLéo Ramos

A young team with a good deal of experience and strong academic background is at the forefront of the main research lines at the chemical company Oxiteno, serving markets as diverse as cosmetics, industrial and household cleaning products, paints and coatings, agrochemicals, oil & gas, among other items. André Conde, 39, who has been with the company for 17 years, heads the national research and development (R&D) area. “I began as a trainee, and was then hired as a researcher,” says Condé, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of São Paulo (USP), a Master’s degree in chemistry from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and an MBA from the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV). Of the 1,600 employees at Oxiteno, 100 work in R&D. Every year, the company allocates about 1.5% of its sales, which last year were R$ 2.5 billion, to this sector.

About to commemorate its 40th anniversary, this Brazilian multinational chemical company is headquartered in São Paulo, and belongs to the Ultra group. It is present in eight countries in the Americas, Europe and Asia and has 11 industrial units located throughout Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Venezuela, as well as three R&D centers outside Brazil. In the Company’s portfolio of 400 products, 300 are surfactants, also called tensoactive agents. “A surfactant is a very special molecule that has the ability to make materials that do not mix become compatible,” says Conde. Present in almost all industrial process, they are used in products as diverse as shampoos and detergents, in polymerizing of paints and in the application of pesticides in the fields. “We are the largest surfactant producer in Latin America,” he says. Oxiteno also manufactures solvents, intermediary chemicals and syntheses that are used in the manufacture of other products.

To differentiate itself on the market, the Company seeks to go beyond the production of chemical compounds based on petrochemical sources. It has invested in research to find technological solutions that use renewable sources, like soybean and palm oils and sugarcane derivatives. Last year, for example, Oxiteno announced the release of an additive that modifies the properties of ethanol to allow its use in diesel engines, replacing the petroleum based fuel. This innovative and less polluting solution received the Kurt Politzer 2011 Technology award in the company category, given by the Brazilian Association of the Chemical Industry (Abiquim).

096-099_Oxiteno_200This product, which is in the final validation phase, was developed by the Company’s oil & gas area, under the coordination of Nádia Armelin, who is now in charge of R&D for the paints and varnishes area.  Armelin holds a degree in chemical engineering from Unicamp and an MBA from FGV. She is 31 years old, and has been at Oxiteno, where she began as a trainee, for eight years.

Another release this May in the renewables line is a coalescent used in decorative paint that has  low volatile organic compound content (VOC), i.e., it is low in the aromatic compounds that contribute to air pollution. The coalescent is the raw material that plasticizes the surface of particles that make up latex wall paint and is responsible for the paint’s resistance, lifespan and shine. Palm oil was used instead of raw materials of petrochemical origin. “We are selling the product to the Middle East, South Africa and we are in the process of getting it approved in Europe,” Armelin says. To determine whether the coalescent is volatile, researchers are using as a reference the European regulation that requires all compounds having a boiling point below 250ºC to be considered as high VOC products. The boiling point is calculated by taking into account the volatility of the molecules and the interactions among the product’s components. “The coalescent we have developed has a boiling point of 294ºC,” says Armelin.

The area of paints and varnishes is one of the main markets for Oxiteno, since surfactants, solvents and coalescents are all used in their formulation, and these are all produced by the Company. Only the pigments and resins are not part of the Company’s portfolio, which serves both the decoration and original automotive paint markets, as well as the furniture industry. “In addition to the low VOC coalescent, we manufacture solvents made from sugarcane for a variety of uses.”

Oxiteno has undergone an accelerated process of internationalization. Recently, in addition to the industrial units in Mexico and Venezuela, it purchased a facility in the United States to produce surfactants and chemical specialties for the agrochemical, cosmetics and household and industrial cleaning markets, beginning in 2013. “Our R&D sector has to be able to generate innovations to technologically differentiate the Company, not just in Brazil, but also in Europe and in the global markets,” says Conde.

The innovation strategy includes the development of new technologies for green chemicals, reinforcement of cooperation with universities and research centers and an increase in the intellectual property base. “Many ideas for new products emerge from the technical interaction with our customers, but many other proposals come from within Oxiteno itself, which follows trends and patents and interacts with consultants who have excellent reputations and a high degree of professional experience,” says Márcio Tavares Lauria, 44, and a process development manager, who leads a team of 17 people. A chemical engineer with a degree from USP, Lauria has been at the company for 21 years. “Oxiteno believes that partnerships are a way to more quickly, assertively and effectively leverage technology,” says Lauria, who holds an MBA from the Brazilian Capital Markets Institute, (Ibmec), now known as Insper.

Academic partnerships
Among the partners are universities and research centers, which are considered to be elements that bring new technologies to fruition. The Company has several projects underway in partnership with institutions in Brazil and abroad, as well as others that were concluded during the past three years. FAPESP is one of these partners. At the end of 2006, together with Oxiteno, the Foundation sent out a call for projects in lignocellulosics, in order to use enzyme processes on sugarcane cellulose, straw and tops to obtain products that currently are produced by the chemical and petrochemical routes. This call led to three projects in collaboration with the Institute for Technological Research, Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory and USP.

In Venezuela, the R&D center has an innovative project underway in partnership with the University of the Andes to develop extended surfactants. “They are called extended because they differ chemically from conventional molecules, which enables them to achieve greater tensoactive efficiency in uses like cosmetics, detergents and agrochemicals,” Lauria emphasizes.

Thermal stability assays for agrochemicals

Léo RamosThermal stability assays for agrochemicalsLéo Ramos

“Within our strategy of innovation, there is a study focused on capturing trends,” says Conde. As an example, he mentions the green tensoactive project, in which embryonic synthesis routes were identified in the scientific literature. Today, one of the Company’s researchers, Priscila Milani, who is pursuing post-doctoral studies at Unicamp and is the recipient of a scholarship from the National Council on Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), is totally dedicated to this project. “The research involves a genuinely innovative synthesis route.”

An important source of support within this strategy is the science and technology council, created in 2004 and made up of external specialists. There are seven members in the surfactant area and three in paints and solvents who meet annually to discuss trends and strategies in innovation. Twice a year, meetings are held that feature presentations of the best cases from the four R&D areas, divided into paints and varnishes, household and industrial cleaning, cosmetics and personal care products, and agrochemicals. The paint coalescent with low VOC developed by Nádia Armelin’s team was presented at one of these meetings.

The R&D group for household and industrial cleaning products, managed by Adão Mattos, decided to extend this innovation to the self-polishing waxes used in homes. “We developed a coalescent product that offers advantages over the petrochemical products currently used, such as low VOC emissions and the use of renewable sources for raw materials,” says Mattos, who is 38 years old and has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in chemical engineering from Unicamp and an MBA from FGV. He has been at Oxiteno for 14 years.

Less energy
Among the most important products introduced last year is a liquid thickening agent used to give consistency to products like shampoo. “The products that are on the market now are in solid form and need to be heated before they can be used, which requires customers to consume energy,” says Mattos. The formulation developed does not cause irritation and is clear, so it can be added to products for children and feminine hygiene cleansers and other uses.

In the agrochemical area, a liquid thickener was also released this year. “This is a new product that requires no preliminary preparation. All you have to do is to add it to the formulation until you get the desired viscosity,” says Adriano Sales, 35, the R&D coordinator for agrochemicals. Sales holds a degree in chemical engineering from the Mauá School of Engineering and an MBA with a specialization in product engineering from USP. He has worked at Oxiteno for 16 years, after beginning as a technical level intern at the factory. “The purpose of agrochemical formulations is to increase productivity in the field,” he explains. Within the group of agrochemicals, surfactants are important, as they contribute to the development of more efficient formulas. Since a large part of the active ingredients are not water-soluble, Oxiteno has also produced green solvents for agrochemicals using soybean and sugarcane oils, which are used to replace some petroleum-based solvents.