Why Use a Bio-Based Solvent?

K4 Dry cleaning System

Interest in bio-based products is growing in some industries and home markets but are bio-based products always the best choice? The answer is sometimes.  

Bio-based doesn’t automatically mean eco-friendly. A product containing plant-based or derived material is no guarantee it is safe or eco-friendly. Let’s look at palm oil for example; it was found that palm oil can replace trans fats in many snack foods to produce “healthier” junk food, but palm oil production is responsible for massive amounts of deforestation in some of the most fragile ecosystems in the world. Palm plantations and the oil harvesting is directly linked to the declining wild populations of Orangutans and has been connected with forced child labor and slavery. All that for a bag of potato chips? Perhaps a locally-grown apple is a better choice.

Bio-based chemistry is quickly growing; much of it appropriately and safely. Simply finding a way to replace a petroleum-derived chemical with one sourced from biomaterial isn’t enough, you need to consider the total impact for each. Everything has a cost, but in some cases, costs are deferred or ignored because they don’t affect the immediate product production, for example, the cost of water contamination and CO2 emissions is widely ignored in the beef industry.   

Historically dry cleaning solvents had one source: petroleum. This includes the source material for the manufacturing of Perc. The petroleum industry is the fountainhead for organic chemistry and the products made from or originating from petrochemistry is astounding. The impact from this, both positive and negative are also staggering.  

Twenty years ago siloxanes were introduced to the dry cleaning industry breaking away from petroleum-based solvents. Kreussler was the first to publish the use of siloxanes in the dry cleaning industry in Germany with our patent application 373911. It should be noted that Siloxanes are derived from silicon which is made from silicon dioxide or silica. The process involves the mining of quartz which is broken into gravel size chunks and fed into an electric arc furnace with coke (coal) and heated to over 4000 degrees. The final product is the element silicon which is then synthesized through several steps to form the siloxane. This manufacturing is energy intensive with a significant environmental impact.

The idea of moving away from halogenated solvents to one based on inorganic chemistry originally promised a safer and healthier solution but unfortunately what we ended up with a chemical that is persistent in the environment and thus prone to bioaccumulation. We now find Siloxanes permeating ecosystems all over the world and in food chains all the way up to species consumed by humans. The use of Siloxanes in Europe is now widely phased out with REACH classifying them as hazardous and with little future for the chemistry in domestic products.

The professional textile care industry has suffered from one promising but flawed innovation to the next and with a low barrier of entry for textile chemistry, the cleaner is generally the first and last beta tester for products being presented as safe and reliable. A perfect example for this, the recent introduction of modified alcohols blended with hydrocarbon were presented as stable mixtures by the machine manufacturers and chemical distributors promoting them. Those same machine manufacturers are now looking to introduce salinating water separators to limit the water solubility of the alcohol portion of the solvent.  This after realizing much of the alcohol portion of the solvent was leaving the machine in the contact water, proving the solvent was not stable, to begin with.

Returning to the topic of bio-based chemistry, is this a better choice?  In the crowded field of alternative dry cleaning solvents, the answer is yes with an understanding that moving from compounds derived from petroleum to compounds derived from corn is one small step in a sustainable and safer industry.  The process for converting corn to SOLVONK4 [the solvent at the heart of the SYSTEMK4 dry cleaning system] is clean, low energy, and safe. Much of the corn waste is returned to the fields and farms as compost and feed and the final product is as pure and stable as it was when we first introduced SYSTEMK4 nearly ten years ago. By making this change with our bio-based formula, we’ve lowered the carbon footprint for SOLVONK4, reduced the dependency on petroleum-derived feedstocks without changing any of the attributes of the final product. We won’t stop here on our quest to create more sustainable, useful products for our clients but we’re proud of where we’re heading.

Some additional resources:

What are Bio-Based Solvents?

What is Siloxane?

What is the USDA Bio-Preferred program

Learn about Man-Made Deforestation and it’s effects on the planet

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