Acids that Accelerate Sustainability

Acids that Accelerate Sustainability

The figures and illustrations shown here refer to the reporting year 2019 and thus to the former OXEA

Carboxylic acids are the hidden champions of the chemical industry. They are used for many different applications and in various market segments – either as a reactant or an end product. For example, they form the basis for the production of environmentally friendly lubricants for air conditioning and cooling systems and are used as an additive in antibiotic-free animal feed. As many companies need these acids for the development of solutions for a more sustainable future, demand is increasing rapidly. OXEA is supporting that growth with the construction of a new facility in Oberhausen, Germany. It will increase the company-wide production capacity for carboxylic acids by more than 30% as of 2021. 


Farmers and meat producers around the world might still remember the moment of horror they experienced on December 11, 2018. That was the day that a major fast-food chain announced that in future they were only willing to process beef from suppliers who limited the use of antibiotics to a minimum. That measure was one of many steps the company has taken as a reaction to the bad publicity of the preceding years and changing consumer demand. In that context, the company is currently testing the prospects for success of plant-based burgers in Canada. In addition, since 2019, all European outlets have been only using chicken from birds that do not receive any antibiotics reserved for humans.


These measures have given a hugely important signal to the industry because they demonstrate that excessive use of antibiotics to accelerate growth is no longer a marginal issue. If they want to enjoy continued success, there is now also increased pressure on companies in the meat industry to use suitable replacements in animal feed.


n-Butyric Acid AF: Assisting Antibiotic-Free Animal Feed

Meat producers do not have to look far for an “assistant” for antibiotic-free animal feed. That is because it already exists, in the form of the carboxylic acid n-butyric acid AF. Animal feed manufacturers use its salts and esters, called butyrate and butyrin, in their products for feeding calves, pigs, poultry and aquacultures. Absorption of nutrients from animal feed, and thus growth of the animals, is supported by n-butyric acid AF.


OXEA is among the world’s biggest producers of animal-feed-grade (AF) n-butyric acid, which is not only good for the health of livestock, but also people. Why? In many countries, antibiotics are primarily used not to heal sick animals, but as a cost-effective growth promoter that ensures quick weight gain and prevents sickness among animals kept in close proximity to each other. However, the side effects of this “therapy,” which is now heavily regulated in the EU, are very dangerous – primarily for the global population. According to figures from the EU Commission, each year more than 700,000 people worldwide die of infections whose causes have now become resistant to certain antibiotics.


“Our n-butyric acid AF helps the animal feed industry develop sustainable solutions that allow farmers to reduce the use of antibiotics to a minimum without harming productivity,” explains Kyle Hendrix, Global Commercial Director for Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives at OXEA. 


This is due to specific characteristics of the butyric acid derivatives that have a positive effect on animal well-being – and thus support quick weight gain. Added to animal feed, they have an anti-inflammatory effect, which prevents nutrition-related illnesses and salmonella infections. At the same time, they improve intestinal flora and thus also nutrient absorption. Furthermore, there are no known interactions with other additives. This means that the salts and esters of butyric acid reduce the risk of unwanted side effects or production downtime.


The meat producers, too, are increasingly convinced by these benefits. In that context, the use of antibiotics in farming in the European Union and the US decreased by around 15% between 2015 and 2017, and continues to be on a downward trend. “In Asia and America in particular, we are noticing increasing demand for n-butyric acid AF,” says Kyle Hendrix.


New Production Facility Supports Sustainable Growth

OXEA is accompanying this growth through targeted expansion of production capacity for carboxylic acids. In this way, the company is following a selective growth strategy concentrating on the production of replacements for ingredients that are classified as harmful or are heavily regulated.


“Our aim was to quickly and cost-effectively expand production in Marl by 15% – and we managed exactly that.”

Stefan Frentzen, Marl Site Manager, OXEA 

In order to improve the global supply situation, OXEA initially ensured rapid production expansion at the German site in Marl with cost-effective measures that also reduced the ecological footprint of the plant there. For this purpose, an unused tank with capacity of around 10,000 liters was reactivated, which allows the production period of the relevant carboxylic acids to be extended. The effects: reduced flushing losses, fewer changeover days, and therefore also reduced downtime. In addition, product changes are no longer carried out manually, but rather are automated via process control systems and secured switching valves, which prevent possible contamination and increase process security. “Our aim was to quickly and cost-effectively expand production in Marl by 15% – and we managed exactly that,” says Site Manager Stefan Frentzen.


The new construction of a state-of-the-art large-scale plant at the Oberhausen site, less than 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from Marl, is also playing an important role in the expansion of OXEA's carboxylic acid production. Once it goes into operation in early 2022, the plant will increase the company-wide production capacity for carboxylic acids by more than 30%. “The expansion of capacity makes an important contribution to the security of supply for our customers, who want to continue to grow with environmentally friendly solutions,” says Lead Operations Manager Klaus Schmid. 


“The expansion of capacity makes an important contribution to the security of supply for our customers, who want to continue to grow with environmentally friendly solutions,”

Klaus Schmid, Lead Operations Oberhausen, OXEA

Isononanoic Acid: the Raw Material for a Healthier Climate

One of the carboxylic acids whose production is being considerably expanded in Oberhausen is isononanoic acid. Like n-butyric acid AF, it is one of the carboxylic acids with great potential for the environment – but in a very different area of application. 


“Due to strict regulatory requirements, the demand for synthetic lubricants for environmentally friendly cooling technology has increased considerably.”

Kyle Hendrix, Global Commercial Director for Carboxylic Acids and Derivatives, OXEA

Isononanoic acid serves as the raw material for synthetic lubricants that are required for smooth operation of compressors in state-of-the-art air conditioning and cooling systems. These next-generation systems work without environmentally damaging coolants and play an important role in the implementation of various climate agreements, especially the Kigali Amendment, which has been in force since January 2019. Through it, 197 countries and communities of states agreed to gradually reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) by up to 85%. In contrast to the long-since banned chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), HFCs do not damage the ozone layer, but these coolants do have greenhouse gas potential with an effect up to 14,800 times stronger than that of CO2

“Due to strict regulatory requirements, the demand for synthetic lubricants for environmentally friendly cooling technology has increased considerably,” explains Kyle Hendrix. “That is unlikely to change much in future, because the growing economic prosperity of people in countries like India and China will further increase the demand for ecological solutions for air conditioning in buildings and cooling in industry.”


A study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows how significant growth potential in the next 30 years could be: it predicts a global increase in demand for room air conditioning systems of 250% by 2050, compared to 2016. According to the IEA study, the biggest jump will come in India, where demand is expected to grow by 4,100%.

“Speed is an essential success factor”

Dr. Balzarek, the new large-scale facility in Oberhausen for the production of carboxylic acids will start operation at the end of 2021. Are you feeling impatient already?

Christoph Balzarek: Yes, absolutely, even though we are well on track. The speed factor nevertheless plays a decisive role in the expansion of our production capacities. The demand for carboxylic acids is developing in a highly dynamic way. That means: speed is an essential success factor. That is why we are keeping our foot firmly on the gas in order to be able to support the further growth of our customers through increased availability of our products.


The biggest growth markets for synthetic lubricants and animal feeds for antibiotic-free growth accelerants are currently in the US and Asia. So why did OXEA opt for Oberhausen?

At first glance, it seems logical to drive forward the expansion of acid production where the end users are located. But that is just one of the many aspects we analyze when selecting a location. For example, we also consider climate risks, as well as the level of training and number of staff members available. Waste management together with high availability of and short transport routes for raw materials are equally important. In the end, it turned out that Oberhausen offers the best conditions. Due to the well-developed infrastructure, we can expand our acid capacity in Oberhausen far quicker than we could in China, for example. Furthermore, here we can achieve the required economies of scale. 


“The acid business area is a key growth driver for us.”

Christoph Balzarek, Vice President Innovation and Technology, OXEA

How do you evaluate the sustainability of your investment in expanding acid production?

The acid business area is a key growth driver for us. Expanding capacity in Oberhausen therefore not only makes an important contribution to securing the location, but is also an example of our selective growth strategy in markets with particular potential. In that context, we are talking about a long-term perspective of far more than ten years, because with the acids we provide we are supporting the development of urgently required innovative solutions in markets that are increasingly regulated and characterized by growing ecological sensitivity among consumers. All that makes our expansion of acid capacity a sustainable investment in a number of ways – both economically and ecologically.


Dr. Christoph Balzarek is responsible for the further development of manufacturing processes and the product and application portfolio at OXEA. The main tasks for the chemist and experienced business manager include systematic management and technical implementation of customer-centered innovations such as the current expansion of acid production.