Worldwide there are more then 1,500 known applications for glycerin. This is a huge amount and the reason why we decided to look into it in more detail. This article briefly presents the properties of glycerin, their production and the industrial applications. Further we will describe the impact of biodiesel production on glycerin prices.

Glycerin, also known as glycerol, is defined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) as Propane-1,2,3-triol. It belongs to the group of polyols, which are organic compounds that contain multiple hydroxyl functional groups used for organic reactions. The sweet-tasting, colorless and odorless, (in low concentration) non-toxic alcohol, melts at 18° Celsius and boils at 290° Celsius. In very simple terms, glycerin is an organic mixture of sugar and alcohol.

Industrial Applications of Glycerin

Glycerin has many industrial applications within the chemical industry and beyond. It functions as a building block and raw material to manufacture different types of chemical intermediates and products. A few examples are listed below.

Food Industry

Glycerin serves as a sweetener, solvent, and humectant in foods and beverages and can also help in preserving food. It is also used in commercially prepared low-fat foods as a filler and in liqueurs as a thickening agent. Further it is used as a sugar substitute. Although glycerol is slightly more caloric, it doesn’t cause dental cavities and has a low glycemic index.

Pharmaceutical and Personal Care

Glycerin is utilized in pharmaceutical and personal care products (including body washes, shampoos, soaps,  toothpastes etc.) largely due to its smoothness, its ability to lubricate and moisturize. In liquid detergents, glycerin has an important role as viscosity regulator, solvent and clarifying agent.

E-cigarette Liquid

Vegetable glycerin with propylene glycol, is one of the common components of e-cigarette liquid. The glycerin produces the aerosol when heated with an atomizer, delivering nicotine to the consumer.

Anti Freezing Agent

Due to its minimum freezing point temperature, glycerin was used as an anti-freezing agent for automotive applications before being replaced by ethylene glycerin. Its freezing point is around −38 °C, corresponding to 70% glycerin in water. Also glycerin is a common compound of solvents for enzymatic reagents in labs.

Chemical Intermediate and Solvent

Glycerin is used as a chemical reagent in the synthesis of nitroglycerin for the production of dynamite. Further, it is a building block in the polymer production of alkyd resins and polyurethanes for use in paints and coatings. Glycerin is also a raw material to manufacture different types of chemical intermediates, including solvents, plasticizers and surfactants. Besides that, glycerin can dissolve polar and nonpolar substances, making it a possible solvent to be used in many industries with different applications.

Production of Glycerin

Glycerin is produced by hydrolysis, saponification or transesterification of triglycerides. Triglycerides sources are commonly plants, like soybeans, and animals, such as tallow. Glycerin from triglycerides is produced worldwide on a large scale. The quality (parameters of purity) can vary from producer to producer depending on the production process.

Post-purification can be achieved by treatment with activated carbon to remove organic impurities, alkali to remove unreacted glycerin esters and ion exchangers to remove salts. High purity glycerin (> 99.5%) is obtained by multi-step vacuum distillation. Glycerin can also be produced by various routes from propylene, which is a three carbon petrochemical compound with double bonds. The most relevant process includes propylene chlorination. A variety of glycerin products with different purities are currently supplied by multiple companies on CheMondis.

Why is Glycerin selling low?

The standard of living around the world has risen. Especially in developing countries a new growing demand for pharmaceuticals and personal care products has evolved. Thus, resulting in larger international consumption amounts of glycerin. Although the overall consumption of glycerin has continuously risen prices are on the low. One of many factors may be the increase of biodiesel production, also known as the bio-diesel-revolution.

Glycerin is a byproduct in the production process of biodiesel. Although the glycerin produced in the biodiesel process is of low quality (80% purity), and still contains contaminants like soap and water, it still can be used for pharmaceutical or technical grade products. In order to do so, the produced glycerin must undergo a post-purification process (as mentioned above).

For the last two decades biodiesel production in Europe has increased continuously. This trend can possibly be linked to the European Union directive from 2003, “Transport Biofuels Directive 2003/30/EC”, which promotes the use of biodiesel as an alternative to fossil fuels (petrol/diesel). According to the directive, EU member states were obliged to replace 5,75% of all transport fossil fuels with bio fossil fuels by 2010. Many other governments outside of the European Union have introduced similar agendas to promote the use of biodiesels. For instance, the “Brazilian Biodiesel Technology Development Program”. Although the European Union failed to achieve the targeted 5,75% by 2010, the production of biodiesel has risen.

During 2016 producers within the European union processed around  12 million tons of biodiesel according to the European Biodiesel BoardIn Germany alone, around 3 million tons of biodiesel were produced. This makes Germany the largest producer of biodiesel in the European Union. Followed by France, the Netherlands and Spain which each produced between 1-2 million tons of biodiesel in 2016. Ultimately a high production of biodiesel lead to an increase in glycerin availability. Driving prices down, although the overall international glycerin demand is rising.

In a Nutshell

Glycerin is an organic mixture of sugar and alcohol. It can be produced by hydrolysis, saponification or transesterification of triglycerides. Quality can vary from producer to producer depending on the production process. Glycerin has many industrial applications. Leading to a continuously rising glycerin demand. Low glycerin prices can (but not only) be linked to the increase in bio-diesel production.

Now it is up to you!

What is your experience with glycerin? Have you bought or sold it on CheMondis? What do you think of directives that promote bio-diesel production? And what other information could be relevant when discussing glycerin? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Thanks for taking the time to read the CheMondis Blog. 

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