The Glycerin Market: High Demand, Low Prices and the Impact of Biodiesel

Worldwide, there are more than 1,500 known applications for glycerin. That’s an impressive number, and it’s what prompted us to take a closer look. In this article, we’ll touch on the properties of glycerin, its production, and its industrial applications. Plus, we’ll dive into how biodiesel production is affecting glycerin prices.

Glycerin, or glycerol, is officially defined by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) as Propane-1,2,3-triol. It falls into the category of polyols, which are organic compounds featuring multiple hydroxyl groups, making them key players in various organic reactions.

This sweet-tasting, colorless, and odorless alcohol (at low concentrations) is non-toxic. It melts at 18°C and boils at 290°C. To put it simply, glycerin is an organic mix of sugar and alcohol.

Glycerin’s versatility makes it invaluable across many industries. It’s used in pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, cosmetics, and even in the production of explosives. Its ability to attract water means it’s often used in skin and hair care products for its moisturizing properties. In the food industry, it’s a sweetener and preservative, while in pharmaceuticals, it’s used in cough syrups, elixirs, and expectorants.

The production of glycerin has a fascinating connection with the biodiesel industry. Biodiesel production has ramped up significantly over the past decade as the world seeks renewable energy sources. A byproduct of biodiesel production is glycerin, which has led to a surplus in the market. This surplus has driven glycerin prices down, making it more accessible for various uses but also challenging for producers who rely on glycerin as a revenue stream.

This glut in the market due to biodiesel production has created an interesting dynamic. On one hand, it has reduced the cost for industries that use glycerin, fostering innovation and expanding its applications. On the other hand, it poses economic challenges for producers who need to find new ways to balance their books.

Industrial Applications of Glycerin

Glycerin’s versatility and safety make it a staple in numerous industries. Let’s explore some of its key applications:

In the pharmaceutical industry, glycerin is valued for its non-toxic and hygroscopic properties. It is used as a solvent, sweetener, and preservative in various medications, including cough syrups, elixirs, and suppositories. Its moisturizing qualities also make it a popular ingredient in lotions and creams, where it helps to keep the skin hydrated.

Food Industry

As a food additive, glycerin plays several roles. It acts as a sweetener, a humectant (which helps maintain moisture), and a solvent for flavors and food colorings. You’ll find it in products ranging from baked goods and confections to beverages and processed meats. Its ability to retain moisture also makes it valuable in extending the shelf life of foods.

Pharmaceutical and Personal Care

The cosmetic industry relies heavily on glycerin for its moisturizing and emollient properties. It’s a common ingredient in skincare products, hair care formulations, and oral care items like toothpaste and mouthwash. Glycerin’s ability to draw moisture from the air and into the skin helps to keep skin soft and hydrated.

In industrial settings, glycerin serves as a lubricant, antifreeze, and plasticizer. It is used in the production of resins, plastics, and other materials where its properties enhance flexibility and durability. Additionally, glycerin is a key ingredient in the manufacture of explosives such as nitroglycerin.

Glycerin is used in the tobacco industry to keep products moist and enhance the flavor. It helps prevent tobacco from drying out and becoming harsh to smoke.

The textile and leather industries use glycerin in various processes to soften and preserve materials. It helps to keep fabrics flexible and leather products from becoming brittle.

Glycerin’s multifaceted applications highlight its importance across diverse sectors. Its role as a byproduct of biodiesel production means that while its availability might fluctuate with energy market trends, its significance in industrial applications remains steadfast.

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.

All Glycerin Product Offers 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 Board. In 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 leads 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 biodiesel 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.

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