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Vegetable oil shortage: Implications for fuels and chemicals

April 25, 2022 | Charles Fryer

Image shows oil being poured into a glass jug. Image credit Cottonbro - Pexels

Most of international trade in sunflower oil originates from Ukraine and Russia. Exports from Ukraine have practically dried up, due to the Russian invasion, while exports from Russia are now under a quota system.

The immediate effect was a rise of prices of sunflower oil in the shops in Europe, to the point that some restaurants stopped using it - followed by limits on purchases in some UK shops.

Other vegetable oils can be used for cooking, such as rapeseed (canola), soyabean and palm, each of which has its own characteristics. However, all of them now have rising prices in response to the shortage of sunflower oil. Households and restaurants must adapt to these other oils, and to the higher prices.

Tecnon OrbiChem's Russo-Ukraine war trade impact analysis is a series

Click to read Part III

Bio-diesel repercussion

However, there are implications also for fuels. Vegetable oils are the main feedstock to make bio-diesel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), with tallow being a secondary source. The oils are hydrolysed to separate the glycerine from the fatty acids, which are then hydrogenated to long chain paraffins, the base material for fuel use.

The chemical composition of diesel fuel is hydrocarbons in the range C10H22 to C15H28. Petrol (gasoline) consists of hydrocarbons with between 5 and 12 carbon atoms per molecule. SAF is composed mostly of n-paraffins, mostly in the range 7 to 13 carbon atoms, plus a small amount of aromatic hydrocarbons. The composition of SAF is tightly controlled so that it can be safely used by all jet-engined aircraft around the world.

Diesel and SAF are mostly made from used cooking oil. Initially virgin palm oil was used, but later it became apparent that some palm plantations were being established after cutting down rain forests, so the desired objective of reducing CO2 emissions was being thwarted. Now even used cooking oil is rising in price.

The shortage in sunflower oil is likely to feed through into shortages of used cooking oil and therefore of hydrogenated vegetable oils, and ultimately of bio-diesel and SAF.

Glycerine and epichlorohydrin

Another consequence is rising prices of glycerine, which has chemical uses. Glycerine has become the main feedstock to make epichlorohydrin (ECH) in China, though in the rest of the world the propylene route is mostly used.

Since prices tend be set by the cost of the most expensive process, ECH prices have risen dramatically in recent months, especially in Asia, and propylene-based producers are reaping the benefits. Other chemical uses for glycerine, which looked attractive as crude oil prices were rising, may now have to be put on hold until glycerine prices subside again. 

More of Tecnon OrbiChem's Russo-Ukraine war trade impact analysis below

Click to read Part II

Click to read Part I


We also explore glycerine's role in the petrochemicals and renewable hydrcarbon sectors in our blog post Biobased monopropylene glycol: The bumpy road to a decarbonised world.

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