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Could CO2 be a viable material for making cleaning products?


We’re exploring new technologies that will help make our cleaning products superior and more sustainable. As part of this, we’ve extended our partnership with Econic Technologies: a start-up that’s pioneering a process to replace fossil-based raw materials with renewable carbon.

CO₂-based polyol in a glass test tube made with Econic's technology.

With nearly 60% of our greenhouse gas emissions coming from the raw materials and ingredients we buy, finding alternatives to fossil-fuel-based chemicals is our biggest challenge in reaching net zero by 2039.

It also presents us with a huge opportunity.

When our R&D scientists work at the molecular level, they’re looking for discoveries that deliver product superiority and improved sustainability. And developing entirely new chemistry can also sometimes unearth other unexpected benefits along the way.

This happened with our work on rhamnolipids: a 100% renewable and biodegradable ingredient, which delivers superior cleaning performance as well as exceptional skincare benefits.

We’re aiming for a similar outcome from our partnership with Econic Technologies, a deep-tech start-up pioneering renewable carbon solutions.

Together we’re exploring how we can transform CO2 into usable carbon to create fossil-free and palm-free raw materials for our household cleaning and laundry products.

From early phases of the trial, we’re confident this method will bring advantages compared to other ways of using CO2, and that the greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint of the material will be significantly lower.

We’re also hoping that harnessing CO2 in this way will lead to the potential for untapped performance benefits.

As Martin Crossman, Unilever Science & Technology Platform Leader, says: “With this programme, we’re not looking to force-fit CO2 into an existing petrochemical-based or palm-based process, and simply copy existing ingredients – that’s essentially just making the same thing but more expensively.

We’re developing new-to-the-world chemistry, using CO2 differently, to reach a different end material with different features. That’s how we’ll really unlock the advantages of CO2 utilisation.

“This is about changing the rules of the game. It has the potential to be truly transformative,” adds Ian Howell, Home Care Advanced Materials and Surface Science Director. “For the chemicals industry to transition away from fossil-fuel-derived ingredients, we need to look to all carbon sources, and CO2 offers opportunities yet to be discovered.”

A first for household cleaning

CO2 is a problem for the world because it’s such an incredibly stable molecule. All of the atoms are as happy as they could possibly be, covalently bound together.[a] The challenge – of turning CO2 into useful carbon – is how you break that bond.

There are various ways you can do that, for example, through fermentation or bioprocesses. Or you can do it through catalysis – the process of adding a catalyst to facilitate a reaction – which is how Econic’s patented technology works.

One benefit of this method over others is that it can take place at a relatively low pressure and temperature, meaning it can be retrofitted into existing production facilities.

Polyurethane products that incorporate materials made using this process are due on sale later this year. But Econic’s work with Unilever is its first venture into household cleaning.

As Keith Wiggins, Econic Technologies CEO, says: “This partnership is incredibly important for us, as it’s a big step towards fulfilling Econic’s overall purpose, which is to take CO2 and turn it into usable carbon that can enhance the performance of products we all use every day.”

All part of a bigger push to clean up cleaning

If the project proves viability at scale, our aim is to get it to market as quickly as possible. That doesn’t mean you’ll see products in the shops just yet. If all goes well, we’ll be looking to run small-scale consumer testing next year, with a full launch coming after that.

This initiative complements the work we’re doing with our Geno and Flue2Chem projects, which are also looking at ways to commercialise alternatives to palm oil and fossil-fuel-derived cleaning ingredients.

“Our work with Econic is another example of how we’re investing in and exploring new technologies to help shape the future of the cleaning category and reach net zero by 2039,” says Ian. “Impactful partnerships like this are integral in helping us find new solutions and ultimately deliver on our Clean Future strategy.”

To read more about our updated commitments on climate, nature, plastics and livelihoods, visit our Sustainability Hub.


Covalent bonds – which form when two non-metal atoms share a pair of electrons – are strong with a lot of energy needed to break them.

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