Glycerol, also known as glycerin or glycerine, is a simple polyol compound. It is colorless, odorless, and viscous liquid that is widely used in pharmaceutical formulations, food production, personal care products and various industrial processes. In this article, we will discuss the various properties and uses of glycerol across different industries.
Chemical Properties and Production
Glycerol has a sweet taste and is used in food and pharmaceutical products mainly because of its chemical properties. It has three hydroxyl groups that make it hygroscopic and soluble in water and alcohol. Commercially, glycerol is produced as a byproduct of biodiesel production and soap making. During the transesterification of vegetable oils and fats with an alcohol like methanol or ethanol, crude glycerol is formed as a byproduct. This crude glycerol needs to be further purified and processed to obtain refined technical grade and USP/food grade glycerol.
Due to its hygroscopic nature, solvent properties and ability to penetrate cell membrane, glycerol finds numerous applications in the pharmaceutical industry. It is used as an excipient in many cough syrups and throat lozenges to relieve throat irritation. Glycerol suppositories are commonly used as a laxative. It also acts as a humectant in ointments, gels and creams used to treat burns, wounds, eczema and acne. Glycerol esters like glycerol monostearate are used as emulsifiers and thickeners in various ointments, lotions and creams.
Food and Beverage Usage
As glycerol is a FDA approved food additive, it has widespread use in foods and beverages. It adds moisture to foods, prevents crystallization in candies and helps extend shelf-life of products as a humectant. Common food items containing glycerol include chewing gums, brown sugar, marshmallows, fudge and fondant. It is also used as a sweetener and preservative in various syrups, desserts and baked goods. In beverages, glycerol prevents frost formation in beer and acts as a sweetener and stabilizer in low-calorie drinks.
Personal Care Products
Glycerol finds application as a moisturizing agent in personal care products due to its hygroscopic nature. It is a major component of hand creams, body lotions, skin creams and hair conditioners. Glycerol helps retain moisture on the skin/hair surface and enhances product absorption. Other personal care items containing glycerol include glycerin soap, deodorants, shaving creams and toothpaste. Glycerol’s solvent properties allow it to hold coloring pigments in soaps, deodorants and cosmetics.
Apart from the applications mentioned above, Glycerol witnesses wide usage in industrial processes and products. It acts as a humectant, solvent and thickening agent in the tobacco industry. Glycerol is commonly used as a intermediary in the manufacture of explosives like nitroglycerin. It is also used as a non-toxic antifreeze in pipelines and heating systems. Glycerin finds application as a solvent in the production of alkyd resins used to make paints and coatings. Several niche industrial usages of glycerol include its use as a filler in automobile stuffing boxes, a plasticizer in the wire and cable industry and a humectant in gas scrubbers.
Environmental Benefits of Glycerol
With the growth of the biodiesel industry, large volumes of crude glycerol are being generated as a byproduct globally. While this poses a handling and disposal challenge, research into extracting value from crude glycerol is opening up new opportunities. As an organic, biodegradable compound, glycerol helps produce more environmentally friendly products. Finding new applications and conversion processes for crude biodiesel-derived glycerol can boost its market and help biodiesel remain a sustainable fuel alternative. Overall, glycerol offers an excellent example of a valuable chemical obtained through a renewable source with wide utility across many vital industries.
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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