A team of researchers, led by the University of Minnesota, has invented a new soap molecule made from renewable sources that could dramatically reduce the number of chemicals in cleaning products and their impact on the environment.
The soap molecules also worked better than some conventional soaps in challenging conditions such as cold water and hard water. The technology has been patented by the University of Minnesota and is licensed to the new Minnesota-based startup company Sironix Renewables.
The new study is now online and will be published in the next issue of the American Chemical Society’s ACS Central Science, a leading journal in the chemical sciences. Authors of the study include researchers from the University of Minnesota, University of Delaware, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Sironix Renewables, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation and Argonne National Laboratory.
“Our team created a soap molecule made from natural products, like soybeans, coconut and corn, that works better than regular soaps and is better for the environment,” said Paul Dauenhauer, a University of Minnesota associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science and a co-author of the study. “This research could have a major impact on the multibillion-dollar cleaning products industry.”
Conventional soaps and detergents are viewed as environmentally unfriendly because they are made from fossil fuels. When formulated into shampoos, hand soaps, or dishwashing detergents, these soaps are mixed with many additional difficult-to-pronounce and harmful chemicals that are washed down the drain.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, researchers from the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation developed a new chemical process to combine fatty acids from soybeans or coconut and sugar-derived rings from corn to make a renewable soap molecule called Oleo-Furan-Surfactant (OFS). They found that OFS worked well in cold water where conventional soaps become cloudy and gooey rendering them unusable. Additionally, OFS soaps were shown to form soap particles (called micelles) necessary for cleaning applications at low concentrations, which significantly reduces the environmental impact on rivers and lakes.
The new renewable OFS soap was also engineered to work in extremely hard water conditions. For many locations around the world, minerals in the water bind with conventional soaps and turn them into solid goo.
“I think everybody has had the problem of trying to get shampoo out of their hair in hard water—it just doesn’t come out,” said Dauenhauer.
To combat this problem, most existing soaps and detergents add an array of additional chemicals, called chelants, to grab these minerals and prevent them from interfering with soap molecules. This problem has led to a long list of extra chemical ingredients in most conventional cleaning products, many of which are harmful to the environment.
The new OFS soap eliminates the hard water problem by using a naturally derived source that does not bind strongly to minerals in water. The researchers found that OFS molecules were shown to form soap particles (micelles) even at 100 times the conventional hard water conditions. As a result, a cleaning product’s ingredient list could be significantly simplified.
“The impact of OFS soaps will be greater than their detergent performance,” said University of Minnesota chemical engineering and materials science graduate student Kristeen Joseph. “OFS is made from straight carbon chains derived from soybeans or coconut which can readily biodegrade. These are really the perfect soap molecules.”
The researchers also use nanoparticle catalysts to optimize the soap structure for foaming ability and other cleaning capabilities. In addition to biodegradability and cleaning performance, OFS was shown to foam with the consistency of conventional detergents, which means it could directly replace soaps in existing equipment such as washing machines, dishwashers, and consumer products.
The invention of new soap technology is part of a larger mission of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation (CCEI), a U.S. Department of Energy – Energy Frontier Research Center led by the University of Delaware. Initiated in 2009, the CCEI has focused on transformational catalytic technology to produce renewable chemicals and biofuels from natural biomass sources.
Learn more: Researchers invent ‘perfect’ soap molecule
The University of Delaware (colloquially “UD”) is the largest university in Delaware.
The main campus is in Newark, with satellite campuses in Dover, Wilmington, Lewes, and Georgetown. It is medium-sized – approximately 16,000 undergraduate and 3,500 graduate students. Although UD receives public funding for being a land-grant, sea-grant, space-grant and urban-grant state-supported research institution, it is also privately chartered.
As of 2012, the school’s endowment is valued at about US$ 1.09 billion. Delaware has been labeled one of the “Public Ivies,” a publicly funded university considered as providing a quality of education comparable to those of the Ivy League.
UD is classified as a research university with very high research activity by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. The university’s programs in engineering, science, business, hospitality management, education, urban affairs and public policy, public administration, agriculture, history, chemical and biomolecular engineering, chemistry and biochemistry have been highly ranked with some drawing from the historically strong presence of the nation’s chemical and pharmaceutical industries in the state of Delaware, such as DuPont and W. L. Gore and Associates. It is one of only four schools in North America with a major in art conservation. UD was the first American university to begin a study abroad program.
The school from which the university grew was founded in 1743, making it one of the oldest in the nation. However, UD was not chartered as an institution of higher learning until 1833. Its original class of ten students included George Read, Thomas McKean, and James Smith, all three of whom would go on to sign the Declaration of Independence.
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Nanotechnology offers new approach to increasing storage ability of dielectric capacitors
For Back to the Future fans, this week marked a milestone that took three decades to reach.
Oct. 21, 2015, was the day that Doc Brown and Marty McFly landed in the future in their DeLorean, with time travel made possible by a “flux capacitor.”
While the flux capacitor still conjures sci-fi images, capacitors are now key components of portable electronics, computing systems, and electric vehicles.
In contrast to batteries, which offer high storage capacity but slow delivery of energy, capacitors provide fast delivery but poor storage capacity.
A great deal of effort has been devoted to improving this feature — known as energy density — of dielectric capacitors, which comprise an insulating material sandwiched between two conducting metal plates.
The work is reported in a paper, “Dielectric Capacitors with Three-Dimensional Nanoscale Interdigital Electrodes for Energy Storage,” published in Science Advances, the first open-access, online-only journal of AAAS.
“With our approach, we achieved an energy density of about two watts per kilogram, which is significantly higher than that of other dielectric capacitor structures reported in the literature,” says Bingqing Wei, professor of mechanical engineering at UD.
“To our knowledge, this is the first time that 3D nanoscale interdigital electrodes have been realized in practice,” he adds. “With their high surface area relative to their size, carbon nanotubes embedded in uniquely designed and structured 3D architectures have enabled us to address the low ability of dielectric capacitors to store energy.”
Read more: Capacitor breakthrough
Fewer than three million monarch butterflies have shown up so far this year
ON the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.
This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.
“It does not look good,” said Lincoln P. Brower, a monarch expert at Sweet Briar College.
It is only the latest bad news about the dramatic decline of insect populations.
Another insect in serious trouble is the wild bee, which has thousands of species. Nicotine-based pesticides called neonicotinoids are implicated in their decline, but even if they were no longer used, experts say, bees, monarchs and many other species of insect would still be in serious trouble.
That’s because of another major factor that has not been widely recognized: the precipitous loss of native vegetation across the United States.
“There’s no question that the loss of habitat is huge,” said Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at the University of Delaware, who has long warned of the perils of disappearing insects. “We notice the monarch and bees because they are iconic insects,” he said. “But what do you think is happening to everything else?”
A big part of it is the way the United States farms. As the price of corn has soared in recent years, driven by federal subsidies for biofuels, farmers have expanded their fields. That has meant plowing every scrap of earth that can grow a corn plant, including millions of acres of land once reserved in a federal program for conservation purposes.
Another major cause is farming with Roundup, a herbicide that kills virtually all plants except crops that are genetically modified to survive it.
As a result, millions of acres of native plants, especially milkweed, an important source of nectar for many species, and vital for monarch butterfly larvae, have been wiped out. One study showed that Iowa has lost almost 60 percent of its milkweed, and another found 90 percent was gone. “The agricultural landscape has been sterilized,” said Dr. Brower.
The loss of bugs is no small matter. Insects help stitch together the web of life with essential services, breaking plants down into organic matter, for example, and dispersing seeds. They are a prime source of food for birds. Critically, some 80 percent of our food crops are pollinated by insects, primarily the 4,000 or so species of the flying dust mops called bees. “All of them are in trouble,” said Marla Spivak, a professor of apiculture at the University of Minnesota.
Farm fields are not the only problem.