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Bubble Trouble: No More Shampoo Goo, Via a Nifty Biobased Chemical Technology

Some of the latest advances in biobased shampoos.

Mnet 124986 Shampoo

If you find yourself among the 79 percent of people who “agree that they consider themselves an environmentally conscious person,” you’ve probably stayed up nights in recent years wondering what the heck to do with the swamp of dubious chemicals in your hair known benignly as shampoo.

But if you are among the 75 percent of people who take no action on your environmental concerns beyond recycling and turning off lights to save energy, we’ve got a nice opportunity for you coming down the pikeway.

But first, a little background on why there’s stew of chemicals in shampoo. A lot has to do with hard water. Hard water, you’ll recall, is water with a high mineral content, particularly calcium and magnesium. As Hair Buddha explains:

After many washes, minerals dissolved in the hard water create a scaly film on the hair. This prevents the moisture from entering the hair. The result is dry, dull, tangly, and strange coloured hair. Hard water can also cause build up on the scalp, causing a dandruff-like condition to form.

It gets worse.

When you wash with hard water you’ll find that lathers are hard to come by, and you can’t get the darn shampoo out of your hair. That’s because the soap molecule, while it binds with and pulls off the oil and dirt molecules that shampoo is supposed to remove, also binds with the minerals in the water, and stays on your head far too resolutely.

One of the chemicals deployed as a chelating agent, to counteract this effect, is Tetrasodium EDTA, made from formaldehyde, ethylenediamine and cyanide. It’s not carcinogenic, but it’s a sketchy material that doesn’t do much for wastewater quality.

Here’s something new from the advanced bioeconomy

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. 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.

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. 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.

Mnet 124987 Shampoomolecules

Not just better for the environment: better performance

Perhaps the reason that 79 percent of people consider themselves environmentally aware but don't do much about it is that there’s rarely a performance benefit. You can put solor on your roof, and you will feel great and may even save a dollar in the long run, but you get the same electricity you always did, in terms of running machines.

But here’s a different brand of soap, if you will. As the researchers report:

Modern variations of surfactants based on fossil fuel precursors exhibit performance limitations inherent to their molecular structure. The breadth of performance targets is sufficiently large that modern surfactant structures cannot be independently optimized for all properties, requiring the use of substantial additives for effective application.

So, you can get better performance (or require less complex a series of additives) with bio-based. Chalk up another win for the bioeconomy.

Where can you buy this?

Naturally, nowhere. It’s in the lab, just appearing in journals now. Dont stop washing your hair with today’s shampoos just yet. But help is on the way, and we’ll keep track of the path to scale.

Did you say nanotechnology?

Well, no. But we should have mentioned it. No invention is worth anything nowadays without a nano or two in there somewhere. We’re suprised Starbucks hasn’t launched a Nano Latte.

Here, 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.

Clearing up that mystery.

More on the story.

To read the paper, “Tunable Oleo-Furan Surfactants by Acylation of Renewable Furans,” visit the ACS Central Science website, here.

Jim Lane is the editor of Biofuels Digest.

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