U researchers make renewable soap molecule

U researchers made a molecule that can clean better in hard water

Melissa Steinken

Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently created a renewable soap molecule for laundry detergents, hand soaps and even future makeup products.

Scientists in the Dauenhauer Research Group created the molecule that works better in hard water before it was licensed by a local startup company, Sironix Renewables. Their findings will be published in the next issue of the American Chemical Society’s journal.

“What we’ve invented is what I’d call the perfect soap molecule,” said Paul Dauenhauer, University chemical engineering and material science associate professor and project co-author.

Dauenhauer said the team aimed for a soap that could remove chemicals from hair or hands but also foams well.

Unlike soaps that come from petroleum bases, Dauenhauer’s molecule comes from renewable sources such as corn and soybeans.

The team collaborated with workers at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to use X-ray scattering tools to see how soap particles dispersed in liquid.

Meanwhile, the University team tested the molecule in hard water after a three-step process made it attractive to both water and oil, said Kristeen Joseph, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. student.

The soap molecule was added to pure, soft water before researchers added hard water impurities like calcium, Joseph said.

She said the team had to add around 50 times more impurities than usually found in hard water before the soap stopped working.

“The main selling point of this molecule is [that] it is extremely stable in hard water,” Joseph said.

Current laundry detergents have additives to keep hard water from interfering with the soap molecules that clean clothes.

But Joseph said the new molecule doesn’t need these additives, allowing for cheaper and more environmentally-friendly products.

Christoph Krumm, president and co-founder of Sironix Renewables said this technology is special because it is a renewable molecule yet still works well.

“If you consider what’s available now, there’s a vast majority of soaps and cleaners made from oil,” Krumm said.

For green chemistry, the research looks promising, said Paul Jackson, associate environmental studies professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Jackson said this molecule is uncommon given America’s history of building materials from petroleum-based chemicals.

“That was the material revelation of the past century and to [turn] that ship around is very, very challenging,” he said.

While the soap’s performance looks promising, Jackson said the team should work to evaluate its toxicity and effects when broken down on humans and nonhumans.

Researchers and Sironix Renewables hope to use the molecule in future products like detergents, makeup, shampoos and other soaps.