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New research to make shampoos and washing powder eco-friendly


Scientists at the University of Bath are beginning research to find a new chemical based on plant oils and sugar which would make washing powder, shampoos and soaps less damaging to the environment.

Researchers from the University’s Chemical Engineering Department have been given a £95,000 grant to develop a new complex chemical reaction which would produce a range of molecules that could replace the petroleum-based chemicals used now in many cleaning materials.

Household detergents used in sinks, baths and washing machines wash into the sewers after use and from there into rivers and the sea. Because the petroleum-based chemical in them do not completely degrade, this means that pollutants can build up, damaging the natural habitat of water-based plants and creatures.

Although in recent years makers of cleaning materials have done a great deal to reduce this source of pollution, some materials used in cleaning products can still be harmful.

Dr Alexei Lapkin from the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Bath, with colleagues from Cardiff University and the University of Rostock in Germany, will begin the three-year project in October to look at developing completely a new chemical reaction and how to go about using it practically.

The researchers intend to use natural materials such as compounds derived from seed oils and sugar to replace the petroleum-based products used now. This organic compound will break down completely and naturally in rivers and the sea.

"People sometimes do not realise that the everyday household cleaning material like soap, shampoo and washing powder can pollute the seas," said Dr Lapkin.

"Part of the solution is to change the nature of some of the molecules used in these products to totally biodegradable materials. This grant gives us the chance to develop a new chemical route to such materials.

"The grant is just part of a lot of excellent work going on at the University in the green chemistry and green chemical technology areas to improve our environment and to ensure that future chemical products and technologies are totally environmentally benign."

The grant is one of two recently awarded to the University of Bath by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for green chemistry announced recently. The other grant, to the Chemistry Department for £194,000, will allow researchers to develop ways of reducing the amount of toxic phosphor-containing waste produced in industrial reactions.

There are many chemical reactions traditionally used in industry that make use of chemical reagents that present considerable environmental hazards. A lot of effort is then required to make these safe. Professor John Williams and Dr Mike Whittlesey at the University of Bath are working on a way to change a particular chemical reaction so that instead of compounds containing phosphorus being the by-product, harmless water will be produced which will not need to be made safe.

The two grants are the latest in a series awarded to the University of Bath for green chemistry, with a total value of more than £1.6m. Previous grants include:
  • Over the past three years three grants were given to the Department of Chemical Engineering to work on safer and cleaner ways for industry to make its products. These projects range from developing new technology for producing hydrogen as an energy supply, to developing small microchannel reactors for pharmaceutical and speciality chemicals industries, moving towards a time when no harmful by-products are produced during industrial production.

  • Researchers in Chemical Engineering received additional funding from European Union to build a demonstration facility to showcase the benefits of small and highly efficient microchannel reactors that can reduce the amount of by-products from industrial processes. This facility will be built over the next 18 months.

  • The Department of Chemistry is also active in the area of green and sustainable chemistry. Professor Matthew Davidson was recently awarded a £550,000 LINK Sustainable Technologies Initiative (STI) grant to undertake research into the development of new environmentally and biologically benign catalysts and processes for polyether and polyester synthesis, with applications in biomedical materials and high-tech adhesives. His research team has also recently received funding from The Crystal Faraday Partnership for a collaborative project with Johnson Matthey Catalysts aimed at using low-quality feedstocks to make diesel fuel.

Tony Trueman | University of Bath
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