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Fan Part of Research Team That Creates Better Working, Environmentally Friendly Soap

Wei Fan

Wei Fan

Professor Wei Fan of the Chemical Engineering Department is part of a research team that has invented a new environmentally friendly soap molecule, made from renewable sources, that can reduce the number of harmful chemicals needed in soap products. Angela Nelson, writing in Mother Nature Network, said that “This new molecule may change cleaning products forever.” Fan was also a co-author of a journal article, recently published in the American Chemical Society's ACS Central Science, which explained the new discovery. Read the paper, “Tunable Oleo-Furan Surfactants by Acylation of Renewable Furans,” on the ACS Central Science website.

Professor Fan’s role in the research involved the use of an innovative solid catalyst that is crucial for making the soap work well in hard water and avoid the use of many environmentally damaging chemicals.

“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,” as Paul Dauenhauer, a former ChE faculty member at UMass Amherst who is now at the University of Minnesota  and a co-author of the study, said in a press release. “This research could have a major impact on the multibillion-dollar cleaning products industry.”

In Mother Nature Network, Nelson wrote that the new soap combines biodegradable ingredients to form a soap molecule known as oleo-furan-surfactant (OFS). “Researchers found that OFS worked well in cold water where conventional soaps become cloudy and gooey — basically making them unusable. Also, OFS soaps were shown to form soap particles (called micelles) necessary for cleaning at low concentrations, which reduces the environmental impact on water systems.”

The multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research study also showed that the new soap molecule worked better with hard water. If you have hard water, minerals in the water combine with most soaps and turn them into a solid gunk.

According to the Minnesota press release:  “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 form soap particles (micelles) even at 100 times the conventional hard water conditions, thus eliminating a long list of undesirable ingredients.

According to the ACS Central Science journal article, “An important advance in fluid surface control was the amphiphilic surfactant composed of coupled molecular structures (i.e., hydrophilic  and hydrophobic) to reduce surface tension between two distinct fluid  phases.”

However, implementation of simple surfactants has been hindered by the broad range of applications in water containing alkaline earth metals (i.e., hard water), which disrupt surfactant function and require extensive use of undesirable and expensive chelating additives.

“Here we show that sugar-derived furans can be linked with triglyceride-derived fatty acid chains via Friedel-Crafts acylation within single layer zeolite catalysts,” explained the researchers. “These alkylfuran surfactants independently suppress the effects of hard water while simultaneously permitting broad tenability of size, structure, and function, which can be optimized for superior capability for forming micelles and solubilizing in water.”

“A solid catalyst, called as zeolite, is critical for making the unique alkylfuran surfactant molecule,” explained Fan at UMass. “Development and use of such a zeolite is another discovery in the study.”

The Minnesota press release concluded that “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.” (November 2016)