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August 3, 2015

Surfactants: Building greener chemicals

Bio-inspired surfactants could 'green' many common household products

From cleaning supplies to pharmaceuticals, surfactants are the compounds that make your soap bubbly, your paint spread smoothly and your medication dissolve more easily. Surfactants can be found everywhere because of their unique dispersion ability that helps lower the repulsive forces between liquids and solids or two non-mixing liquids (think oil and water).

Most surfactants are currently made from non-renewable petroleum sources and many of these surfactants don't breakdown easily after they are discarded. Some can persist in the environment for decades. Their widespread use and environmental persistence has raised concerns about toxicity.

At the University of Arizona, Jeanne Pemberton and her cross-disciplinary team work to create new "green" surfactants based on sugars that are generally known as glycolipids. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Pemberton and her team are exploring the recent discovery of a versatile synthesis that allows production of many different types of glycolipids in large quantities. Some of these glycolipids are modeled after naturally occurring biosurfactants and some can be produced relatively inexpensively using renewable natural resources. Through computational methods, the team determines which glycolipids might have the most fitting surfactant properties as targets for synthesis and testing.

Aside from potentially benefitting the environment and the economy, this project serves as a platform for the cross-disciplinary training of various types of researchers. These researchers include current postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, some of whom are participating in internships at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, as well as high school students and teachers engaging in green chemistry research and progressive green chemistry classroom curricula.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1339597, Molecular Design, Synthesis and Characterization of Green Glycolipid Surfactants. It was funded through the NSF/EPA program, Networks for Sustainable Molecular Design and Synthesis (NSMDS).

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.