Hand washing is the single most effective thing one can do to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Image: Michigan State Univ.Dipping one’s hands in frothy, soapy water and washing is a simple process. But there are chemical compounds behind what allows soaps and detergents to be effective, namely surfactants.

Surfactants are compounds with the unique ability to reduce surface tension between liquids and solids, or two non-mixing liquids, and facilitate spreading.

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), “most surfactants are currently made from nonrenewable petroleum sources.” But a research team from the Univ. of Arizona, with $4.5 million support from the NSF, is exploring the efficacy of green surfactants.

Currently, the surfactants used are made by a chemical synthesis approach, and have been for many years, said Jeanne Pemberton, an analytical chemist at the university.

“Many of them are very toxic, and have long persistence rates in the environment, some up to 70 to 100 years,” she said.

From cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to agricultural products and paint, surfactants are ubiquitous in consumer and industrial areas. The compounds make up a multi-billion-dollar market, according to the NSF.

Taking cues from surfactants made by common bacteria, the Univ. of Arizona research team is exploring new biosurfactants based on sugars generally referred to as glycolipids. The sugar structure ensure the surfactants are biodegradable.

“Because sugars are all around us in nature, there are processes that we hope will lead us to the production of these materials using renewable resources,” said Pemberton. But “the biggest limitation of their use today is the fact that they’re very difficult to produce in large quantities.”

Currently, the research team is exploring ways to scale-up synthesis and customize the biosurfactants’ uses.

“That’s very exciting because it gives you the opportunity to tailor their molecular properties for the applications that you need them for, and control their properties by control of molecular structure,” Pemberton said.

According to the NSF, the research’s estimated end date is Aug. 31, 2017.

“We’re just sort of skimming the surface with biosurfactants that we’ve studied so far,” said Raina Maier, an environmental microbiologist with the university and a co-principal investigator of the study. “I think this field is wide open for new discovers of new classes of biosurfactants.”

Maier, according to the NSF, sees surfactants first permeating the market in areas such as high-end cosmetics and cleansers for medical instruments.

In 2013, Pemberton and Maier co-founded GlycoSurf, a startup company bringing biosurfactants to the market.

In March 2015, the company announced they were poised to enter the marketplace after finalizing an exclusive license agreement for a novel chemical synthesis of glycolipids technology.

CEO Chett Boxley said the sugar-based biosurfactants the company produces are more than 95% pure. The company will focus on products, such as anti-aging creams and sunscreens. 

According to the company, in 2008, the world produced 13 million tons of surfactants. By 2018, the surfactant market will generate revenues of more than $41 billion.


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