LOWELL -- If you ever wonder why many male fish have female parts growing on them these days, Zarif Farhana Mohd Aris suggests you look to your laundry baskets and the dishes in your kitchen.
That's because many detergents and other household products contain what's called nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs. Though effective as cleaning agents, NPEs are toxic substances that degrade into even more toxic compounds when entering the ecosystem and they work as estrogen-mimicking endocrine disruptors, says Mohd Aris, a Ph.D. candidate in plastics engineering at UMass Lowell. NPEs affect not only aquatic creatures but also humans who eat them.
But doing the laundry doesn't have to be such a dirty business. Mohd Aris and her fellow researchers at UMass Lowell say they have found a solution in bacteria-generated polysaccharide -- which scientists believe is responsible for the sudden disappearance of oil plumes in the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 massive spill at British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon rig. If they can use polysaccharide derived from apple and orange peels that would otherwise go into the trash, they could make greener and inexpensive detergents that can compete with conventional ones in the stores.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency is betting on the UMass Lowell researchers' success, providing the team $90,000 to help perfect the prototype into a commercially marketable product.
"We got fired up," Vishal Bavishi, a team member pursuing a master's degree in plastics engineering, said of winning the competitive funding.
A group of plastics engineering students at UMass Lowell has won the EPA's People, Prosperity and the Planet award, securing up to $90,000 for its research. The team first applied for the award -- which goes to "innovative solutions to some of today's toughest public health and environmental challenges," according to the EPA -- a year ago and won $15,000 in Phase I funding. They worked to turn the idea into something more tangible, and then applied for the second phase of the research.
The UMass Lowell team, which has conducted the research under the guidance of Ramaswamy Nagarajan, associate professor at the Department of Plastic Engineering, was among the 45 university and college groups that the EPA invited to Washington to present their projects to compete for Phase II funding. In the end, only seven were chosen for the award.
Mohd Aris, a Dracut resident who will use the team project for her thesis, said their competitors came from top schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University.
"We never thought we could win," she said. "Our team worked really hard."
What interested the plastics engineering students in the detergent research is the fact that polysaccharide is polymer. In 2010, scientists figured that naturally existing oil-eating bacteria in the Gulf of Mexico made the plumes disappear by releasing polysaccharide to emulsify oil and water, according to Nagarajan. The UMass Lowell students focused on the polysaccharide's role as a surfactant -- a key ingredient in detergents and other products that reduces the surface tension of liquid. NPE is a surfactant.
Because NPEs are inexpensive, the team knew whatever they make would to have to be a low-cost alternative, Nagarajan said. They also wanted to avoid deriving surfactant from edible parts of food, such as coconut, which is often used in so-called green cleaners, Nagarajan said. So the students turned their attention to fruit peels and algae as the source of polysaccharide.
The team will now work to improve their surfactant by attaching different chemical units to parent polysaccharide molecules, said Joshna Chittigori, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry from Lowell. Chittigori said the team wants to create a product that works well on various types of dirt and dissolves well in water.
In the meantime, Michael Magaletta, a plastics-engineering major from Derry, N.H., who will be junior in fall, is studying the lifecycle of polymers -- how they are formed and how they are broken down. He said he hopes to gain a better understanding of how products affect the environment as they move through the ecosystem.