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A ‘Greener’ Approach to Cleaning

Researchers Win $25K Grant to Commercialize Technology

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Asst. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Plastics engineering Asst. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan, along with graduate students Zarif Farhana, Ryan Bouldin and Vishal Bavishi and Asst. Prof. Bridgette Budhlall of Plastics Engineering, are developing non-toxic, bio-based and biodegradable surfactants using “greener” materials and synthetic routes.

The team joins two other groups of University researchers — led by Assoc. Prof. Sanjeev Manohar of Chemical Engineering and Assoc. Prof. Joel Therrien of Electrical and Computer Engineering — that have won three of this year’s nine grants from the UMass Commercial Ventures & Intellectual Property (CVIP) Technology Development Fund. The rest of the awardees are faculty members from the Amherst, Dartmouth and Worcester campuses.

The grants, which amount to $25,000 each, are given by the UMass President’s Office to professors with the best chances of turning their technologies into commercial success.

Environmentally Friendly Detergents

Surfactants are surface-active substances commonly found in laundry or dishwashing detergents. They help remove dirt, oil, grease, food and other organic compounds from clothes and dishes by making the dirt and oil dissolve more readily in water during washing.

“After use, some of the commercially available surfactants are either non-biodegradable or they break down to produce more toxic products such as nonylphenol ethoxylates, or NPEs,” says Nagarajan. “These persistent chemical compounds can build up in rivers and streams, poisoning aquatic life. They can also find their way up the food chain to humans. NPEs have been linked to developmental and reproductive disorders and are suspected of disrupting the body’s hormone system.”

Although NPEs have been phased out of detergents in Europe and Canada, only a few states in the U.S. have implemented this requirement, he says.

The Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) awarded a seed grant to the team to determine if the bio-based surfactants formulated by the researchers can help eliminate NPEs from laundry operations. These surfactants are synthesized from renewable resources, such as modified chitosan (from shells of crabs and shrimp), pectin (from the cell walls of plants and fruits) and algae.

“We envision this technology to eventually replace NPEs in commercial products such as household laundry detergents, industrial cleaners, personal care products, cosmetics, food processing, paint and coatings,” says Nagarajan.

The team will use the CVIP grant to scale up the process and evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of bio-based surfactants at TURI’s Green Cleaning Lab at UMass Lowell.

“In addition, we will work with a Massachusetts-based surfactant manufacturer to validate the performance of these NPE-free surfactants in commercial and residential laundry detergents,” says Nagarajan.