It was exactly 66 years ago, in October 1946, that multinational Procter & Gamble (P&G) unveiled Tide, a brand that even now is synonymous with laundry detergents. Today we take detergents for granted, insisting on the most powerful cleaning agents, but also expecting their washing products to be easy to use, lightweight, low energy users, safe for the environment and reasonably priced. It's a full menu, but one that P&G recently tried to meet by bringing in expertise from student researchers across Europe.
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"We wanted to create more sustainable detergents, blending our historical know-how with ideas from young European scientists to really build a new revolutionary product," says Johan Smets, a P&G research fellow. Smets helped with the start of Bioseal, a project funded by the European Union (EU)'s programme of support for the mobility of researchers known as Marie Curie Actions (MCAs). The project set up fellowships for seven PhD students to design more effective and environmentally friendly detergents.
The four year project, which began in November 2005, received €1.04 million in EU funding, and helped link academic and commercial partners from across Europe - including P&G and the universities of Birmingham in the UK, Minho in Portugal, Leuven in Belgium, and Graz in Austria - to design the detergent of the future. "We felt the best way to achieve this was with a Marie Curie programme that combined different centres of excellence with academic expertise to bring the product alive," says Smets, the project coordinator, P&G's former principal scientist in charge of developing novel technologies for consumer good products.
The research looked at a number of key issues for modern detergents:
Compaction: this reduces the environmental footprint by cutting packaging waste and increasing transport efficiency;
Enzymes: these biomolecules act as catalysts inside a washing machine. They are biodegradable, help reduce energy use by enabling lower washing temperatures and shorter washing cycles, and are derived from renewable sources;
Surfactants: these keep stains in the water and prevent their return to the fabric. But they are often derived from petroleum, and the research looked at developing naturally-derived surfactants.
Odours: crucial since perfume is often the top consideration for consumers.
"The project gave us new insights into how dirt and stains are encrusted in the fabric, and how chemistry stains faster and better," says Smets. By leveraging new enzyme technologies, a better understanding of cleaning phenomena at the fabric surface, and an improved understanding of the interplay between enzymes and surfactants in the detergent formulation, the Bioseal project delivered a detergent with increased environmental profile. "The result was a detergent prototype that delivered the same cleaning performance with just one third of the volume," Smets says.
But Bioseal did more than just produce a new detergent. It also helped train the students, resulting in 15 academic papers and two patents. After the project, the researchers found challenging jobs in academia and the chemical industry. They include: working for P&G; working for Danish enzyme supplier Danisco; doing research at the University of Gembloux on biosurfactants; completing a PhD at the University of Birmingham in the UK; working for a pharmaceutical company, Novartis, in Spain; working at an incubation centre at the University of Minho in Portugal, and working at the Austrian Centre of Industrial Biotechnology in Graz.
And by forging key relationships, it established a potential life-long network of academics. "Bioseal helped develop innovation at the interface of science and industry," says Smets, who says the experience of coaching such a variety of people and ideas was one of the most satisfying moments in his career. "We developed a strong scientific approach: knowledge and capability in Europe to innovate on sustainability combined with better products for our customer."