Imperial, Durham University, and Procter & Gamble have launched a research programme to help create a new generation of sustainable cleaning products.
Supported by funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Procter & Gamble, researchers at the universities will develop techniques for formulating advanced, sustainable cleaning products.
The programme is focused on supporting efforts by Procter & Gamble (P&G) and the entire sector to address environmental challenges.
It will look for ways to rethink cleaning products and processes so that they use sustainably sourced ingredients and effectively wash dishes and laundry, for example, with minimal water, heat and electricity.
The programme, supported by EPSRC via the Prosperity Partnership scheme, extends both universities’ existing strategic relationship with P&G. Professor João Cabral in Imperial’s Department of Chemical Engineering, who is leading Imperial’s team, said the investment in UK university research by the multinational company reflects the strength of formulation physical-chemistry and engineering expertise in the UK.
The research will look for ways to effectively wash dishes and laundry with minimal water, heat and electricity.
“The ‘structured products’ sector is one of the largest industrial sectors in the UK and is internationally leading. Imperial can make a transformative contribution to this sector, and by joining forces with P&G and Durham University we can help address sustainability challenges too large and inter-disciplinary to be tackled by one team or department,” he said.
The partnership will also allow teams to benefit from collaborative innovation spaces such as the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace, which supports creative problem-solving with purpose-designed prototyping and fabrication workshops, wet-lab space, and technical training.
Manufacturers of fast-moving consumer goods including cleaning products are increasingly driven by social responsibility, evolving government regulations and consumer demand to focus on sustainability. P&G is committed to reducing manufacturing emissions by 50% and becoming carbon neutral for the decade across its operations by 2030.
Let’s say we have 20 different ingredients, and we can use them at varying levels. The possible combinations come into the trillions, which means optimising the formulation is impossible with conventional experimentation. Professor João Cabral Department of Chemical Engineering
Professor Cabral believes that the effort to address global sustainability challenges requires advanced modelling and experimental techniques in order to allow researchers and product developers to create superior and more sustainable products without relying on trial and error.
“If you look at a typical cleaning product, you’ll see 20-odd ingredients that each plays some kind of role – one that’s a good cleaner, one that gives it a nice fragrance, one that increases viscosity, one that makes it stable. Each has been added to play a particular role, but they interact at the molecular level in extremely complex ways to determine the qualities of the final product,” he said.
“Let’s say we have 20 different ingredients, and we can use them at five different levels (1,2,3,4, or 5%). If you put together all the possible combinations, they come into the trillions, which means optimising the formulation is impossible with a conventional experimental approach.”
The researchers will combine techniques in physical-chemistry, analytics, modelling and simulation, chemical engineering design, to develop tools that predict the functional properties of chemical formulations without requiring trial and error. Microfluidics, for example, allows researchers to understand the behaviour of fluids by manipulating very small samples.
“Microfluidic circuits have capillaries that are as thin as a hair and volumes that are orders of magnitude smaller than a single drop. We use these to effectively navigate across the huge parameter space and try to look for optimal conditions, so in a much more determined way than by simply mapping the entire possible space,” Professor Cabral explained.
Other techniques include the use of X-rays to observe the behaviour of fluids combined with computer simulations and algorithms to help researchers identify chemicals and formulations worthy of further investigation.
The research could make it easier, for example, to replace a key ingredient with a functionally equivalent and naturally derived counterpart without years of research. It could also make it easier to develop more effective products and to tailor products for varying locales (e.g., with hard or soft water) and personal needs.
Imperial last year launched a major initiative, Transition to Zero Pollution, aimed at helping enable the radical shift in industrial systems, technologies and business models required to transition to a sustainable global society by applying more holistic thinking. The new Prosperity Partnership will help further this agenda.
In P&G I have never worked with a company that is so genuinely involved in a partnership, they really see this as us working together to try to crack these problems as a team. Professor João Cabral Department of Chemical Engineering
“An interesting thing that sometimes we miss is the fact that an efficiency gain of a few percent has a huge impact in terms of the footprint of a large-scale industry,” said Professor Cabral. “It’s not what we are aiming for, just a couple of percent, we’re aiming for game-changing ways of designing these materials. But even a few percent when you’re talking about several megatons of materials could be megaton of material that you’re saving.”
He continued: “The chemicals involved can be as complicated as many biomolecules but haven’t yet received the research effort that, for instance, bioanalytical research has. It’s very exciting really to partner in this way with Durham and P&G. In P&G I have never worked with a company that is so genuinely involved in a partnership, they really see this as us working together to try to crack these problems as a team. They are supporting us to look at very fundamental problems that they know will have great value in the medium to longer term. That’s the point of these Prosperity Partnerships, bringing together academic and industrial teams to take on large challenges in an integrated way.”
Professor Mark Wilson of Durham University’s Department of Chemistry said: “Global sustainability challenges demand transformative solutions. This project will use our expert understanding of the science and engineering behind household cleaning products to create experimental and theoretical tools that can unlock new formulations to help consumers use less water and energy whilst still achieving excellent results – enabling them to be both clean, and green.”
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