Univ of Minnesota researchers develop safer, more effective molecule

Potential for numerous applications

New biobased molecule may wipe clean competition

CBN member Kristeen Joseph’s research is focused on developing a biobased surfactant molecule.  Joseph earned her Bachelors Degree in Chemical Engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai (India) in 2013. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota.CBN member and University of Minnesota Ph.D. candidate Kristeen Joseph is pursuing her dream of developing biobased alternatives that are safer, more effective, and potentially less expensive than traditional petroleum-based materials.

Joseph is part of a team, led by Paul Dauenhauer, a University of Minnesota associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, which has developed a biobased molecule -- known as an Oleo-Furan-Surfactant (OFS).  This new surfactant molecule can replace synthetic, petroleum-based molecules (benzene, which is classified by EPA as a known human carcinogen*) that are used in a wide-range of everyday products.  Some of these petroleum-based molecules have already been phased out in Europe.

“The OFS molecule is showing great promise in cleaning applications and has the potential to be used in paints, personal care products and more,” Joseph said.  “It’s exciting to see all the possible uses for this biobased alternative.”

Joseph began work on this project in October of 2016.  The researchers start with the base oil, like soy or any natural oil that contains triglyceride molecules.  Next, they obtain fatty acids through a process called hydrolysis.

“The research has grown into a full-fledged project with different branches,” Joseph said.  “We can tune the chemistry to change what the molecule looks like and develop different structures with different properties depending on the use.  We are also working on optimization and see a lot of potential for this molecule.”

One of the team members, Christoph Krumm, received a Department of Energy Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Grant for phase 1 of the project. The University of Minnesota patented the technology and licensed it to St. Paul, MN-based Sironix Renewables, founded by Krumm and Dauenhauer.

"Our team created a soap molecule made from natural products, like soybeans, coconut and corn, that works better than regular soaps and is better for the environment," Dauenhauer told Space Daily. "This research could have a major impact on the multibillion-dollar cleaning products industry."

Dauenhauer explained that the biobased molecule works very well in cold and hard water where traditional soap molecules become cloudy and gooey.

On the marketing side, Krumm is focusing on connecting with companies that need the technology.  He says they are exploring several options including licensing the technology to a company to manufacture.  In the meantime, the team will continue working to perfect the formulation using different oils for different end uses.

“We can make enough for testing and adjust the chemistry since different feedstocks have different qualities,” Krumm said.  “The fatty acids from soy oil worked well in a number of applications.”

The Collegiate Biobased Network is funded in part by the United Soybean Board and state soybean board checkoff programs.

*Sources:

EPA Benzene summary (PDF)

EPA, NCEA, Benzene web site