Nav: Home

New device could cut costs on household products, pharmaceuticals

April 12, 2013

Sometimes cost saving comes in nanoscale packages.

A new procedure that thickens and thins fluid at the micron level could save consumers and manufacturers money, particularly for soap products that depend on certain molecules to effectively deal with grease and dirt. Researchers at the University of Washington published their findings online April 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Read the back of most shampoos and dishwashing detergents and you'll find the word "surfactant" in the list of active ingredients. Surfactant molecules are tiny, yet they are the reason dish soap can attack an oily spot and shampoo can rid the scalp of grease.

Surfactant molecules are made up of two main parts, a head and a tail. Heads are attracted to water, while the tails are oil-soluble. This unique structure helps them break down and penetrate grease and oil while immersed in water. It also makes the soaps, shampoos and detergents thicker, or more viscous.

Soap manufacturers add organic and synthetic surfactants - and often a slew of other ingredients - to their products to achieve a desired thickness and to help remove grease and dirt. These extra ingredients add volume to the soap products, which then cost more to manufacture, package and ship, ultimately shifting more costs to consumers, said Amy Shen, a UW associate professor of mechanical engineering and lead author of the paper.

The research team's design could create the same thickening results without having to add extra ingredients.

"Our flow procedure can potentially help companies and consumers save a lot of money," Shen said. "This way, companies don't have to add too many surfactants to their products."

Researchers found that when they manipulated the flow of a liquid through microscopic channels, the resulting substance became thicker. Now, scientists add a lot of salt, or alter the temperature and level of acidity to induce this change, but these methods can be expensive and more toxic, Shen said.

The team built a palm-sized tool called a microfluidics device that lets researchers pump water mixed with a little detergent and salt through a series of vertical posts. The distance between posts is about one-tenth the size of a single human hair. That micron-sized gap squeezes the liquid as it flows, causing it to quickly deform. The end result is a gel-like substance that's more viscous and elastic.

When researchers looked at high-resolution images of the end product, they saw a series of wormlike rods attaching and intermingling with each other, creating an entangled web. This structure stayed intact after the procedure was complete, which suggests this process can create a permanent, scaffold-like network that could prove useful for biological applications, Shen said. She is collaborating with other UW researchers to try to create stable structures that could house enzymes and other biomarkers for detecting certain diseases.

Shen and her team also discovered that when they pumped a thicker, more elastic fluid through the device, the opposite effect happened - the gel became thinner and more porous. This could be useful in biomedical applications, Shen said, though it hasn't yet been tested. In theory, a semi-solid gel could be injected into veins, then transform into a thinner liquid, delivering drugs throughout the body.

Researchers hope one eventual outcome will be a scaled-up industrial design of their microfluidics device that could help manufacturers churn out soap products that aren't filled with an excess of added materials. Shen has presented her initial findings at Procter & Gamble Co.

"What we can provide are all of the important parameters for operating conditions so companies can have an industrial design to achieve their goals," Shen said.
-end-
Research collaborators are Joshua Cardiel and Ya Zhao, UW doctoral students in mechanical engineering; Alice Dohnalkova, senior research scientist at Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.; and Neville Dubash and Perry Cheung, former post-doctoral researchers in mechanical engineering.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

For more information, contact Shen at amyshen@uw.edu or 206-708-3411.

Read the paper: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/04/03/1215353110.abstract?sid=5d4db223-06e2-45a1-89ce-e50205986032

Shen's faculty webpage: http://www.me.washington.edu/research/faculty/amyshen/index.php

Shen's lab homepage: http://depts.washington.edu/softmatt/

University of Washington

Related Consumers Articles:

What's in a name? For young Chinese consumers, it's about culture mixing
Younger, more cosmopolitan Chinese consumers tend to favor brand translations that keep both the sound and the meaning of the original name, says U. of I. business professor and branding expert Carlos J.
Why do consumers participate in 'green' programs?
From recycling to reusing hotel towels, consumers who participate in a company's 'green' program are more satisfied with its service, finds a new study co-led by a Michigan State University researcher.
Consumers care about carbon footprint
How much do consumers care about the carbon footprint of the products they buy?
Consumers have huge environmental impact
You won't make big cuts in your environmental impact by taking shorter showers or turning out the lights.
Consumers' preferences for foliage plant attributes
Experiments investigated the effect of plant attributes on consumers' likelihood of purchasing indoor foliage plants.
New study finds adult fresh pear consumers had a lower body weight than non-pear consumers
The epidemiologic study, led by Carol O'Neil of the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, used a nationally representative analytic sample to examine the association of fresh pear consumption with nutrient intake, nutrient adequacy, diet quality, and cardiovascular risk factors in adults.
How much do consumers know about new sunscreen labels?
Sunscreen labels may still be confusing to consumers, with only 43 percent of those surveyed understanding the definition of the sun protection factor value, according to the results of a small study published in a research letter online by JAMA Dermatology.
Saving money: Do consumers spend less if they think about the future?
Why is it so hard for consumers to save money?
When are consumers more likely to rely on feelings to make decisions?
Why do some consumers make choices based on their feelings instead of rational assessments?
How are ordinary consumers transforming the fashion business?
One of the most important shifts of the 21st century is the ability of consumers to participate in markets they love such as music and fashion.

Related Consumers Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Don't Fear Math
Why do many of us hate, even fear math? Why are we convinced we're bad at it? This hour, TED speakers explore the myths we tell ourselves and how changing our approach can unlock the beauty of math. Guests include budgeting specialist Phylecia Jones, mathematician and educator Dan Finkel, math teacher Eddie Woo, educator Masha Gershman, and radio personality and eternal math nerd Adam Spencer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#518 With Genetic Knowledge Comes the Need for Counselling
This week we delve into genetic testing - for yourself and your future children. We speak with Jane Tiller, lawyer and genetic counsellor, about genetic tests that are available to the public, and what to do with the results of these tests. And we talk with Noam Shomron, associate professor at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, about technological advancements his lab has made in the genetic testing of fetuses.