♪ MUSIC ♪ MILES O’BRIEN: We put them to work every day – every sink full of dishes, every load of laundry. But what is it that makes soap such a good cleaner? Try this word on for size – “surfactants.” JEANNE PEMBERTON: Cleaning supplies and detergents, laundry detergent, dish wash detergent, those are the very obvious ones. MILES O’BRIEN: But suds are just the tip of the chemical iceberg. JEANNE PEMBERTON: They reduce the surface tension of water to facilitate spreading. Some of the products that are used, that take advantage of those characteristics are paints and coatings, agricultural products where you want them, to say, to spread over the surface of a leaf or a plant part. MILES O’BRIEN: And cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals – the list goes on. But surfactants come at a price. JEANNE PEMBERTON: Currently, the surfactants that are used are made by chemical synthesis approaches and have been for many, many years, and many of them are very toxic and have long persistence rates in the environment, some up to 70 to 100 years. MILES O’BRIEN: With support from the National Science Foundation, analytical chemist Jeanne Pemberton and a team at the University of Arizona are looking to make a change. Inspired by surfactants made naturally by common bacteria, they are developing new ways to synthesize “bio-surfactants.” They’re not toxic. And because part of the molecule is made of sugar, they decompose quickly in the environment. JEANNE PEMBERTON: Because sugars are all around us in nature, there are processes that we hope will lead us to the production of these materials using renewable resources. MILES O’BRIEN: A switch to bio-surfactants sounds like a no-brainer. But it’s not that easy. JEANNE PEMBERTON: The biggest limitation to their use today is the fact that they’re very difficult to produce in large quantities. MILES O’BRIEN: Pemberton and company are working on new ways to scale up synthesis and customize the bio-surfactants for different uses. JEANNE PEMBERTON: And, that’s very exciting because it gives you the opportunity to tailor their molecular properties for the applications that you need them for, and control their properties by control of molecular structure. MILES O’BRIEN: Environmental microbiologist Raina Maier sees bio-inspired surfactants gaining market share first as “specialty chemicals,” like high-end cosmetics or cleansers for delicate medical instruments. But that’s just for starters. RAINA MAIER: We’re just sort of skimming the surface with the bio-surfactants that we’ve studied so far. I think this field is wide open for new discoveries of new classes of bio-surfactants. MILES O’BRIEN: Building greener chemicals today with an eye toward a cleaner future. That washes with me. For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien.