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Seaweed-inspired technology could make self-cleaning surfaces a reality


Unilever and Innova Partnerships are exploring the cleaning potential of Lactam, an organic compound that mimics seaweed’s unique ability to stop bacteria growing and spreading. Alongside uses in the home, it could make self-cleaning banknotes and medical devices a reality.

Seaweed swaying in the ocean

Imagine if you didn’t need elbow grease to tackle mouldy build-ups on bathroom tiles or awkward-to-reach parts of the dishwasher and washing machine. Imagine if those household surfaces could help to clean themselves.

Thanks to a new innovative technology, those cleaning wishes could come true.

Working together as joint venture company, Penrhos Bio, the team is exploring the cleaning power of an organic compound called Lactam that puts a halt to the bacterial contamination that causes mould to grow in the first place.

And the inspiration for this breakthrough comes from a surprising natural source: seaweed.

Inspired by seaweed’s natural cleaning superpower

Research scientists discovered that the seaweed species, Delisea Pulchra has an amazing natural chemical defence mechanism that protects it from bacterial contamination. It can disrupt the bacteria’s communication systems, stopping them from talking to each other and forming biofilms (a collection of micro-organisms that grow on many surfaces) which they then use to spread and grow.

“In dirty waters, seaweed biology blocks the communication between bacteria so that it cannot colonise and build up on healthy surfaces of the plant,” explains Unilever’s R&D Programme Director of Biotechnology and Biosourcing, Dr Neil Parry.

Now, after ten years of extensive research into this biological superpower, “we have successfully replicated this in the lab as Lactam, an organic compound developed from natural chemicals in seaweed. And we’re ready to start trialling it in Unilever cleaning products,” Neil adds.

Just like its seaweed sibling, Lactam is biodegradable. And just like its ocean counterpart, it has the ability to control potential contamination using signalling methods used in nature.

The possibilities beyond the bathroom sink

Bathroom sinks, kitchen counter tops, the clothes we wear when we walk the dog are constantly being challenged by bacterial contamination. And we humans are too – more than 80% of bacterial infections in people are estimated to involve the formation of biofilms.

What’s exciting about Lactam is that it not only stops bacteria growing biofilms, it also works on fungi, yeast and algae. And it’s this development that pushes Lactam’s potential beyond household cleaning products into a myriad of other sectors.

“The uses of this unique technology are almost limitless,” says Unilever’s Vice President for Science & Technology, Unilever Homecare, Dr Jon Hague, including tackling some of the biggest societal and environmental challenges of the 21st century where microbial biofilms are commonplace.

The technology could help bank notes stay as mint clean as the day they first went into circulation
The technology could help bank notes stay as mint clean as the day they first went into circulation

Circulating bank notes, for example, could move from user to user and pocket to pocket, contamination free; boats could be protected from slime and fouling; the surfaces of medical instruments could clean themselves.

“This is such an exciting and innovative space,” acknowledges Professor Steve Howell, founder of Innova Partnerships and co-owner of Unilever’s joint venture, Penrhos Bio.

Licence partners have already expressed an interest in banknote and dental applications. “But there are so many more uses that this technology could benefit,” he adds.

The technology is set to go into consumer trials of Unilever cleaning products later this year, with the aim of making it available shortly afterwards – but not just for Unilever brands. “We recognise what this technology can represent at scale for many sectors outside Unilever’s portfolio,” says Jon. “We believe we have a responsibility to share it.”

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