To market the technology, consumer goods giant Unilever and life sciences investment group Innova Partnerships have launched a joint-venture bioscience company, Penrhos Bio, to commercialise a technology that could turn self-cleaning surfaces into a reality. The world’s first breakthrough has come with the introduction of an organic compound called Lactam which can block, or prevent, bacteria and mould on everyday surfaces.
This patented technology is developed from natural chemicals in algae biology and has the potential to be used in a range of situations – from preventing fungal growth in washing machines and dishwashers to self-cleaning banknotes. The FT reports that “the technology, in which Unilever has so far invested £8m, takes a different approach from other attempts to create self-cleaning surfaces, which have focused on repelling oil or water, or in some cases on oxidising organic matter.”
Everyday items including clothing and kitchen surfaces are constantly challenged by bacterial contamination. Over 80% of bacterial infections in people are estimated to involve the formation of biofilms, a collection of microorganisms that grows on many surfaces. These microorganisms are formed and developed through bacterial communications systems, but now research has found that by disrupting these systems it’s possible to not only prevent them from growing in the first place but to keep the surfaces cleaner for longer.
Dr Neil Parry, R&D Programme Director – Biotechnology and Biosourcing, Unilever, explained: “This technology replicates the natural cleaning process of seaweed; keeping surfaces clean and repelling unwanted invaders from its direct environment. This biology works in extreme conditions such that it will keep working in dirty waters by blocking the communication between bacteria so that it cannot colonise and build up on healthy surfaces of the plant. This is what we have successfully replicated in the lab, and now we are ready to start trialling this in our Unilever cleaning products.”
Dr Jon Hague, Unilever’s Vice President for Science & Technology, Unilever Homecare said: “The commercialised use of Lactam presents a significant opportunity for cleaning products globally and could revolutionise the industry. However, what we have found is a unique technology in which its uses are almost limitless. We recognise what this technology can represent at scale for many sectors outside of Unilever’s portfolio. Through Penrhos Bio, we want to connect with other industries that would benefit from using this solution.” The joint venture, Penrhos Bio, is already in talks to license the technology for banknotes and dental uses, added Hague.
According to the company website “Lactams have been incorporated as coatings into and onto a range of substrates as well as formulated into sprays and mousses to investigate their anti-biofilm efficacy in a number of applications. Penrhos Bio is working with potential licence partners across a range of industries to develop lactam solutions to sector-specific biofilm challenges.”