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Q&A: Accelerating sustainable innovation with the help of academic institutions

Sponsored: Neil Lant discusses how P&G is partnering with universities to unlock new sustainable innovations to help decarbonize laundry at every step.

Microscope looking at DNA

Image courtesy of Pixabay / Victoria Regen.

This article is sponsored by Procter & Gamble.

At P&G Fabric Care, we have committed to decarbonize the laundry process at every step. Our goal is to achieve this without compromising performance, meaning detergents should deliver impeccable cleaning results that are safe for people and sustainable for our planet’s future.

Partnering with academia is proving to be one of the most effective methods of making breakthrough discoveries using cutting edge technology that help shape sustainable innovation in our Fabric Care products.

To learn more about how P&G Fabric Care is partnering with universities and how this is helping us to accelerate towards a low carbon future, I recently connected with Neil Lant, research & development senior director research fellow at P&G.

Katrin Meincke: Which areas of scientific research are you working on with academic partners?

Neil Lant: Fundamentally, we study the problems faced by consumers when doing laundry. My background is in organic chemistry, and I collaborate closely with academics on the biotechnology aspect of our Fabric Care products. This is an exciting area of research, as I truly believe that nature holds the key to unlocking the secrets to achieving more sustainable cleaning.

In Fabric Care, bioscience — or the study of living organisms — is a scientific pathway to better understanding consumer issues; essentially, how nature has evolved to overcome certain challenges. Taking nature’s processes as inspiration, we think about how to apply the same principles to our products. When an interesting discovery is made, our close relationships with universities mean we can accelerate the journey from hypothesis into a fully tested, scaled solution that is integrated into our products.

Meincke: What is the biggest challenge facing future sustainable innovation?

Lant: For our P&G Fabric Care team, the challenge lies in creating safe products that are sustainable, without compromising on product performance in cold temperatures.

Life Cycle Assessments, or LCAs, conducted for our brands, such as Ariel and Tide, reveal that most of a product’s environmental impact occurs during the in-use phase, due to the energy required to heat the water. It means the single biggest way of reducing the environmental impact of each wash load is to wash cold. But consumers will only turn the temperature dial down if they trust the clean will not be compromised. So, the main goal for us was to find a means of delivering great results in cold water.

Meincke: If you had to choose the most promising nature-based solutions that academia has led to for our products, what would it be?

Lant: Understanding how nature cleans in cold water has been one of our most significant academic breakthroughs. Not only because it revealed a whole new way of cleaning, but because it led us to a completely new "start point" in our search for new enzymes.

Scientists at the University of Newcastle approached us after observing that seaweed stays remarkably clean in cold water oceans. Research showed that this was due to an enzyme, released by bacteria, which breaks down sticky particles on the seaweed surface — and works at its best at lower temperatures.

What was so different about this observation was that it considered the soiling bacteria leave behind. Up until this point, we had focused on cleaning solutions targeting dirt caused by humans — skin flakes, food stains, sweat and so on. But by targeting the dirt caused by bacteria we had discovered a whole new way to approach cleaning.

The question then became, can we mimic this natural process to utilize it in cleaning? Once it was clear we could, and that it was effective at tackling issues like malodor as well as delivering outstanding cleaning results even in low temperatures, we accelerated its integration into all Ariel products. Consumers in Europe will know it as Ariel’s Purezyme technology.

More recently, we are continuing to work with academics from Newcastle University to deepen our understanding of the chemical nature of soiling materials and their complex associations with surfaces. We take, say a grass stain, and extract that into a solution and then expose it to hundreds of different microsensors using a technique called Microarray Polymer Profiling. This process detects which materials are present in the stain and their relative abundance. Analyzing stains at the molecular level allows us to design for novel enzymes that are specifically engineered to work effectively on each type of soiling, resulting in even better cleaning results.

Meincke: What are the mutual benefits of collaboration between P&G and university partners?

Lant: To get the detailed knowledge we need to better understand nature’s processes, we need to work with globally recognized experts in their field, many of which are in academia. We also get access to some amazing equipment and instrumentation with highly skilled technicians and data analysts.

For our university partners, working with us means they can demonstrate the real-world impact of their research areas. If external stakeholders can see that research is translating into improved products, greater sustainability, a reduction in energy bills, a better understanding of a problem and so on, it helps provide evidence that investment in academic research translates into a broad range of economic and societal benefits.

The most important thing is ensuring any collaboration is a win-win, for both P&G and our academic partner. If one party must compromise, it won’t deliver a meaningful relationship.

Meincke: To conclude, how do you see academic partnerships evolving in the future to advance our journey in sustainable laundry?

Lant: I was part of the team at P&G who applied to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in the U.K. to establish a doctoral training center. The program, called the "Bioscience for Sustainable Consumer Products," trains students in how to think about research areas with relevance to consumer uses. It is a collaborative training partnership, where each year, 10 to 12 new Ph.D. students from our partner universities collaborate with P&G’s scientists, spending three months in our labs. Many of them choose Fabric and Home Care technology, but other business units and corporate functions are involved.

Academic partnership provides a wonderful pipeline of enthusiastic students ensuring research continues well into the future and that new frontiers are explored. For example, we have a student who will visit Antarctica or the Arctic to research new cold-water enzymes in these environments. I have also recently worked with an undergraduate student on a project to understand the causes of microfiber pollution and how condenser tumble dryers can be a contributor to water borne microfiber pollution — something never previously reported on.

The opportunities of discovery really are endless. When I look at the beauty of nature, I am constantly fascinated by the functionality of enzymes, microbes and all the other wonderful things we can get from it. The more I study it, the more I am convinced the answers we need for a more sustainable future that does not trade-off on safety or efficacy can be found in nature’s processes. Not only in a laundry context, but far beyond.

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