How enzymes improved… detergents


How enzymes improved... detergents

Detergents were probably one of the first products that showed the world that enzymes – those proteins that perfectly catalyze the chemical reactions in our bodies – could play an even bigger role in our daily lives.

When detergent manufacturers started incorporating enzymes into their formulations, consumers no longer needed high temperatures and long, fabric-damaging processes to completely clean off dirt from their clothes. 

Enzymes like proteases, amylases and lipases helped remove even the most difficult stains; and since these biocatalysts worked best under mild conditions, families could opt-out from using hot water and clothes would still get cleaned. 

Detergents have shown us that enzymes can revolutionize a whole industry; even to the point that, nowadays, we cannot imagine life without them.

There’s a lot to learn from this landmark of innovation. 

Let’s start from the beginning.

The Discovery

Our fresh laundry owes much to Otto Röhm, a German pharmacist from the late 19th century that, on December 11th 1913, patented the first detergent with enzymes: Burnus.

Otto was working for the Stuttgart city gasworks, where his job focused on leather treatment, when he realized that the trypsin extracted from pig’s pancreas could help dissolve clothes’ stains.

Even though “Burnus” didn’t succeed in the market and needed to be improved due to the low activity of the enzyme, it set a precedent for the future of modern cleaning supplies.

50 years later, enzyme detergents exploded in popularity and gradually introduced different types of enzymes to their formulations.

Since then, washing needs lower temperature, less water and diverse types of stains are removed efficiently, saving energy and time.

The success was such that, nowadays, the detergent business is one of the largest single market places for enzymes.


An enzyme for every stain

Detergent enzymes detach and degrade all kinds of dirt by breaking down molecules’ chemical bonds. They’re all known as hydrolases, because they need water to do such reactions. But did you know there’s a specific type of enzyme for every kind of dirt stain?

  • Proteases degrade stains composed of protein by breaking the peptide chains. Historically, first enzymes to be used in detergents.
  • Amylases break down starch-based stains and also contribute to maintaining white fabrics color.
  • Lipases attack fat-based stains hydrolyzing triglycerides to simpler fats that can be dissolved.
  • Pectinases eliminate stains from other types of complex sugars present in fruits, vegetables, jams and juices.
  • Mannanases remove stains from milkshakes or ice cream and personal hygiene products containing mannans, a type of complex sugars used as a thickening agent.
  • Cellulases improve cotton and linen fabrics cleanness and softness by breaking down cellulose fibers and hindering dirt particles attachment.

Nowadays, enzyme detergents profit from the combined effect of multi-enzyme systems and are more sustainable thanks to the substitution of traditional detergent components that are harmful for the environment.

But their impact goes way beyond removing stains from clothes.

  • Their use at industrial dishwashers promote leftovers decomposition, which protects machines and saves the recirculating water that used to need replacement more often before.
  • At hospitals, clothes stay white because proteases can remove blood from fabrics. But they also benefit from enzyme action for properly cleaning medical devices, which need different cleaning conditions than normal sterilization machines.
  • Safety at commercial kitchens wouldn’t be the same without lipases. These enzymes are great at removing fat from the floor, which not only cleans it, but helps prevent accidents.

Amazing, right?

However, if their versatility wasn’t enough, there’s one more reason why enzymes have become a powerful ally in the cleaning industry: they make detergents more sustainable.


How enzyme detergents help us go green

The need to reduce our environmental footprint without compromising efficiency has found in enzymes a great alternative to traditional chemical processes.

As proteins, enzymes are biodegradable and can substitute toxic and pollutant compounds, like phosphates and phosphonates, enhancing the protection of our health and the environment.

Plus, since biocatalysis can take place at mild conditions of temperature and pH, this can reduce the environmental impact and energy cost of the common use of washing machines.

Here are two clear cases of enzymes helping reduce the environmental impact of detergents:


Cold-active enzymes

We’ve all heard the same story: to get rid of difficult stains, you need to use hot water.

But, if you’ve spent a long time relying on this advice for your weekly washing, you might have realized that setting your machine to the highest temperature is not sustainable at all.

Sensitive fabrics might get damaged. Some might lose their color.

And worst of all, electricity bills skyrocket.

This is because, normally, most of the electricity a washing machine uses goes exclusively to heating the water.

But the good news is, for most types of dirt, you don’t need to use hot water to obtain good results. And even if you’re faced with a difficult stain, enzymes can help!

The introduction of cold-active enzymes in detergent products have allowed washing temperatures to be reduced from 60-40ºC to 30°C without compromising on cleanliness.

These enzymes come from psychrophilic microorganisms, which are found in cold regions like the Antarctic and Arctic, glaciers and/or deep sea sediments.

By washing at low temperature, CO2 saving potential in the United States and Europe alone is around 32 million tons annually, equal to the emissions of 8 million cars (OECD).

The only drawback? Natural cold-active enzymes are not always as abundant and stable as the industry needs.

But no worries: there’s evidence that protein engineering can genetically improve psychrophilic strains, enhancing enzymes and making the use of cold-active enzymes easier for everyone.


Compact detergents

Powder or liquid, applying it with a dispenser or in individual pods or tablets. No matter the format, over the years formulations have progressed to lower the volume of detergent needed for the same size of wash load.

Thanks to their high activity at low concentrations, tiny amounts of enzymes are enough for compact detergents to wash as efficiently as the others.

Besides, they do not disappear or lose their activity, but activate the reactions that ease dirt removal over and over again during wash time.

This has made possible for the average dosage of detergent to be reduced by 50% and achieve savings of 30 millions tons in Europe over the past two decades (AISE).

Plus, it doesn’t end there:

  • Smaller doses of detergent need less amount of water for washing and can eliminate the need for a pre-wash cycle, which leads to significant water savings.
  • Compact detergents fit in smaller packaging, which reduces the amount of materials needed for storage and transportation. 

Smaller packaging means more packages transported per vehicle along its life cycle. And less trips needed mean, of course, less CO2 emissions!

Can we make enzyme detergents… even better?

Here’s a tricky question: modern detergents contain enzyme mixes that include proteases to degrade protein stains. But, since enzymes are also proteins, how come they don’t degrade themselves?

The answer is simple. By adding “inhibitors” to detergent formulations, scientists can keep proteases deactivated when it’s stored, so that they only work when mixed with water.

But there’s a catch.

Most common inhibitors contain boron, which is toxic for plants and insects. Each time we do our laundry, we are slowly liberating this element into the environment through the discarded water.

So a pretty good solution -which is using enzymes to make detergents work better- is, at the same time, creating a problem we want to avoid: the pollution of our environment!


The IDEA-PS Project

At ZYMVOL, we’re proud to be part of a project that aims to solve this issue in the best way we know: using our computer power (and our team’s smart brains!).

Together with biochemical company CYGYC BIOCON (BIOKATAL), we’re developing a new computational platform that can help us search for more sustainable enzyme inhibitors for detergent formulations.

ZYMVOL Senior Researcher, Dr. Brian Jiménez Garcia, is the primary investigator leading this project, which we have named “IDEA-PS”*. You can read more about it in the news article we released last year.

As our colleague Dr. Jiménez Garcia points out: “We hope that with this software, we will be able to help scientists make more effective formulations that will save resources, energy and water”.

Isn’t that a great goal to work towards?


*IDEA-PS is funded by ACCIÓ Tecniospring INDUSTRY programme and MSCActions.