Synthetic Surfactant or Soap?

Provided by High Tech Detergent

You may well ask why soap, which served well for so many years, was eventually displaced. Soaps are cheap and they are manufactured from a renewable source, whereas many of the synthetic detergents are made from petrochemicals. Soaps are also biodegradable; that is, they are readily broken down by bacteria, and thus they do not pollute rivers. However, due to their gelling properties, soaps do have a greater tendency to clog sewerage reticulation systems than synthetic detergents. The grease trap of a non-sewered house was often laden with soap. But the most important reason for the displacement of soap is the fact that, when a carboxylic acid soap is used in hard water, precipitation occurs. The calcium and magnesium ions, which give hardness to the water, form insoluble salts with the fatty acid in soap and a curd-like precipitate occurs and settles, of course, on what ever is being washed. By using a large excess of soap, it is possible to redisperse the precipitate, but it is extremely sticky and difficult to move. This problem with soap can be demonstrated by a simple experiment in which a concentrated solution of hard-water salts is added to a 0.1% solution of soap and also to a 0.1% solution of synthetic surfactant. The soap precipitates, but the synthetic surfactant remains clear because it’s salts are water soluble.

You may live in an area where the water is extremely soft. But calcium and magnesium ions are present in the dirt that you wash out of your clothes, so that some precipitation still occurs if soap is used, and gradually deposits are built up in the fabric.

There are other disadvantages with soap; it deteriorates on storage, and it lacks cleaning power when compared with the modern synthetic surfactants, which can be designed to perform specialised cleaning tasks. Finally and very importantly from a domestic laundry point of view, soap does not rinse out; it tends to leave a residue behind in the fabric that is being washed. A residue gradually builds up and causes bad odour, deterioration of the fabric and other associated problems.

What’s the Difference ?

What’s the difference between a surfactant and soap ? In general terms, the difference can be likened to the difference between cotton and nylon. On the one hand, soap and cotton are produced from natural products by a relatively small modification. On the other hand, synthetic surfactants and nylon are produced entirely in a chemical factory. Synthetic surfactants are not very new, either. Back in 1834 the first forerunner of today’s synthetic surfactants was produced in the form of a sulfated castor oil, which was used in the textile industry.

The development of the first detergents in an effort to overcome the reaction of soaps with hard water provides a good illustration of one of the standard chemical approaches. If a useful substance has some undesirable property, an attempt is made to prepare an analogue, a near chemical relation, which will prove more satisfactory.

The petroleum industry had, as a waste product, the compound propylene, CH3-CH=CH2, which used to be burnt off. By joining four of these propylene molecules together and if benzene is attached at the double bond, the resulting compound reacts with sulphuric acid. Then sodium hydroxide is added to neutralise the sulfonic acid and a sodium salt is obtained. The new substance is closely related to an ordinary soap, and is an excellent detergent.

High Tech Detergents – http://www.chemistry.co.nz/stain.htm – More information where this came from!
Copyright, 1998 High Tech Detergents

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