Unilever taps seaweed to create self-cleaning surfaces

Unilever is set to begin consumer trials of a patented compound derived from seaweed that it says can create self-cleaning surfaces with applications from banknotes to odour-proof shoes.

The maker of Cif and Domestos cleaning products has formed a joint venture with the life sciences investment group Innova Partnerships to market the technology, called Lactam, which rather than killing bacteria prevents micro-organisms from forming so-called biofilms on surfaces by disrupting their communications systems.

Unlike some of its rivals, Lactam does not combat transmission of coronavirus on surfaces, but it does offer many other advantages, Jonathan Hague, vice-president for science and technology at Unilever, told the Financial Times.

“The growth of bacteria is a problem when you are pumping gas and oil, in medical catheters, malodoring shoes, bacteria spreading on banknotes, there are multiple applications in vet care. There is an enormous market this technology could be of benefit to,” he said.

The group will pilot its use in cleaning products, but Mr Hague said it was forming the joint venture — a rare approach for the multinational — with a view to licensing the technology because “the potential business-to-business market is much bigger than the consumer market”.

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. These are already in use in the construction industry.

The joint venture will also need to vie with groups such as NitroPep, a company developing layers of material with tiny spikelike particles that puncture and kill viruses.

The chemical in development derives from Unilever’s purchase of Australian group Biosignal and its early-stage biotechnology a decade ago, and works by disrupting the ability of micro-organisms to communicate and form a protective environment around themselves.

“What our technology does is interrupt the ability for bacteria to speak to one another so they don’t form a biofilm in the first place. Rather than trying to kill them with harsh chemicals we are using nature’s signalling model,” said Mr Hague.

“Seaweed doesn’t get coated with biofilms, it’s always clean because it came up with this defence mechanism.”

The joint venture, Penrhos Bio, is already in talks to license the technology for banknote and dental uses, he said.

The company said it could also help combat antimicrobial resistance and create efficiencies leading to lower emissions. “If we managed to get Lactam on every ship’s hull in the world, you could save about 10 per cent of fuel emissions,” said Mr Hague.

When it comes to domestic uses, “if you use this regularly in the bathroom, the black mould on your tiles would just not grow,” he said. “You would have a visibly and demonstratively cleaner surface.”

It is not designed to completely eliminate the need for cleaning, though, he added: “We hope people continue to clean regularly.”

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