Cleaning Up With Enzymes

April 9, 2001
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Enzymes are having a new resurgence in research and development, and their effectiveness has come a long way. Do you know how to put them to use correctly?



Many people are surprised to know that biological enzymes have been in the cleaning field well over 40 years. I remember in my earlier post-college years having to work with enzymes, with little success, in soap bars. Its purpose was to introduce emolliency into the bar for improved feel, as well as to accelerate soil removal. Prior research had been done using an enzyme in the laundry detergent, but here too with limited success. Remember this was 40 years ago when enzymatic technology was a novel idea for add-on cleaning. Eventually the big soap companies put this one-time hopeful project on the back burner.

Now, however, enzymes are having a new resurgence in research and development, and their effectiveness has come a long way. They can now withstand extreme conditions that previously would have made them ineffective. In other words, they are stable at both higher and lower pH levels, which results in improved performance.

Enzymes, however, are extremely sensitive to high temperature and require wet/humid conditions to function. Functional between 86F to l04F, temperatures above and below this range renders the enzyme inactive and they are eventually destroyed.

They also require time exposure for optimum performance and maximum effectiveness. They're not minute Pac Man-like molecules that gobble everything in sight the minute they make contact. But given time, they will eventually produce excellent results.

Additionally, enzymes are not living organisms. But when they are applied correctly, they can digest various proteinaceous soils, which can then be removed by hot water extraction or other types of cleaning processes. Often the formulator will incorporate a fragrance to help override any residual malodors that protein soils normally exude.

This brings to mind the questions of the functionality of an enzyme when used with a truck mount. Enzyme technology has improved so that it can withstand high heat stability up to l65F, however, higher temperatures will cancel its usefulness. Consequently, it's very important that enzyme use be below l65F, and more important, be applied as a pre-spray. This way, the enzyme's activity will not be affected and exposure time is increased. Remember, time of exposure is in direct relationship to the performance of the enzyme. Therefore, when an enzymatic cleaner is applied on a heavy film of restaurant grease and oil, time exposure becomes critical in breaking down the proteins in the soil.

When a formula is developed, the enzymes incorporated are classified into a broad category, such as hydrolytic or oxidizing, and are dependent on the type of reaction they control. Hydrolytic, meaning water type, will breakdown simpler compounds utilizing water molecules; while oxidizing (reducing enzymes) accelerate oxidation reactions. There are so many enzymes that their individual end use is identified by adding the letters ase as a suffix.

To add to our knowledge, let's discuss a condition that concerns us all-urine. If you were to extract urine with the use of a urine remover formula, this is fine, but only if the urine is relatively fresh (within the month). What about the carpet that is heavily laden with pet urine and left for longer periods of time? Now we have a carpet that's not easily cleaned. There will be problems with matting and substrate, which will require extra attention. The carpet can be salvaged, however, if an enzyme that controls urea can be used. With the knowledge we have, an enzyme known as urease could be used. The usage of the urease enzyme would control the decomposition of the urea, which in turn would allow easy removal. Not only would the removal of urea be accomplished, but most likely, so would the yellow stain. Difficult cases may require an oxygen release agent that would bleach out residual yellow staining.

Enzymes are extraordinarily efficient in their targeted purposes and can duplicate in minute qualities what would take stronger chemicals at higher temperatures to achieve. The one basic thing that's required is time. It's unfortunate that enzymes do not function in real time the way chemicals respond. Keep in mind that energy levels differ somewhat from those of simple inorganic reactions.

To better understand this, remember our urine enzyme known as urease? Its effectiveness is recognized for its reaction to urine and nothing else. Being selective means that it's not a hungry tiger that will eat/attack anything in sight. This activity is further impeded in that it requires a cofactor in order to function. As a rule, enzymes do not attack living cells, but once a cell is dead, it's rapidly digested by dedicated enzymes that breakdown the protein.

Basically, in a purely scientific thought, enzymes are proteins and are not a carrier for another compound. I know it sounds ironic, but Mother Nature in her complexities does not give a straight path.

A proteinaceous stain doesn't readily react to ordinary cleaning chemicals; therefore, enzyme use becomes the best answer.

Fatty acids, milk, oils, ice cream, body fluids, etc. will not react to conventional type cleaners. That turkey which accidentally fell on the white carpet with all its fat juices left in the base of the carpet will require the use of enzymes, especially when the area has turned brown and rancid and the homeowner has tried everything to remove it. The blood left from a cut finger shows up as a brown-yellow stain on the new upholstery piece. The blood is locked in the fabric where ordinary cleaners have little, if any, effect. However, enzymes do come to the rescue to breakdown or chemically change those particles for easier removal.

It has only been recently that enzyme chemistry has expanded into so many fields. Many scientists are confident that enzyme technology will influence use in the next 25 years, as much as the last 25 years influenced the computer field.

Summary
Now that we've had a brief lecture on enzymes, a number of questions should develop. To attempt to answer these questions, allow me to help you digest the basic concepts of enzymes.

First, the majority of enzymes are complex proteins that are not to be considered living organisms. They are sensitive to extreme temperature, pH and exposure to heavy metals like mercury or lead. The three basic enzymes primarily used in cleaning formulas are: Protease (breaks down amino acids in proteins), Amylase (breaks down sugar molecules in starch) and Lipase (breaks down fats). Also, remember that enzymes increase a chemical reaction tremendously.

As to safely using them when cleaning, care and concern must always be taken. Use appropriate eye and inhalation protection, as defined by the label. If there are no safety directions, contact the manufacturer immediately for directions on exposure and health effects.

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