Innovation Begets Innovation

December 10, 2002
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The last time I was in the airport, I watched a janitor making his way down the concourse. While this in itself was not unusual, it was what he was carrying with him that gave me pause.

Attached to the end the metal rod in his hand was a bright, fluorescent green tennis ball. As he walked the highly polished marble floor, he used the ball to remove the dark heel marks left on the marble’s surface by passengers on their way to and from their flights.

To see these marks disappear with the swipe of a tennis ball intrigued me to the point that I stopped and admired this operation. Truly it was innovative: a simple process both successful and cost-effective. I amused myself by thinking that, once this approach catches on, there will probably be a rise in the cost of used tennis balls.

Innovation can also be found as of late in the chemical industry, where new surfactants are presenting golden opportunities in new fabric and carpet cleaners. In my years of formula development, petrochemical surfactants were once the answer to many problems, due to their low cost, abundance, and because they did the job.

The question should now be asked, what innovative product will replace petrochemical compounds? The answer: oleo chemical surfactants, products derived from vegetable oils, fats and greases that are totally divorced from oil-derived surfactants.

How the final market price will be affected remains to be seen. Lower cost considerations with one product may not offset the total cost of the formula due to other cost increase in other raw materials. Due to new processing techniques for oleo chemicals, these low-cost surfactants are attracting the attention of current big buyers of oil-based surfactants.

This newly developed process allows the manufacturer to achieve the best of two worlds: producing a more environmentally acceptable product with improved performance at a lower cost. Now that’s innovation. The part I enjoy the most is the removal of one more source of oil-derived compounds.

These new oleo-based surfactants will not only be more easily biodegradable, they will have improved water solubility, lower foaming properties and very low aquatic toxicity. They will dissolve faster in water without going through a gel phase, like having a cup of instant coffee without needing a coffee pot or, better yet, providing soil removal properties without the extra foam that we psychologically accept as part of cleaning.

One innovation that may well be significant in the future of cleaning is the use of accelerated oxygen. We all know the benefits of oxidized bleach and its time-release capabilities. It does well in lightening and brightening colors, as well as in removing difficult stains. However, one drawback is the length of time it takes to do the job. Minutes feel like hours.

A faster accelerator for hydrogen peroxide is now being tested for use in all types of cleaning. Not only will the process be faster, but heat energy will be saved because lower temperature water can be used. Our current mindset is “the hotter, the better.” Accelerated hydrogen peroxide formulas may well reduce the high-heat mentality with certain applications.

Tremendous amounts of R&D effort will be required to establish and position this concept. The basic effort would be to produce brighter carpets with pronounced color appearance at lower temperatures, something that would make a fine nomination for The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards, a program that was established to recognize and promote fundamental and innovative chemical methods that accomplish pollution prevention through source reduction and that have broad applicability in the industry.

While carpet cleaners are always on the lookout for products that make their job easier, I often receive requests for products that are cheaper, requests to which I don’t quite know how to respond. When you take a high-cost product and break it down to pennies-per-square-foot use, the cost of the product becomes inconsequential to the total cost of the carpet cleaning operation. However, when high costs are tied to innovation, the product often loses its consumer appeal.

The goals of innovation in cleaning-chemical formulation are this: developing a cleaner that will perform a variety of tasks in its application, such as removing stains, reducing odor, acting as a bactericide and freshening the color, all at a lower price. That’s innovation!

Add to that dream: it’s a cleaner with anti-microbial properties along with fluorocarbon protection that delivers long lasting protection. And on its off hours, the formulated product could iron your shirts, tie your shoes and clean out your waste tank. Innovation is a slow process. It will take time to produce these wonders. Keep in mind that consumers are smarter and better informed now than ever before. They are the ones who really determine what products are truly innovative, and who will separate them from the moonlight magic.

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