Research, by chemists at the University of Bristol, on a new soap that incorporates an easily magnetised complex of iron, has attracted media attention across the globe. These magnetic surfactants (soaps) and can be used to extract dirt and oils.

In a paper, reported in the Angewandte Chemie, the international team demonstrate how their laboratory scale experiment resulted in surfactants that could be pulled out of a mixture using only hand-held magnets.

The research may have very important industrial, energy, environmental and engineering benefits, including the ability to clean up oil spills more quickly and extract pollutants from waste water.

EPSRC funding has been supplied to both the PhD student who worked on the project via a doctoral training account, and grants to the laboratory facilities.

Professor Julian Eastoe, from the University of Bristol said: "We've uncovered a proof of principle, now we have to move on to applications. Surfactants and emulsions have many uses from pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, food, fuel and lubricant additives, paints and inks as well as detergents and cleaning agents. Magnetic emulsions of the kind described in the submission have never before been applied."

The average annual per capita usage of surfactants is ~ 2 kg (but approximately 10 kg in Europe), representing one of the largest volume commodity chemicals in the world.

Surprised by the results of their laboratory experiments the team used high powered beams of neutrons at the Institut Laue-Langevin in France to see exactly what was happening with the iron containing groups. They discovered that they were forming into clusters (micelles) that would then respond to applied magnetic fields.

This story is reprinted from material from the EPSRC with editorial changes made by Materials Today.