Normal detergents contain surfactant molecules, which are oil-friendly at one end to capture dirt and water-friendly at the other to pull it away. They also tend to form bubbles, which require extra water to rinse.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, have made a surfactant that only forms bubbles under mildly alkaline (that contain soluble mineral salts) conditions.
The unusual product, which is a biological detergent, has been named pepfactant because it is made from peptides (specific acids).
The inventors - Annette Dexter and Anton Middleberg - said the unique aspect of pepfactants is that it can be switched on or off, depending on its intended application.
For example, in laundry detergents there's a built-in pH (a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of water) change that occurs between the wash and rinse cycles.
Pepfactants designed to respond to that change could be added to the detergent to reduce the rinse time, reports UPI news wire.
Detergents tend to be alkaline, so during a wash cycle the molecules link to form bubbles. The rinse water lowers the pH, breaking the bubbles apart, so less water is needed to wash out the lather.
Soap bubbles that collapse once clothes are clean could reduce the water needed during washing, the scientists said.
Pepfactants could also control the mixing of oil and water in industrial processes, according to a report in the online edition of New Scientist.
Dexter believes the more near-term application might develop in the personal care area, such as a shampoo, conditioner, skin cream or hand wash. There also could be potential applications for eye drops, she added.