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This series is about getting inside the stuff we can't live without. The cleaners, the cosmetics,
the convenience items we use every single day.
How do these things actually work?
I want to hunt down the hidden magic -
I'm calling it the Wonderstuff.
The stuff that's doing the clever work
in our most vital household essentials.
I'm Jane Moore, and I like to think
I'm pretty good at sniffing out facts.
But for this assignment, I'm going to need to call on the specialists.
My little black book is bulging with the phone numbers
of some of Britain's best boffins,
ready to reveal what they get up to behind closed doors.
We're just in the flush cycle now...
And take me right out of my comfort zone...
Take it, take it.
..To help me uncover some mind-blowing new insights.
Well, that worked.
When this mission is complete, I'm expecting to be able to
hit the shops armed with a whole new perspective.
Welcome to the extraordinary hidden world of Wonderstuff.
This time, I'm digging into household cleaners.
I feel pretty in the dark about what we can rely on to banish the filth.
In particular, when it comes to working out so-called
natural versus chemical, I haven't got a clue.
But I reckon that the three items on this week's Wonderstuff shopping list
should help me find out.
Yes, I'm out to pull apart three household cleaners
we often associated with nature.
Biological washing powder, citrus degreaser,
and shiny surface cleaner.
In this quest, I'm going to need some help.
Luckily, I can call on my very own user-friendly scientist,
Dr Mark Miodownik,
head of the Materials Research Group at King's College London.
Later, in a shameless attempt to entice me back to his flat,
Mark will be cooking up a batch of natural degreaser.
But before that, my hunt for what nature has to offer
when it comes to that tiresome burden of household cleaning
starts with this squirty bottle right here.
'Don't call me obsessive, but one thing
'I would personally love to know is
'whether there's a particular substance out there that can clean without leaving streaks.'
On those labels that promise a streak-free finish,
there is an ingredient that I recognise from my childhood -
ammonium hydroxide, which of course to you and I is good old ammonia.
So what's an old-fashioned ingredient like that
still doing in a modern product?
To find out what's made this age-old substance so useful for so long,
I'm consulting an age-old font of wisdom - Oxford University.
Apparently, our ancestors were on to ammonia's unique powers
thousands of years ago,
but Professor Alan Chapman tells me
it took them a long time to extract it,
which is not surprising when you consider its natural source.
Oh. Yuck. OK.
Not the nicest of things to look at.
Oh, dear, yes, that really is quite unpleasant.
Plainly from the butcher's.
So how did they get ammonia from that?
Well, of course they would get it from that by the same method
-they would get it from the animal's horns.
And ammonia's early name was "spirit of hartshorn".
Bearing in mind a deer was a hart, and they had horns.
So, it's the same, a bit like the nails...
The hard stuff, like nails, the hard stuff of an animal,
and virtually all organic things, living beings, contain it.
Our hair, our teeth, our fingernails contain ammonia.
Now we know what happened to Bambi's mother.
Yes, absolutely, Bambi's mother, what a terrible shame, that.
'Alan's macabre recipe for pure ammonium hydroxide
'starts with ground-up pieces of hoof and horn,
'throw in some slaked lime, and add water and heat.'
-We have a drip. There it goes.
-It's coming down inside the chamber.
This is cooler than the main chamber here, so as it is cooler
it begins to condense.
As it condenses, you get the drips, that is spirits of hartshorn.
'Luckily for deer, ammonia is now manufactured
'on an industrial scale by a different method.'
Using powerful electric motors by 1900, you could liquefy air
and then let off at the right pressures individual gases -
nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and so on -
then use them for chemically engineering other substances.
It's funny, because when I'm in my house
and using all of these amazing products that get things clean,
I never make that connection with Mother Nature.
Everything is natural in one form or another,
and what we often call artificial products,
such as industrial products, are just natural substances that the ingenuity
of the human race has learnt how to recombine in useful ways.
'It's fascinating stuff, but there's something about
'Professor Chapman that's been troubling me.
'Ooh, I know what it is.'
I thought you were fantastic in Silence Of The Lambs, by the way.
Do you get that a lot?
I'm often mistaken.
He looks so like Anthony Hopkins.
Ammonia is one serial dirt-killer that leaves no evidence behind,
but how does my ammonia cleaner simply vanish without a trace?
Luckily, just a few rooms away is Dr Matthew Lodge,
another Oxford don with a keen interest in the stuff.
He thinks the answer is evident in the way ammonia
was once used by Victorian policeman to revive fainting ladies.
These are smelling salts, which used to be used as a restorative,
and if you smell these it'll give you an idea
of some of the oomph and power of ammonia.
-This is safe, is it, Matt?
-It is totally safe, yes.
Oh, my God!
Yeah, it's certainly got a kick, hasn't it?
That's revived me.
It's obviously not a very pleasant smell.
What am I recognising in that smell?
Ammonia occurs in the body, for example it's found in urine,
as urea, and also in sweat.
OK, that explains why I don't like the smell, then.
'Matt tells me it's the ammonia gas released from the ammonia salt
'which irritates the nose and lungs and triggers the breathing reflex.
'Ammonia comes into its own by simply mixing it with water
'to produce ammonium hydroxide, and here's the clever part.'
The brilliant thing about ammonia is, as the water evaporates,
the ammonia turns back into a gas, and that evaporates as well.
Not leaving any trace behind at all.
'Making it perfect as a streak-free cleaning agent.'
On the side here we'll try our cleaning product.
And this is some normal, everyday hand soap.
-Watered down, obviously.
-Watered down, yeah.
From a soap dispenser.
Bubbling up nicely, there.
So they would certainly get rid of dirt, wouldn't they?
Indeed, but the big difference will happen
when the water starts to evaporate from this,
because what we'll see on this side here,
with our ammonia-containing cleaning agent,
is that we start to get evaporation of the solvents,
and they're not leaving any trace behind at all.
The water's evaporating, our solvent's evaporating,
and the ammonia is turning back into a gas, and that's evaporating, too.
Whereas on this side, as the water starts to evaporate
from our soap, many of the cleaning agents,
the hydroxides that are used in this soap
and all the surfactants will stay behind on the glass,
and they'll cause the streaky marks.
So there you go, my first all-natural household cleaning Wonderstuff
is a simple solution of ammonium hydroxide.
It may not be in every streak-free cleaner on the shelves nowadays,
but it's proved its gold-standard ability to put back
the sparkle to all manner of shiny surfaces.
You can make your own cheap household cleaner by mixing
one part wonderstuff ammonium hydroxide to nine parts water.
If you don't mind the smell, that is.
I'm still waiting for the luxury Winnebago to materialise,
but at least my other deal-breaker for doing this programme
is about to come to fruition,
and that's learning what it is
that makes biological washing powder work.
You may have gathered by now I'm no Stepford Wife,
but I have to say, I do really rely on what's in this little box.
I also want to know, what's the difference between bio and non-bio?
And is it the word "biological" in this context
that holds the key to the magic ingredient?
Questions, questions. Time for some answers.
We spend thousands of pounds on clothes in our lifetime,
yet we trust what's in this box, costing just a few quid,
to keep them pristine.
Exactly how this works has always been a bit of a mystery to me,
but now I'm going to find out.
'There are few who know more about the inside of a box
'of washing powder than chemist John Pickup.
'He's been studying cleaning methods for nearly 30 years.'
Great, a man's come to do my washing, that's what I like.
I've got a pile of clothes I've gathered for you here.
'Unfortunately for me, it's back to basics,
'and I'm doing the hard work.'
I would suggest we're better off doing this outside.
And we'll need lots and lots of hot water.
Oh, sounds like childbirth! Right, I'll get going.
'Yes, John wants me to see for myself how dirty clothes come clean,
'and that means giving me hands-on experience of what laundry day was like before washing powder.
'First, you need energy to loosen stains from fabric.
'You can bash your clothes against a rock,
'but really hot water is an easier way to provide energy to your wash.'
Phew! Bit of a facial steamer, I'll go and get the other one.
'Back then, the hotter the water, the greater the energy, the cleaner the clothes.'
I have to say, I'm exhausted already.
'Then they cottoned on that the addition of a basic soap would also help.'
This is like working in an Italian restaurant with Parmesan.
'And for really dirty laundry,
'you COULD turn to a rather unusual stain remover.'
In America in the 19th century,
they commonly used the pee from the pot under the bed, suitably stale,
and that used to start the process of getting the stains out.
'They used wee because it contains our old friend ammonia,
'that fabulous natural stain remover.
'Without a washing machine, you had to get a lather up manually.
'If you were lucky, you owned a posser,
'which looks like it was nicked from a Dalek's face.'
They knew what hard work was, didn't they, in those days?
'That's it - I'm done with the nostalgia trip.
'Washday without my mod cons is a nightmare.
'So, what happened in the evolution of washing powder
'that meant we no longer had to expend so much energy?
'What's in my biological powder that does the job
'without needing boiling water?
'John's brought along 20-odd different ingredients to show me.'
Blimey, it looks like an apothecary.
The old-style solid soap is gone, but there's still soap in there,
masquerading under the name surfactants, plus bleaching agents.
But what's this? Optical brighteners? Sounds clever.
This is the optical brightening agent.
What this does is absorb visible light
and reflect out more blue light than started off.
So it's not actually making the clothes whiter,
it's just giving the illusion they're whiter?
It is making them appear whiter.
Modern biological powder is clearly crammed full of clever chemistry
to tackle different aspect of the dirt that ends up
on clothes and linen.
And what about those blue speckles?
I bet they're doing something pretty special.
What do they do?
-To make it look nice, really.
-Is that it?
That's a real surprise. So where's the Wonderstuff, then?
Well, John reckons he saved the best till last.
Actually, this is the magic ingredient.
It's the specific ingredient for biological powder,
and that is a range of enzymes.
It's why you get boil-wash results at low temperatures.
So this is what I need to go and find out more about, then?
I have heard of enzymes,
but they're a long way off being my specialist subject on Mastermind.
John assures me they're the crucial difference between
biological and non-biological washing powder.
To find out more,
I've set up a rendezvous in the historic city of Bath.
I've come to see top enzymologist Michael Danson.
Apart from being an excellent word to play at Scrabble,
I'm not really sure about what enzymology is, exactly,
or what it entails.
So I've got to come here,
but he's asked to meet me at the Roman baths for some reason.
I've read about men like him.
People bathed in the murky hot springs here for 2,000 years,
but quite what that's got to do with my potential Wonderstuff, I don't know.
So what are we doing here?
Because I was expecting to be in a hi-tech lab, if I'm honest.
We've brought you here because these hot springs,
like the ones here in Bath, are absolutely ideal places
from which we can obtain enzymes for your washing powders.
So something in there is linked to my washing powder?
I don't get that.
This to me looks murky and a bit grubby.
So in here we have enzymes?
In here you will have literally millions of organisms,
millions of bacteria growing, and it's those bacteria
which contain the enzymes which you use for your washing powders.
They're actually secreting enzymes to digest the nutrient
which is in the water. Exactly the same as we secrete enzymes
into our stomachs to digest our food,
those enzymes will do exactly the same on your clothes or our clothes
when we put them in the washing machine.
'So, bacteria living in warm water, like at a natural spring,
'can be especially useful to harvest enzymes from.
'Mike is keen to show me why.'
So, here is a bacterium...
It looks like a cactus.
..which we isolated from one of the hot springs in New Zealand,
and what I'm doing is actually growing this organism on a plate
which is infused with milk protein, so there's milk in the plate.
These areas here which are cloudy, that's the milk,
but all round the bacterium you have a halo.
That halo is because what the organism is doing
is producing a protease, that protease digests
the protein in the milk and then takes it in for food.
'There it is.
'Visible proof that these bacteria make a natural substance
'that actually dissolves milk.'
'Once identified, these enzymes can be produced on an industrial scale
'and used in millions of boxes of biological washing powder.
'Like those made at my next stop - McBride's in Bradford,
'where they supply own-brand washing powder to supermarkets.
'Head of laundry development Dr Jim Gordon
'has invited me to see enzymes in action.'
Oh my goodness, it's Elton John's utility room.
-How many machines have you got in here?
-We have 25 machines.
'Turns out there are three basic types of laundry stain.
'Number one is oily, so any type of grease.
'Number two is what they call an oxidisable stain -
'things like tea, coffee and fruit juice.
'And number three is a stain that needs a specific enzyme
'to break it down.
'These enzymatic stains include food, blood and grass -
'the ones that basic soap can't shift on its own.'
'Jim's going to show me how a protein-eating enzyme works
'on a super-tough bloodstain.'
This protease, we hope, is going to get rid of the blood,
-because of the protein element.
'But it'll have to do this in lukewarm 30'degree water,
'without any soap to help, either.
'He's going to compare this to another mini wash tub
'without this enzyme.'
Do you do the washing at home, Jim?
Absolutely. Modern man.
This is so good, isn't it?
A man that can work a washing machine.
'Five minutes into our mini-wash cycles,
'how is the bloodstain faring without the enzyme?'
Right. So that hasn't tackled blood whatsoever.
'As expected, pretty rubbish.
'But what about the bloodstain with the enzyme to digest it?'
Oh, my God, look!
That's almost gone completely, now.
Hold those up for me. Look at that.
'So, getting rid of food stains is clearly much more effective
'with our Wonderstuff enzymes.
'20 years ago, we would have thought cleaning our clothes effectively
'at 30 degrees was bonkers, but now the hunt is on
'for suitable bacteria living in much colder climates.'
The future will be even lower wash temperatures
than we have currently, and for that enzymes will play a key role
in us being able to achieve those targets.
So you're looking for an enzyme that's going to work
in very cold temperatures.
Ideally. I mean, we're at 30 degrees now,
we'll try and get down to cold-water washing.
'Cold-water washing would certainly be a major leap forward
'since the day of our granny's boil wash.'
To me, this place really drives home the unique irony of washing powder -
here you've got 21st-century manufacturing in all its glory,
with automated robots packing up the most effective
laundry-cleaning ingredient that we've ever seen.
And yet that ingredient comes from minute living organisms
that were on this planet long before you and I arrived,
and will probably be here long after we've gone.
'A single enzyme can speed up a staggering ten million
'chemical reactions every second,
'so just a tiny amount of it will break up a heck of a lot of stains.
'Now that's what I call a Wonderstuff.'
'What I have learned so far about the things inside
'the powders and sprays in my kitchen cupboard
'has really been food for thought. I'm beginning to realise
'that natural ingredients can be pretty powerful.
'Which is just as well because the final household dirt-buster
'on my Wonderstuff shopping list has a tough job on its hands.
'Tackling everyday grease.'
When I'm cruising the supermarket aisles, I often see bottles with
the rather fruity and intriguing description of "citrus degreaser".
What I want to know is,
is it the citrus that is doing the heavy lifting?
My materials scientist Mark Miodownik
reckons he has got the recipe for cooking up an answer.
'So I've been summoned to New Covent Garden fruit and veg market
'at six in the morning.'
I knew there was a reason I never became a milkman. God, it's early.
Ohh! OK, Mark, it's stupid o'-clock.
I've not even had a whiff of a bacon butty -
this had better be good.
It turns out that you can get one of the best degreasers on the planet
from the rind of an orange.
-Really! Just from the peel?
-Yes, just from the peel.
The fantastic thing is there's huge amounts of oranges used in making orange juice around the world.
Everyone has it for breakfast. What happens to the peel? It gets made into this stuff.
It's called limonene.
I knew when you called me here you were taking the "pith".
Orange peel on its own won't really shift much grease. The key
is to distil out the grease-busting limonene -
D-limonene, to be precise - that's trapped in the peel.
To do this Mark uses a chemist's condenser.
The recipe is quite simple. Peel the hard rind of some oranges,
remove the pith and liquidise with a little water.
Then, heat the mixture up to just below boiling.
But what can be so special about this
when it's just a by-product of making orange juice?
Limonene is what's called a hydrocarbon,
so the kind of places you would have met that kind of thing before is petrol and diesel.
You go to the diesel pump and you get a bit of oily, colourless liquid on you.
That is very similar to limonene in its feel.
In fact, limonene is also a biofuel.
So you could use it in your engine if you retuned it
and people have been talking about using it as a biofuel in general.
So it's that kind of class of thing.
Its claim to fame - the thing it really is brilliant at -
is sucking up other fats.
They love it to be dissolved in it. They absolutely love it.
So, although you could use it for loads of other things,
this turns out to be the thing it's really brilliant at.
So from a source we're perfectly happy to eat,
we get this extraordinary chemical.
Mark's extracting it using the same process
that we used to make ammonia. The steam condenses when it goes into the cold glass tube
and drips down into a mixture of pure limonene oil and pure water.
-Here come the drips.
-That is the first one! That's it!
We can see the layer of limonene oil on the top, floating.
-About two millimetres.
-Yeah. That's it.
If I unclip this...
-Is it hot?
Smell that. That's the first clue we've got limonene.
Oh, yeah! Wow!
It's very evocative of that early morning freshly squeezed orange juice.
-But there is something else about it.
-That kind of rindy, high note...
This is how you make essential oils for perfume as well.
I can definitely see the layer there.
-How do I know that this will degrease?
-We have two choices.
We either do chemical analysis, or we go and have a fry-up.
-And we try and clean the dishes.
-You're talking my language.
A fry-up, come on then.
If my husband is watching, I would like to point out,
I'm having breakfast with another man in the interests of science.
As Mark creates a nice greasy feast to test our limonene on,
I get my first chance to look around a scientist's flat.
"Home-made Contemporary Russian Folk Artefacts."
Do you want to come and look at my Russian artefacts? Good grief.
Table by the window - doesn't get much better than this.
'This could possibly be the first time that bacon, eggs
'and orange juice have been used as tools of scientific research.'
Fantastic. My personal chef.
'It's time to test our precious few drops of pure limonene.
'Will this innocuous-looking substance justify its reputation
'as a Wonderstuff?'
Put it on the plate. You can see it.
You can see the oil and a bit water there.
-Look at that!
-That is actually quite impressive.
God, that is really impressive.
You're surprised, aren't you?
It is not that I have a reputation for demos not quite going to plan, but this is nice.
Look at that! That's pretty good.
'What are these tiny drops of limonene actually doing to the grease on my plate?'
It's like a sort of liquid sponge.
This is one of the best hydrocarbon solvents.
-It has a Kb value of 67.
-What's a Kb value?
If you have a high Kb value you're an excellent solvent for hydrocarbons.
The top is toluene, 105. Limonene is 67,
which is really pretty good if you consider that white spirits,
which is something we consider as being absolutely brilliant on paint, even, is 37.
It just so happens that limonene really attracts lots of oil.
The oil on the plate is sticking to the plate and likes being on the plate,
but when it comes in contact with limonene,
it thinks "I would much rather be swimming around in limonene!"
It has a much greater affinity with the molecules
and so it quickly skedaddles into any drop of limonene.
But it still retains its liquid nature.
If you have a sponge or something,
you can just wipe it off and down the drain it goes.
Who'd have thought that something as simple as orange rind
could give us a user-friendly cleaning agent that tackles the worst grease we can throw at it?
To me it trounces the competition
because it comes from a completely renewable waste product
that literally grows on trees.
Best of all, it has the delicious smell of oranges.
Limonene can also be extracted from lemons, as the name suggests.
It cleans up everything from chain oil to good old lard.
It also turns up in cosmetics, food flavouring and glue.
Some research even suggests that limonene
could turn out to be a possible treatment for cancer.
Now that really would be extraordinary stuff.
Now, when I started this programme,
I'll be honest, I didn't think
that the words "natural" and "chemical" sit in the same sentence,
particularly when it comes to household cleaning products.
But now I know they can.
The same stuff our ancestors extracted from deer antlers
is still going strong today.
They are just not leaving any trace behind at all.
The breakthrough of getting clean clothes
AND low temperature is down to natural enzymes made by
bacteria that thrive in the world's most inhospitable places.
Oh my God, look! It's almost gone completely now.
It just goes to show that nature really is the original mother of invention.
Who knows what other miraculous natural substances are out there
just waiting to make our modern lives that bit easier?
'Next time, I lift the lid on our household life-savers.'
-That is your problem.
'I discover some crafty chemicals that clear the nasty blockages others can't reach.'
Here we go, we have lift-off. Yeuch!
'Mark attempts to win me over...'
'...by generating electricity between us.'
Is it going to explode?
'And I endure freezing temperatures to find the remarkable bug
'whose blood could stop your car exploding.'
That is absolutely astonishing.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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The second episode investigates some of the natural wonderstuffs in our household cleaners. What precisely makes an effective cleaner and why doesn't one cleaner suit all jobs? Jane Moore reveals some unexpected natural science in action in biological washing powder, citrus degreasers and shiny surface cleaners.