Soap that responds to magnets means hazardous spills could one day be very easily cleaned up. The soap contains tiny iron atoms that form particles along with the material the soap has been deployed to clean up; these particles can then be easily removed with a magnetic field.
It turns out that while adding the iron atoms to the soap was fairly simple, understanding how the chemistry works is a bit more complicated. Even for the scientists involved. So how did the discovery come about?
The scientific team responsible for the find knew that soap is made up of long molecules with ends that act differently. One end is attracted to water and the other repels it. The cleansing action of soap comes from the water repellent end grabbing on to dirt that surfaces; the molecules then form droplets with the water loving end facing outward.
When iron atoms were added, the droplets that formed were attracted to magnets as simply as if they were iron filings. Despite the positive outcome, the research team needed to find out more as they knew iron atoms themselves don't display magnetic properties.
The team sent the samples of the soap they created to samples to the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France to be studied at a molecular level. After being subjected to a beam of sub-atomic neutrons, they discovered the iron atoms were clumping together into iron nanoparticles that would respond to a magnetic field.
The prototype soap magnet has been detailed in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie, and holds great promise for cleaning oil spills and waste-water.
Report co-author Julian Eastoe of the University of Bristol, told BBC News: "The research at the University of Bristol in this field is about how we can take the ordinary and give it extraordinary properties by chemical design. We have uncovered the principle by which you can generate this kind of material and now it's back to the drawing board to make it better."
While still just in the laboratory stage, it is an idea that can't come to soon to deal with the pressures we are placing on our fragile environment.