Last week, ScientificAmerican.com reported on the resurrection of olestra—a chemical once touted as the great fat alt in chips and crackers that tumbled when it turned out that it triggered gastrointestinal problems in those who chomped products containing it. The new use of olestra's chemical cousins had nothing to do with food but rather with making ecofriendly paints and lubricants.
At the time, scientists for Procter & Gamble, which makes olestra, weren't available to dish on the new olestra-like chemicals. But since then, we've had a chance to chat with them and find out a bit more info about the new line of chemicals dubbed Sefose.
According to Robert Starghill, a P&G chemical engineer, Sefose is made from a combo of sugar and vegetable oil (usually soybean). (FYI: You can't just make Sefose by mixing together oil and sugar in a bowl; the process requires tightly controlled temperature and pressure conditions and the use of special chemicals called catalysts to speed chemical reactions, Starghill says.)
Starghill and P&G chemist Victor Arredondo say Sefose could be used to replace two harmful ingredients commonly found in oil paints: resins (which make the paint's pigment stick to surfaces) and solvents (which prevent the paints from becoming too gooey to brush over surfaces). Resins and solvents typically found in oil paints used on bridges, school lockers, and other metal surfaces are derived from petroleum and emit volatile organic compounds (VOC's), which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, may cause airway irritation, headaches, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidney, and central nervous system. VOCs also react in the atmosphere and produce smog, as Dean Webster, a chemist at North Dakota State University in Fargo, points out in our previous post on Olestra. Sefose performs the same function as resins and solvents, but it doesn't release VOCs or any particles into the air, Arredondo notes. The other advantage to Sefose paints, he adds, is that they create a glossy finish like other oil paints but are more resistant to scratching.
Sefose-based deck stains are actually already on store shelves, according to P&G spokesperson Ross Holthouse, but he would not provide the name of the product because it is still undergoing consumer testing to see if it will catch on. A person buying the stain would probably not know it contains Sefose because there is no indication on the label and its durability and performance resembles that of oil-based products, Holthouse says.
As for using Sefose to replace petroleum-based lubricants, Starghill says that P&G is just beginning to do in-house testing on small machines such as drills but that eventually it plans to reach out to companies that manufacture large machines such as jackhammers.
Image of Sefose molecule © P & G