Picture a chart mapping the rising cost of petroleum, and another showing demand for greener cleaning products. Overlap them, and you’ll see why the number of oxygen and biobased cleaning products are growing at an exponential rate.

Petroleum replaced most organic-based cleaners in the United States during the mid-20th century as an inexpensive alternative, but the pendulum is swinging back. In 1998 President Bill Clinton mandated all federal buildings use biobased cleaners. Four years later the Farm Security and

Rural Investment Act ordered all federal agencies to give preference to biobased compounds. Now public schools and forward-thinking facilities are mandating greener cleaning to protect the environment and occupants from illness — and in the case of schools, loss of funding associated with absenteeism.

To meet these growing demands, scientists are refining existing cleaning products and formulating new ones based on oxygen, bacteria, organic and renewable organic resources. These products are effective, more readily biodegradable than manmade ingredients, are less toxic, and have lower odor, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and flash points than chlorine, glycol, mineral spirits and industrial products. They’re increasingly formulated for end user simplicity and satisfaction, both during cleaning, and at disposal. As the science behind these compounds matures, so do their number of applications, markets, features and benefits.

These innovations also provide a market for our country’s own natural resources, farmers and local economies, and minimizes our reliance on costly petroleum and foreign oil.

Solvents And Surfactants

Recent innovations in biobased products are related to the merger of hydrogen peroxide (HP), a surfactant, with a biobased solvent, such as citrus peel-derived, technical grade d-Limonene. Chemists then figured out how to stabilize these merged chemicals for a longer shelf life of five to six years, vs. mere weeks.

“That’s a major advantage,” says Jeff Green, president of Royal Sanitary Supply, Englewood, Colo. “Also, the bottle won’t pop — which is a benefit to the distributor storing it in their warehouse.”

Citrus derived technical-grade d-Limonene is a powerful solvent that works on grease, tar, paint and oil. It is an active ingredient in various air fresheners, glass cleaners, multipurpose degreasing cleaners, furniture polishes, hand soap, toilet bowl cleaners and drain cleaners. It can also be used for carpet cleaning and spotting. As an odor eliminator it works on even tough areas like dumpsters and garbage compaction areas. The product even has a fresh, citrus scent.

“Another orange product is a sanitizer that has a 99.999 percent kill rate within 30 seconds,” says Stan Halpern, environmental cleaning consultant for Healthy Clean Buildings, Melville, N.Y.

Designed for NASA, it’s the only sanitizing agent used in space capsules or ships, where they can’t afford to have chemical mishaps or noxious fumes, Halpern says.

Hydrogen peroxide boosts the cleaning power of solvents like d-Limonene.

“The closest animal to HP is chlorine bleach,” says Halpern. “Both do oxidizing, kill bacteria and have bleaching abilities, but the difference is the gas they release. HP releases access oxygen (chlorine bleach gas is poisonous, and more toxic than asbestos fiber). Oxygenated products are safe replacements for chlorine bleach. It’s one concentrate you mix with an automatic dispensing system at different dilution rates, for up to 22 different cleaning functions.”

These functions include cleaning hard-surface floors, carpets and everything in restrooms from the mirrors to the toilet.

“It won’t hurt any surface that water won’t hurt,” says Gary Rice, sales representative for Unique Products, Yorkville, Ill.

The innovation of this product is not only in formulation and delivery, but also in cost.

“It’s economical because it’s so highly concentrated,” says Rice. “You can get over 50 quarts of glass cleaner from one gallon of this concentrate. You mix it with cold water, so the soap doesn’t escape in the steam, and remains on the surface. You have manpower savings not waiting for water to heat up, as well as not going from product to product, and not managing a lot of different material safety data sheets (MSDS).”

Emerging Biobased Solvents

Like citrus, soy bean, a.k.a. methyl soyate, imparts a more pleasing odor than many traditional cleaners, and its high flash point means it’s safer to have on premise.

“I carry soy-based dust mop treatment, whiteboard cleaner, paint stripper, mastic remover, graffiti remover, grill and oven cleaner,” says Halpern. “Soybean oil started taking off within the last six years, but the diversity has really only occurred in the last three to four years. Most of these soy products didn’t even exist five years ago.”

Corn-based products include solvents, hand sanitizers and biodegradable trash bags. Olive oil is in some furniture polishes. Tea tree and eucalyptus oils suppress odors, and mixed with other compounds, can be used in even tough situations.

“We have an absorbent powder from 100 percent cellulose, impregnated with eucalyptus oil that absorbs 100 times its own weight in liquid,” says Halpern.

Halpern also cites a clay pellet impregnated with eucalyptus oil that absorbs garbage and dumpster odors. With the natural insect repellent citronella added it also helps to keep flies away. While the mix of thyme oil, lemon grass and oregano may sound like a salad dressing, Halpern says together they create a biobased, hospital-grade botanical disinfectant that’s registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“It can knock out HIV and tuberculosis, and is less toxic than vinegar,” says Halpern. “It can also be used for fogging for MRSA in gyms, locker rooms and wrestling rooms.”

The list seems endless: Garlic is a natural insect repellent; mint exterminates bugs by dissolving their exoskeletons; coconut hand soap is naturally fragrant, gentler on skin than synthetic detergents, comes in a concentrated version, and is an exceptional emollient and surfactant; ground walnut shells are a good abrasive in soaps, and hog hairs and coconut fibers are effective in floor scrubbing pads. Bacterial enzyme, cultured from nonpathogenic human stomach bacteria, break down and eat protein matter such as vomit, urine, and stubborn, smelly food stains.

“They eat, breed, and then excrete more enzymes,” says Green. “And as soon as the protein is gone they starve. It surprises me we haven’t used bacterial enzyme in other ways.”

It’s important for distributors and end users not to confuse oxygen and biobased products with safety, even if they have a Green Seal or Environmental Choice Seal. Proper selection, training, reading of MSDSs and following manufacturer’s directions should remain a priority.

“I sell to a lot of schools,” says Halpern, “and to me the product would have to be healthy and safe for children — hence healthy to everybody. You have to be very selective in products you choose of a biobased nature.”

For example, orange oil needs to contain less than 18 percent by volume to be healthy and safe. Orange oil is also considered a terpene, which emits VOCs.

“There is a study out there, that when terpenes mix with ozone, you get the same vapor as would be emitted from formaldehyde,” says Halpern. “Just because it’s natural or biobased doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”

What’s On The Horizon?

Experts agree that the science of biobased cleaning is in its infancy.

“Not all solvents will chemically accept a surfactant, and that’s where technology gets involved,” says Halpern. “If it’s not out there now, tomorrow it can be.”

Like his peers, Green is also bullish on the future of biobased cleaning products.

“Pharmaceutical manufacturers are in the jungle looking for plant derivatives so they can create new drug formulations,” he says. “I think future cleaning chemicals will be made the same way, modeled after nature. Anything that has DNA is more complex than anything man can make. When we are able to control DNA, the products of the future will boggle your mind.”

Lauren Summerstone is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis.