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Are there any type of detergent/surfactant chemicals that would be good for removing dirt and grease from fabric that also would evaporate from the clothes within, say, 24 hours leaving no residue?

Googling "volatile surfactant" turned up fluorocarbons and something called Surfynol 61, which is really 3,5-Dimethylhex-1-in-3-ol as possible candidates. I don't know if these would be safe for laundry.

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  • $\begingroup$ Instead of looking for some magic chemical, why don't you tell us what you're trying to clean, and what has stained it. $\endgroup$ – MaxW Dec 14 '15 at 21:33
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Volatile surfactants

There are many molecules that are both surfactants (in water) and volatile, but of the ones I can think of, none can be used safely in home laundry applications.

  1. Hydrocarbon derivatives. The examples you found by googling are in this class. 3,5-dimethyl-1-hexyn-3-ol is the principal component of Surfynol 61 (probably named Surfynol 61 because it is a surface-active (surf) alkyne alcohol (ynol) with six carbons (6) and the alkyne moiety at carbon one (1). Other examples would be medium-chain fatty alcohols like hexanol, octanol, cyclohexanol, etc. These molecules reduce surface tension of water and have OK-ish cleaning power (not as good as larger but non-volatile alternatives like SDS), but their volatility is also their downfall: their use in home environments creates a strong fire and explosion hazard when used in automatic heated dryers.

  2. Fluorocarbon derivatives. I found the same article you probably did about volatile fluorocarbon surfactants. The most powerful at reducing the surface tension of water seems to be nonafluoro-tert-butyl alcohol, which reduces water surface tension by 78%! However this experiment required saturating the water with the vapor of this compound. And 1 gram costs >$80. And toxicity is a concern, despite this compound apparently being researched as a component of or precursor to artificial blood mixtures in the 1970s.

  3. Other halocarbon derivatives. These include solvents like perchloroethylene, chlorobutanol, etc. These are all highly toxic, and with some of them, there is a flammability/explosion risk as with hydrocarbon derivatives.

Non-surfactant use

You might consider just using organic solvents that are not (very) surface active as a way to degrease fabric. However, these may leach dyes out of the fabric or otherwise damage them. Isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is accessible to home users, and is relatively safe. Be sure to do the soaking in a well-ventilated area, and do not use heated dryers to remove the IPA! Instead, rinse out the IPA thoroughly with water. Depending on local regulations, you will have to dispose of all of the dirty IPA and IPA-contaminated rinsing water as solvent waste.

The best option

Pay to have your clothes dry cleaned!

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Really, you want to rinse your surfactant out of your clothes. There's not much point in making an emulsion of your grease, then leaving it there till the surfactant evaporates. You want to emulsify the grease to render it water-dispersable, then disperse it in water, then remove the water as a liquid, then let the remaining water evaporate. To clean anything the surfactant has to leave in the aqueous/liquid phase of the cleaning solution. The use of a volatile surfactant would be to suspend an oily substance in water, and then leave it behind when the water/surfactant evaporate.

If you just want to wash out an oily substance without water, then as in dry cleaning, you just need a solvent, not a surfactant (and still want to remove it in the liquid phase). So if you want to clean a greasy stain, add the solvent, then blot it off. Acetone (or the previously mentioned isopropyl alcohol) would probably work well, with the stuff you don't blot off easily evaporating (or coming out in water).

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Chemistry SE Nice first answer :) $\endgroup$ – Mithoron Dec 14 '15 at 21:12
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May the force of additives be of aid to you!

Beforehand, choose an easier type of detergent:

"Surface-acting polyglucosides [which are] easily broken down by microbes, leaving no traces in the environment", is one (Quellen, 213).

What is slow to biodegrade may not be used as often-inform yourself, and go from there!

And please, be safe.

Source:

Why There's Antifreeze in Your Toothpaste: the Chemistry of Household Ingredients. P 213. Quellen, Simon. 2008.

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  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Polysaccharides are not volatile. $\endgroup$ – Curt F. Sep 9 '15 at 2:35
  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Chemistry.SE! Take the tour to get familiar with this site. Mathematical expressions and equations can be formatted using $\LaTeX$ syntax. If you have a NEW question, please ask it by clicking the Ask Question button. If you have sufficient reputation, you may upvote the question. Alternatively, "star" it as a favourite and you will be notified of any new answers. $\endgroup$ – Martin - マーチン Sep 9 '15 at 4:53

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