Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The 'waterless' washing machine that could save you money

New machine by Xeros cleans clothes with beads and a tiny amount of water and may cut household bills by 30%

Alok Jha, green technology correspondent, Tuesday 9 March 2010 16.16 GMT

"Dry" cleaning is set to become a domestic activity with a washing machine that uses 90% less water than a normal laundry cycle and could be available by the end of 2011. The device, developed by Leeds-based Xeros Ltd, replaces water with tiny plastic beads that suck up stains and its producers claim it will shift stubborn pounds from household energy bills as well.
The Xeros process uses 3mm-long nylon beads that can get into all the crevices and folds of clothing and can also be re-used hundreds of times. The beads flood the machine's drum once the clothes are wet and the humidity is at the right level. After the washing cycle is complete, the beads drain away in the same way as water in a conventional machine.
The chief executive of Xeros, Bill Westwater, said: "The net saving in water, detergent and electricity and including the cost of the beads, we calculate, is about a 30% cost saving for the user." He claims the machine has been tested successfully on a range of fabrics stained with everything from mud, red wine and curry stains to ink from ballpoint pens.
According to the Energy Saving Trust, just under one-third of household energy is used to heat water. Laundry washing also accounts for 15% of all household water consumption; meaning if everyone in the UK converted from normal washing to the Xeros system, the carbon emissions saved would be the equivalent of taking 1.4 m cars off the roads. Another perk of the device is that it should allow many delicates to be "dry" cleaned at home.
Xeros has already received research and development funding from Yorkshire Forward and has just returned from a government-sponsored "Clean and Cool" trade mission to the United States, aimed at securing investment from venture capitalists in Silicon Valley in California.
The idea for polymer-based cleaning came from Stephen Burkinshaw, a polymer chemist at Leeds University who spent 30 years working out how to improve the dyeing of plastics used in fabrics. A few years ago he realised that the stains on clothes acted in a similar way to dyes, and he wondered if he could use plastics to attract away the stains.
After experimenting with a range of plastics, he settled on nylon. Thanks to a natural property of the material, nylon beads attract stains to their surface and, in 100% humidity, the molecular structure of the plastic becomes amorphous, so the stains diffuse into the centre of the beads. "Not only are you able to suck the stain off the clothes, you're also able to ensure there's no deposition back onto the clothes," said Westwater.
When the beads are at the end of their life, saturated with dirt and stains, they can be collected and recycled into, for example, dashboards for cars. Eventually Westwater wants to design a closed-loop recycling system for his washing machines, where saturated beads can be refreshed and re-used in Xeros machines.
Westwater has already built a prototype washing machine and aims to have a product ready for the commercial laundry market by the end of next year, with a consumer version coming to market shortly afterwards. "There is more of a technical challenge [in development] as you compact the system. But it's not just about that - there's also consumer inertia. For millenia, people have been washing their clothes with water and a bit of detergent and suddenly we're coming along and saying that most of that water can be replaced by these beads. That's a big leap in the consumers' minds."
Claire Cunningham, a spokesperson for the government-backed Technology Strategy Board, said Xeros had an "interesting and innovative product" and the environmental and financial savings were of particular interest when it was selected to take part, along with the 18 other British clean technology companies, in the Clean and Cool trade mission.