UK team claims machine wash revolution

2 min read

A prototype washing machine that uses 90 per cent less water and 30 per cent less energy than conventional machines has been developed by a team of British engineers.

The cleaning process, patented by Leeds University start-up company Xeros, employs reusable nylon polymer beads which act as a cleaning agent to remove dirt from clothes.

The technology, which was first reported by The Engineer in 2008, was recently developed into a working prototype by Cambridge Consultants.

Xeros aim to have its first commercial products available by the end of 2010.

Machines using these new reusable nylon polymer beads are expected to clean clothes in less time than conventional washing. Additional energy can be saved by reducing the need to tumble dry.

The discovery that certain types of polymer beads could be used as a cleaning agent was made by Stephen Burkinshaw, a textile chemistry professor from Leeds University.

The technology, which was first demonstrated in the laboratory, has had to overcome several technical hurdles to prove that it could be scaled to a commercial product.

Nathan Wrench, programme manager at Cambridge Consultants, said the main challenge was finding a way to remove the nylon polymer beads from the damp clothes at the end of each cycle. The polymer beads were capable of cleaning small pieces of cloth in the laboratory, but the beads had a tougher time working on real clothes with multiple folds and pockets.

‘The beads have a tendency to stick, and they find every crevice and pocket and fill them up,’ he said.

Wrench said his group designed a washing machine that showed how the beads could come into contact with the clothes and then separate out again.

‘In construction the machine is slightly unconventional,’ he said. ‘Externally it looks like an ordinary front loading washing machine, but the drum is constructed with two concentric drums which are independently driven.’

In order to wash the clothes, the drums are both driven so the beads and clothes can mingle together. A typical wash takes 20 minutes.

Following that, Wrench said the inner drum is run alone for 10 minutes to knock all the beads through the drum’s mesh holes into a space between the two drums. The area works like a storage reservoir.

‘The beads last for 500 cycles, but we’re looking to develop them further to extend that,’ he said.

Xeros claim to have proven the technology’s environmental credentials by commissioning an independent Life Cycle Assessment from URS Corporation. According to Xeros, the URS report found that the process has the potential to display a significantly smaller carbon footprint than that of a conventional wash. The figures showed that for the UK alone, it offers a positive environmental impact equivalent to taking two million cars off the road.

The company plans to first market its product to the commercial washing market including hotels, care homes, and high street washing outlets.

Further into the future, the company also intends to license the technology to domestic machine manufacturers enabling them to capture a larger domestic market. It is estimated the global market for laundry products next year is expected to reach around $50bn.