When it comes to revolutionary inventions of the 20th century, electric washing machines are right up there with automobiles and personal computers. With the press of a button, a load of laundry that had once taken in excess of four hours to clean was reduced to a 40-minute automated process. Some economists have even credited the time-saving appliance with precipitating the rise of women in the workforce during the 1950s, as homemakers were suddenly freed up to take up other pursuits.
But for all its neccesary convenience, the conventional washing machine has remained, to this day, a resource-intensive technology that requires as much as 55 gallons of water per load and electricity to heat the water. Nor is it even the most efficient method for removing stains. “Machine washing is like trying to clean your clothes by giving it a bath,” explains Jonathan Benjamin, a longtime industry executive and head of Xeros Cleaning’s North American operations. “Not all the dirt gets washed away as some of it just gets moved around in all that water.”
Since 2010, the UK-based startup has been introducing into several markets a radical, nearly-waterless machine that allegedly leaves clothes cleaner while using 72 percent less water, cutting energy costs by as much as 47 percent. The Xeros cleaning system, found at select athletic clubs, drop-off cleaners and Hyatt hotels, does this by swapping out water for tiny plastic beads specially-engineered to absorb dirt directly—and therefore more effectively—from fabric.
University of Leeds chemist Stephen Burkinshaw initially developed the nylon polymer material as a means of transfering dyes onto fabrics. Reversing the process, he thought, would pull stains from fabrics into the material. He began experiementing with nylon polymers, which possess an inherent polarity that makes them a magnet for stains. That's why clothing made from nylon tends to stay dingy even after several wash cycles. The durable nylon polymer beads Burkinshaw created were formulated with polymer chains that seperated slightly in the presence of humidity, allowing stains to be absorbed and locked into their core.
From there, Xeros was founded to incorporate the beads' stain-collecting properties into a commercially-viable device that functioned much like traditional washing machines. After several prototypes, engineers were able to perfect an easy-to-operate system that only involves loading it with about a cup of water, along with a small amount of detergent, prior to starting a wash cycle. Once activated, the machine releases the water, detergent and polymer beads into the spinning laundry chamber. The biggest challenge, Benjamin says, was developing a mechanism for removing the beads before the cycle stops and the garments are taken out. “We spent a lot of time figuring out an optimal size and shape for the beads as well as the mechanics of getting them in and out of the machine,” he added.
The team eventually settled on what he describes as a “drum-in-drum” separation technique, where the beads are spun into holes located along the surface of the rotating drum and pumped back into a storage compartment to be reused. While the process removes about 99.95 percent of the safe, nontoxic beads, it does leave behind about a dozen or so pieces that can be collected using a vacuum wand. Nylon polymer, which has a dirt-storing capacity of about 100 load cycles (or about six months of use for a typical family), can also be recycled, as the material is used in the manufacturing of car dashboards.
Besides being environmentally and wallet-friendly, Benjamin points out that tests have shown that the process not only removes more dirt, but also preserves the integrity of your clothes better than regular machine washing. “The technology doesn't involve hot water, which can damage clothes, so linens would last longer,” he says. “You can even wash items that you can't typically, like over-sized stuffed animals.”
The company hopes to have a home-appliance version ready for the retail market in about two years.