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The Washing Machine of the Future May Use Beads Instead of Water

A new washing machine cuts down on water use with deep-cleaning polymer beads

(Xeros, Inc.)
smithsonian.com

Water-saving tips are welcome for the eco-minded and required for the drought-stricken. Appliance manufacturers are well aware of this demand, and the latest innovation in the washing machine biz is surprising: plastic beads.

John Wenz reports for Popular Mechanics on a machine from Xeros that uses recyclable plastic beads to cut down on water use by 80 percent. Front-loading machines today use about 20 gallons a load, but not this unusual washer. The company explains that their machine uses polymer beads that mix with the laundry and detergent to reduce the need for water.

As they tumble through the cycle, the beads "lift the stains away from the laundry in the wash, like a million tiny hands performing flexing motions on the fabric of each item in the wash." A special extraction cycle separates the beads from the load, cleans them and adds them back while the cycle runs. Wenz writes that their weight causes them to drop to the bottom of the washer when the cycle finishes. 

The beads only last between 500 and 1000 cycles, at which point they can be recycled, explains Jonathan Benjamin, president of Xeros, Inc., in the Popular Mechanics article. Most find a second life as dashboards in new cars.

If the thought of a futuristic bead machine makes you want to run to your local appliance store, think again — the machines are only available for industrial-scale washing at places like hotels, laundromats and dry cleaners. But the system could make its way to consumers within the next decade. 

Beads aren't the only thing giving washing machines a futuristic makeover. Meg Neal reports for Gizmodo on tiny washing machines, portable ones and one machine that's vibrates dirt from clothes when dunked in a sink. In the near future, all sorts of water-saving devices that look and sound surprising now may become commonplace.

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