Virtually waterless clothes washing: saving water and energy in the home

Academic: Professor S. Burkinshaw, Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts and Communications

A University of Leeds spin-out company has harnessed over 30 years of research to bring polymer-based systems to market that replace much of the water used in conventional clothes laundering, dramatically reducing cost and environmental impact.

Like many breakthrough ideas, polymer particle cleaning technology originated from transferring known science in one world to an entirely different world.  Research  revealed that the water used in textile wet processing can be divided into  that required for crucially important processes such as fibre wetting and swelling, and ‘bulk’ water that is used in other processes such as agitation and thermal transfer.  It was established that the latter could be undertaken by an alternative, non-aqueous medium and  that polymer particles offered  a low cost, readily available and recyclable alternative.

The concept of waterless washing has attracted global media interest and was voted second in the top 50 ‘2010 Best Inventions’ by TIME Magazine.

The power of polymer cleaning

Extensive research revealed that the best polymer was polyamide, which is unique as it becomes highly absorbent in humid conditions. The resulting clothes washing system usespolyamide beads to replace the vast majority of the water that is employed in conventional laundering.

Leeds founded the company, Xeros Ltd, to commercially exploit the innovative polymer particle system. A series of highly successful field trials showed that the technology delivers superior cleaning performance to conventional commercial washing systems as well as enabling typical savings of up to 70% less water, 50% less chemicals and 50% less energy, meaning significant cost-savings and environmental benefits (including a reduced carbon footprint).

The first real laundry innovation for 60 years

To optimise the technology and prepare products for market, Xeros has established a commercial partnership with the US company GreenEarth Cleaning, the world’s largest dry cleaning brand. In 2012, Xeros sold its first commercial-scale (25kg capacity) machine in the UK and installed its first machine at a major US commercial launderer. Machines are now being sold in the US to hotels and laundries in areas with high water costs.

Xeros was recently floated on the London stock market, raising £30m, and is working on prototypes of a domestic washer (which will not require clothes to be sorted in advance) and separate drier, expected to be launched by 2017.