The Future of Laundry: No More Water

Well, at least 90% less of it, thanks to a new technique using dirt-busting plastic pellets

Dry Cleaning
Brian Klutch

Clean your clothes without putting them—or your utility bills—through the wringer. Xeros's prototype washing machine uses 90 percent less water than ordinary models, which also eliminates energy-intensive spin cycles and dryer blasts.

The machine replaces all but one tenth of the usual water and about one third of the usual detergent with 0.1-inch plastic beads, reusable for hundreds of washes. The beads are made of the same nylon as many carpets, because the properties that make nylon easy to stain also make it a great scrubber: Its polarized molecules attract soil, and in the humidity created by a little water, the polymer chains separate slightly to absorb grime and lock it into the beads' cores.

Xeros aims to put machines in commercial laundries next year, where they will use eight gallons of water instead of 80 for each 45-pound load. They may be cleaning your favorite T-shirts at home within several years.

How to Clean Your Clothes with Plastic
Nylon beads sit in the outer of two nested drums. When both drums rotate, the absorbent beads fall through the mesh of the inner drum to tumble with your laundry, where they dislodge and trap dirt. After the wash cycle finishes, the outer drum stops moving and centripetal force pushes the beads back through the mesh into the outer drum, where they await your next mess.Paul Wootton

In Related News: Appliances that Know When to Run

Cool Money
A Demand Response fridge can delay a defrost cycle until electricity is cheap.Courtesy GE

Soon your washer could make financial decisions. GE's upcoming Demand Response appliances communicate with the electric company, so they can choose to run at lower wattage when energy demand is high. That can reduce the need for more power plants and, as utilities begin to charge more during peak hours, save consumers cash.

The appliances depend on new home electric meters, in development by some local utilities, that contain a cellphone chip or other long-distance transceiver to download citywide energy-use information. The meters route this info to home refrigerators, washers and microwaves outfitted with shorter-range transceivers, such as low-power radio chips. The appliances can then run at full blast during the cheapest periods and ramp down, or even turn off, during expensive periods; customers can override the settings if they really need to nuke dinner. GE is now conducting trials with Louisville Gas and Electric. Look for Demand Response appliances, as well as widespread time-of-use pricing, in 2011 or 2012. —Sarah Parsons