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Could this be the end of washing? Scientists at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia have discovered a cheap and efficient new way to grow nanostructures—teeny tiny metal structures that can degrade organic matter when exposed to light—directly on fabric. The result? A new breed of self-cleaning textiles that expel dirt and stains when placed under a light bulb or worn out in the sun. It doesn’t take long, either. Fabrics used in tests have so far required less than six minutes to “spontaneously clean” themselves, according to Rajesh Ramanathan, a postdoctoral fellow at RMIT’s School of Science.

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“The advantage of textiles is they already have a [three-dimensional] structure so they are great at absorbing light, which in turn speeds up the process of degrading organic matter,” he said in a statement. “There’s more work to do to before we can start throwing out our washing machines, but this advance lays a strong foundation for the future development of fully self-cleaning textiles.”

Researchers from RMIT’s Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility and NanoBiotechnology Research Lab at RMIT worked with copper- and silver-based nanostructures, which are completely undetectable to the naked eye but known to readily absorb visible light.

When the nanoparticles are exposed to light, they absorb its energy, creating “hot electrons.”

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These excited electrons release a “burst of energy,” Ramanathan says, enabling the nanostructures to break down organic matter, such as dirt, and eliminate it from the textile fibers.

The challenge now is for Ramanathan and company to build these nanostructures on an industrial scale while permanently affixing them to textiles.

This would allow clothing to refresh itself without relying on water or the many chemicals found in popular detergents. We might even be looking at a future where washing machines are obsolete.

“Our next step will be to test our nano-enhanced textiles with organic compounds that could be more relevant to consumers, to see how quickly they can handle common stains like tomato sauce or wine,” Ramanathan said.

+ Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology