First published in Catalyst Magazine ‘The Great Unknown’: Issue 3, Edition 72

Time to ditch your washing machine?

 Nanotechnology making textiles self-cleaning in light

Research from RMIT University has been gaining media attention recently. A team of researchers at the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility and NanoBiotechnology Research Lab have developed a technology where textiles can become self cleaning in the presence of light. It’s a solution based process to deposit metal nano structures onto cotton textiles.

Needed to read over that a couple of times? Yeah, me too. To break it down, the team have grown nano structures which break down organic matter (such as stains) when exposed to light. When cotton is dipped into this solution, it becomes covered in the nano particles. When exposed to light, the particles get “excited” and during that stage they clean themselves. Excited when lit. Now that’s a concept I can get my head around.

Dr Rajesh Ramanathan, one of the lead researchers, tells me it has been a three to four year process to develop this technology. It’s a world first development for this type of application. The team’s decision to use a particle which absorbs sunlight is unlike any previous efforts.

“Most of it is absorbing in visible light or infra-red light which is harmless to the body, unlike UV light. You can’t get commercial UV light at home, you would kill yourself. Therefore all the processes would be eco-friendly,” Dr Ramanathan said.

Not only lauded for its eco-friendliness, the development is also being applauded for its efficiency and cost effectiveness.

“The process that we’ve developed is similar to the dyeing process, which is already being used in the industry. It’s not that difficult for this process to be integrated into the mainstream,” he said.

Dr René van der Sluijs, Textile Technologist and Project Manager at CSIRO’s Manufacturing Flagship, says that this sort of research will be going on “on all the time”.

“Everyone is looking at improving the performance of cotton. I think one of the major things is that Australia is seen as having one of the highest quality cottons in the world. Though the use of cotton is decreasing amongst other fibres like polyester, it’s still a very important fibre and still used quite a lot in some fabrics,” Dr René van der Sluijs said.

With fashion giant H&M leading the force for sustainably sourced cotton (all cotton to be sourced from either organic cotton, recycled cotton or cotton from the Better Cotton Initiative by 2020), local brands are slipping at the way side. Cult Melbourne label gorman was originally founded in 2007 on their use of organic cotton. The label now vows to have just 20 percent of their label under the gorman organic collection.

“Another thing with cotton is trying to get it into the high-end market. With the work done by RMIT and others, is to try and capture the markets that we’ve lost to man made fibres. Cotton finds it difficult to compete with more functional fibres, and so that will certainly help to maintain cotton’s marketshare and to make in-roads into some of the markets we’ve lost, such as sportswear,” he said.

The RMIT team are currently working with industries to develop this technology further. Though the names of the companies they are planning to collaborate with are being kept under wraps, Dr Ramanathan managed to give me a little insight.

“We’re planning to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with three companies. I can tell you all three of them are very big on the international scene,” he said.

So when can we expect to throw out our washing machines? Not for another three to five years, Dr Ramanathan hopes. For now I’ll continue to be ignorant about how to use one as I’ll just have to throw it out eventually. Logical? Totally. Scientific? Not so much.


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