Washing machines are more water-efficient than they used to be (the industry standard is about 15 gallons per load). But they're still a major drain on supplies at a time of rising costs and severe droughts. If we could reduce water use—or even stop using it altogether—that would be better than any advance in efficiency.
This is the vision laid out, more or less, by a British company called Xeros. It's developed a washing machine that uses only about a cup of water per load, substituting liquid for a handful of nylon polymer beads. It claims the machine is 80% more water efficient than a conventional machine, and uses half the energy.
Once added to the wash, the beads become polarized, either absorbing dirt inside their structure, or attracting it to their surface, explains Jonathan Benjamin, who heads Xeros in North America. He compares the process to a microfiber cloth that rounds up dust with static.
"It's much more effective than using just water," he says. "The [old machines] are like taking a bath and you're sitting in water with soil and soap around you. Things don't necessarily come clean. With the Xeros process, it's more like taking a shower. The beads are showered into the load, where they attract or absorb soil, so you can remove it."
See more in the company's video here:
The beads are good for about 500 washes, after which Xeros takes them back and recycles them to the automotive industry. The machine is currently more expensive than a standard model, though Benjamin emphasizes its lower operating costs and environmental profile.
The ideas was developed accidentally in 2007. Stephen Burkinshaw, a professor at the University of Leeds, was looking at beads as a way of fixing dyes, when he realized they might also be good taking particles away from textiles.
Xeros has since sold about 20 machines, mostly to hotels and commercial laundries, with more orders in the pipeline. It recently announced plans to go public, and is looking at expanding into Asia and developing a consumer product. Benjamin expects something on the market within five years, maybe sooner.
The company also plans to license its technology, so we could see its beads in other companies' machines. Alternatively, we could see completely different routes to reduce the washing footprint. LG is working on some kind of "robo-vacuum" model (details remain sketchy). So, things could look quite different before long. We featured some other ideas here.