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Monday, June 2, 2014

Washing clothes with 1.3 million polymer beads instead of hot water

David Brooks

It’s a good day when I learn a new word, so let us pause and admire “ullage,” encountered while preparing today’s column about a weird cleaning technology that has gotten a financial boost from a local natural-gas utility.

Ullage sounds a fiefdom from the Domesday Book – “Lord Wooster’s family dates back to the Ullage of Plonk-on-Thames” – but actually it refers to the unfilled space in a container. In this case, the container is a washing machine that contains 1.3 million tiny polymer beads along with the laundry. ...

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It’s a good day when I learn a new word, so let us pause and admire “ullage,” encountered while preparing today’s column about a weird cleaning technology that has gotten a financial boost from a local natural-gas utility.

Ullage sounds a fiefdom from the Domesday Book – “Lord Wooster’s family dates back to the Ullage of Plonk-on-Thames” – but actually it refers to the unfilled space in a container. In this case, the container is a washing machine that contains 1.3 million tiny polymer beads along with the laundry.

The beads, developed from research at the University of Leeds in Great Britain, are key to a technology by a company called Xeros, which says that they can reduce water usage by up to 80 percent and natural gas usage by up to 100 percent.

Yes, 100 percent, because no hot water is needed – which is why Liberty Utilities gave $28,000 to Sterling Linen Services, one of the largest commercial hospitality laundries in New England, for installing the Xeros Commercial Laundry System at its Manchester headquarters.

It’s part of an industry push to encourage energy efficiency, which in turn is an example of a weird efficiency dance done by utilities. They make money selling electricity, gas, water and the like, but society needs us to use less of those things so sometimes they end up undermining their own business. This efficiency dance, and similar dances in many industries, is vital if America is going to thrive in the “post-carbon” industrial world that is coming whether we like it or not.

However, the geeky interest here isn’t energy policy but the arrival of something new in a staid industry like commercial laundry.

“This technology hasn’t changed in 60 years,” David Kaupp, vice president of marketing for Xeros, said in a recent phone interview.

Xeros tells it this way: The University of Leeds is located in a former textile city that no longer makes many textiles but still has connections to the business (think a much older UMass-Lowell).

Researchers there were looking for a better way to make dyes adhere to clothing and were experimenting with tiny beads made of the plastic-like molecules called polymers. Lots of tiny spheres have a cumulatively huge surface area, and polymers react with dyes in various conditions, so they thought that tumbling fabric with lots of color-containing spheres might be an effective way to evenly transfer dyes.

“Then they thought, what if we reverse the polarity of this technology” to remove material instead of applying it, said Kaupp. Polarity is the distribution of electric charge at the molecular level.

“That was the ‘Aha! moment’,” he said. “It worked. It really worked well.”

However, commercializing laboratory findings is rarely straightforward, and it took years for the company to figure out the details of the process. For example, what’s the best ratio of beads to laundry to ullage (I got to use the word!).

What size, mass and density of bead can best sneak into the folds of cloth in a tumbling drum, without being suspended in a lot of water, and still be recovered at the end? What polymer chemistry and polarity will maximize absorption and transfer of dirt from cloth to bead? And what is possible without costing so much that nobody will buy it?

Xeros officially entered the U.S. market last summer, aiming at large commercial customers like hotels and hospitals that do lots of laundry. You can’t use standard washers, since the system has to insert and then remove the beads, as well as some chemicals (half the volume of traditional detergent use, Xeros claims), so they do a turnkey installation.

“We operate under an eight-year lease agreement. It involves the machines, the chemicals, beads, installation, service, maintenance, marketing, everything,” said Kaupp.

The beads, a half to one millimeter in diameter, can do 500 to 1,000 washes before they’ve absorbed so much dirt that they must be replaced, Kaupp said.

All this isn’t available for you and me unless you own a chain of commercial laundries, but Kaupp said Xeros is looking at making a residential system. And there may be other unexpected applications.

“The beads are the technology. There may be other applications in the future for the polymer beads to be used for cleaning – as for now, commercial laundry was the way to go for it,” he said.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).