Washing machines: Waterless washers

A new machine uses tiny, electrically charged balls to clean your clothes.

Most Canadians wouldn’t think twice of tossing in a load of laundry, but for the 2.5 billion people on Earth who don’t have access to enough water for sanitation, a washing machine isn’t an option. Enter the Xeros, a practically waterless washing machine.

The U.K.-based Xeros tumbles thousands of nylon polymer beads around with dirty clothes in a machine that looks like a front-load washer. The tiny beads have an inherent polarity — an electrical charge that attracts stains to its core — and at the end of the process, the bits are strained out through a slot for reuse. Even the biggest loads of laundry require only one cup of water, a drop of detergent, and take just 30 minutes.

While the Xeros team thinks polymer cleaning could be a good alternative for numerous industrial and domestic products, they focused on laundry. Company CEO Bill Westwater says that if everyone in the U.S. switched to a Xeros machine for 2011, they would collectively save 17 million swimming pools of water. Plus, the Xeros uses less electricity, and there’s no need for a dryer.

So far, consumer demand has been lacklustre, but at the Technology World forum last December, rumours surfaced that Xeros was approached by a leading washing machine manufacturer about buying the patent to avoid competition. Thanks to $5.4 million from a series of investors in November, however, Xeros says it turned the offer down, and is planning an initial launch in the commercial laundry market by the end of 2011. If the Xeros does make it to market, it could mean dramatic changes for laundry in countries like Israel, which spends 52.7? per cubic metre to desalinate water for some of its population.