A World Without Washing Machines: How Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials Work With Self-Cleaning Fabrics

A World Without Washing Machines: How Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials Work With Self-Cleaning Fabrics

By Olimpia Onelli

Enjoying some sun while the laundry takes care of itself might be a dream not that far away. Researchers at RMIT’s Ian Potter Nanosensing Facility in Melbourne have developed a new way to fabricate self-cleaning cotton using light [1]. Their approach is extremely innovative and promises exciting applications in terms of multifunctional fabrics like nylon and polyester.

The Science Behind Self-Cleaning Clothes

Traditionally, self-cleaning materials are inspired by the super-hydrophobic nanostructures found in nature. The most famous example being the Lotus leaf, whose high water repellency is due to micro- and nano-sized architectures that minimize the adherence of droplets to the surface [2].

However, the approach of Anderson and colleagues is quite different: by using metals such as silver and copper, they are able to exploit the resonant oscillation of conduction electrons (known as “surface plasmon resonance”) to degrade organic materials that get stuck in between the cotton fibres of shirts, pants and other garments. In other words, when the metallic nanoparticles get excited by light, they stimulate chemical reactions that deteriorate molecule strapped in fabrics. Thus, you have self-cleaning clothes.

Cotton and Other Fabrics That Can Self-Clean

It is important to mention that this enhanced reactivity works best with cotton because the  hierarchical structure of the cotton fibres form micro-sized meshes and nanoscale structures that  maximize the surface area involved in the reaction. Though, the process might work in other fibers such as polyester and nylon, where the team at RMIT university has also reported successful trials. [3].

From Science to Market:

Other possible shortcomings of the self-cleaning clothes method have also been assessed. One of the major concerns is that the fabric might lose its properties if washed in a traditional way. Luckily, the new material has been shown to resist up to 15 washes without damaging clothes.  

Furthermore, the amount of light needed for the self-cleaning reactions to occur has also been minimized and it’s currently around 40 minutes.

Environmental Concerns of Self-Cleaning Clothes

However, some questions are still standing. First of all, there is the problem of scalability. Anderson and collaborators are using electroless deposition to coat the fabrics with metal nanoparticles. As a benefit, this  fairly straightforward method coats clothes evenly without using electrical power. However, it poses a different environmental risk. This technique involves high waste treatment costs as the chemicals involved have to be renewed very often.

Health and Safety Concerns of Self-Cleaning Clothes

In addition to this, nanoparticles pose health and safety risks. In the lab, they have to be handled with extreme care and this might pose a problem when it comes to scaling up to the industry-level.

Are Self-Cleaning Clothes Affordable?

To be a real hit, self-cleaning fabrics need to be affordable. In this early stage of research, it is difficult to estimate the production price of a single pair of jeans that don’t need the washing machine. However, this is a crucial factor for the future applications of this technique.

Overall, we are really excited to hear about the new developments in the field of nanotechnology, and we’re looking forward to the day this invention- a potential disruptive technology– will enter our everyday life and change the way we do laundry for the better.


[1] Anderson S. R., Mohammadtaheri M., Kumar D., O’Mullane A. P., Field M. R., Ramanathan R., Bansal V. (2016). Robust Nanostructured Silver and Copper Fabrics with Localized Surface Plasmon Resonance Property for Effective Visible Light Induced Reductive Catalysis. Adv. Mater. Interfaces, 3: 1500632. doi: 10.1002/admi.201500632

[2] http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5592

[3] http://money.cnn.com/2016/03/24/technology/self-cleaning-laundry/index.html

Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

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