No need for washing machines: These nano-enhanced textiles developed at Melbourne’s RMIT clean themselves with light

Researchers at one of Victoria’s leading public universities, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), have developed a sophisticated nanotechnology with a seemingly endless capacity for practical application – including the manufacture of self-cleaning clothes.

You could be forgiven for thinking it was science fiction. But the advanced research and nanotechnology techniques developed at RMIT’s Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility are very real, and they are poised to make a positive impact across social, environmental, and business spheres.

The team of nanotechnology researchers, led by Dr Rajesh Ramanathan, developed an inexpensive and efficient means to grow copper and silver-based nanostructures directly onto textiles by dipping cotton fabrics in various solutions.

These nano-enhanced textiles have the ability to degrade organic matter when exposed to both natural and artificial light creating ‘energy boosts’ of hot electrons, which in turn degrade organic matter.

“Impregnating textile fabrics with the nanomaterials is a relatively simple, inexpensive and environment-friendly process,” says team leader Dr Ramanathan of RMIT. “This means the technology can readily be adapted to existing manufacturing processes employed by the textile industry.”

This groundbreaking technology paves the way for new nano-enhanced garments that can spontaneously self-clean organic stains while being worn during day-to-day activities. Under lab conditions, the enhanced textiles took less than six minutes to clean themselves when exposed to light.

An important first step will be to efficiently scale the technology to industrial levels for pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries. Eventually, the technology could be used for manufacturing items like sports clothing, bed linen, and furniture upholstery textiles.

It’s hoped that these nanostructures will eventually be capable of removing common stains from fabrics with only a few minutes exposure to light.

For researchers, the challenge now is to develop methods that would allow these nanostructures to be built on an industrial scale and enable them to be permanently attached to textiles.

Production of antibacterial textiles that are resistant to superbugs would reduce maintenance in industrial applications. Self-cleaning seats on public buses and trains could have major benefits to the public and would reduce cleaning costs and operational down time.

“The advantage of textiles is they already have a 3D structure so they are great at absorbing light, which, in turn, speeds up the process of degrading organic matter.”

The initial development has been tested on cotton based textiles. The research team believes it will be possible to grow the nano-structures on other types of fabric, opening the doors for innovations in hospitality, healthcare and retail sectors.

“Our next step will be to test our nano-enhanced textiles with organic compounds that could be more relevant to consumers, to see how quickly they can handle common stains like tomato sauce or wine”

While it’s still too early to throw away your washing machines, the future is looking good for laundry haters.