About the Laundromat Index

Written by Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser

Few people cherish the idea of having to spend time at a laundromat to clean their undies. Rejoice, help is nigh – in the form of “self-cleaning laundry.” Two days ago, even the American Chemical Society chirped in with a post about the new laundry’s environmental effects.

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Needless to say, the textilian Laundromat Index on the stock exchange is already in freefall.

This revolutionary development comes to you thanks to the invention of “nano”-technology. Nano, of course, is a scientific term, a common prefix, based on the ancient Greek word for dwarf and generally describing something that is one billionth (10^-9) of the reference unit.

Down to Nitty-Gritty

So, for example, a “nano-mile” (a mile being roughly 1,600 meter) would be around 1.6 micrometer.  As the average thickness of a strand of human hair is only 0.00394 inches ( or 100 micrometer) that would equate a nano-mile to approximately 0.00006 inches or 1/70th the diameter of a human hair. In other words, anything “nano” is small, very small! Now, how does that relate to your laundry?

When it comes to the laundry, small is just the beginning though. There other considerations too, like transparency or sheerness (remember the Lulu debacle), fabric design, and so forth. So, what makes the new material so special? The secret is in the embedded nano-metals.

Nano-Metals

Nano-materials can be made from many substances. Nano-metals are just one variety of such and nano-metals, like nano-copper or nano-silver are currently among the most researched nano-materials. Fibres like cotton can be coated with such nano-things to produce new and unusual properties of the underlying fibres. In a simplified interpretation, the nano-metals are like their much larger “macro”-relatives but with a vastly larger surface area.

So, what that means is that the (mostly known) surface properties and effects of the materials are more pronounced because of the immense increase of surface area relative to mass by their novel nano-size. Of course, all materials’ surfaces are different from the mass of their interior. Surface property is an effect you are probably employing every day without knowing, like in detergents.

Surface Properties

The properties of some materials are highly dependent on the substrate. For example, a concentrated solution of “liquid soap” is just a viscous fluid in a bottle. But when applied to water, it spreads out into a thin film that changes the surface properties of the water and helps to lift off other materials from a textile in the laundry. It provides a connecting interface between the water and the material to be cleaned, like your hands or the laundry.

Depending on other conditions like temperature, water hardness and kind of material to be cleaned, specifics may vary but the same interfacing principle is valid for all. The novel fiber coverings of the nano-material type still make use of that common “thread.” What’s new and different is their presence on the surface of the fibers (or textiles) rather than being a component of the mixture in a bottle of liquid detergent or soap. And that novel application of nano-silver is said to allow the “bleaching” of your coffee or whatever stains into oblivion, entirely without the old-fashioned procedure. The nano-metal coating acts as a catalyst for the stain’s breakdown upon exposure to sunlight.

Of course, the surface properties of metals like silver have been known already for millennia, at least intuitively. For example, the use of silver-containing coinage is well documented for a few thousand years. Perhaps it was not only the cost of mining and coining that created their value but also their bactericidal properties from their silver-rich surface. In fact, these properties of silver salt solutions are still being used in hospitals to this day. The same effect also made silver bearing coins a medium that allowed safe transfer of value across the regions without propagating diseases.  In contrast, modern paper currency, even when treated with bactericidal agents does not provide the same level of protection in that aspect.

But that’s just a small part of particular surface properties that you may employ routinely without recognizing. For example, paper, crayons, pencils (yes, they still exist), ball point pens (yes, they too still exist), to easily-removable band aids (see picture), and the myriad of self-adhesive address labels that I get in the mail; they all rely on surface properties, respectively the difference between such of the “glue” and the “substrate” that it’s normally applied to.

In Short:
For the good and the bad, we are all beneficiaries and victims of materials’ surface properties. That includes all kinds of materials in everyday use, including textiles. While the new “self-cleaning” undies may be just around the corner, my best advice is to:

Better wait a while before you give up on the laundromat or your washing machine.