[Image above] Credit: Marco Nedermeijer; Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

I enjoy the benefits of clean clothes, a tidy home, and a sparkling automobile exterior—but when it comes to achieving these levels of sanitation and shine, I’ll admit that I’m not exactly leaping out of my seat to get started on my household chore list.

Maybe it’s laziness, or it could be sheer impatience, but it takes every ounce of self-discipline and focus I have to muster up the motivation to get elbows-deep into sorting a basket of dirty laundry or scrubbing the inside of the bathtub—and actually see the task through to completion.

Good news: there’s hope for me, and others with similar cleaning commitment issues. Science is on our side in the race to develop more self-cleaning surfaces and materials.

Self-cleaning goes beyond just repelling water and soil. Innovations like self-cleaning door handles that use titanium dioxide to stop germs in their tracks and paint made from coated titanium dioxide nanoparticles that creates self-cleaning surfaces to withstand dirt, water, germs, and significant wear-and-tear have made news in the past year.

So I was intrigued when I came across research this week from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, where researchers have developed nano-enhanced textiles that clean themselves with light. (No more laundry? Tell me more!)

According to an RMIT press release, the researchers developed an inexpensive and efficient way to grow special nanostructures—which can degrade organic matter when exposed to light—directly into textiles.

“The work paves the way towards nano-enhanced textiles that can spontaneously clean themselves of stains and grime simply by being put under a light bulb or worn out in the sun,” the release explains.

Lead researcher Rajesh Ramanathan says this new process has many applications for catalysis-based industries, such as agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, and natural products—and it’s scalable.


Close-up of the nanostructures grown on cotton textiles by RMIT University researchers. Image magnified 150,000 times. Credit: RMIT University

“The advantage of textiles is they already have a 3-D structure so they are great at absorbing light, which in turn speeds up the process of degrading organic matter,” Ramanathan says in the release. “There’s more work to do to before we can start throwing out our washing machines, but this advance lays a strong foundation for future development of fully self-cleaning textiles.”

And light doesn’t just clean fabrics.

Scientists at the University of Copenhagen report that they’re testing a new air-cleaning system that ditches the filter for fluorescent light to purify indoor air by “eliminating fumes as chemically diverse as odorous sulfur compounds and health hazardous hydrocarbons while consuming a minimum of energy,” according to a university press release.

Removing pollution from the air isn’t easy, the release explains. Current systems either burn or freeze air pollutants, which consumes large amounts of energy—or they’re high maintenance and require charcoal filters that need frequent replacement.  

The new system—called Gas Phase Advanced Oxidation, or GPAO—doesn’t use filters, requires little energy, and needs less maintenance, explains Matthew Johnson, atmosphere chemist and inventor of the GPAO system.

“As a chemist, I have studied the natural ability of the atmosphere to clean itself. Nature cleans air in a process involving ozone, sunlight, and rain. Except for the rain, GPAO does the very same thing, but speeded up by a factor of a hundred thousand,” explains Johnson.

Fewer chores and a smaller carbon footprint? Keeping it clean and “green” never seemed more manageable.

The self-cleaning textiles research, published in Advanced Materials Interfaces, is “Robust nanostructured silver and copper fabrics with localized surface plasmon resonance property for effective visible light induced reductive catalysis” (DOI: 10.1002/admi.201500632).

The air purification research, published in ACS Environmental Science and Technology, is “Gas-phase advanced oxidation for effective, efficient in-situ control of pollution” (DOI: 10.1021/es5012687).