«I think they'll hate us!» — worldwide washing revolution stirring in Tartu

Tartu meeste väljamõeldud süsteem tõmbab pesuained veest taas välja


For years, Tartu scientists have been busy developing a groundbreaking system to do laundry which has now caught the eye of world class investors and Asian wash machine makers. Last week, high honours were awarded at a sustainable technology competition.   

Any kid knows laundry can be done two ways: manually and with machine. In both cases, the clothes are brought into contact with washing powder, then rinsed thoroughly and all the water poured into the sewer. And so over and over again – each time, new chemistry poured into the washing water, be it soap, powder or a capsulated liquid.

Routine activity, but a bother. And costly. Now, scientists have come up with a method to at least blot out part of the process. Should all go according to plan, the word combination «Tartu scientists» will be a curse word among all washing powder producers in the world as the need to add the stuff into machines ceases to be.

Powder pusiness beware

«I think they’ll hate us if we proceed with the product,» said member of the team of inventors, University of Tartu biomedicine technology institute doctoral student Mart Ustav Jr.

Mr Ustav says the innovation is that the washing substances – enzymes and other compounds – will be permanently located inside the machine. «We will bring them into contact with iron nano-particles and will extract them out of the water after each wash,» described Mr Ustav.

But how? Washing, rinsing, centrifuging – all these are here to stay. However, an automatically rotating magnet will be added to wash machines, such as releases and extracts active detergents. Up to now, the technology has been narrowly used in scientific research like in medicines development to extract proteins, DNA and RNA out of cells.

«The entire technology is based on the fact that the activeness of enzymes after being bound with metal particle diminishes very slowly in time – and to send them to the sewer every time would be such a waste. The average person could easily do laundry with them for over a year without adding anything before one capsule perhaps will need to be replaced,» explained Mr Ustav.

All told, binding enzymes with iron will yield two obvious effects in doing laundry: as compared to their usual state, these will gain greater stability and therefore, as compared to current washing enzymes, a much larger variety of enzymes can be used which otherwise would not last too long. Also, there will be no need to add new chemistry into the machine before each wash.  

In turn, the innovation means that the existing wash machines must be replaced with new ones – with not much remodelling needed, some parts still need to be added.

For that, the scientists have founded the start-up ReLaDe and have via it launched negotiations with world leading wash machine makers. With one, the talks are rather advanced but the current stage only allows hinting that this is one of the global biggies headquartered in Asia.

In all likelihood, the Estonians will be licensing their invention and will not kick off production in South Estonia then to sell shares.  

Cheaper starting substances

For ReLaDe, the main issue while developing the new system was how to get nano-particles cheap. «The technology used thus far was super expensive – a couple of milligrams cost half thousand euros,» explained Mr Ustav.

And here’s where the Tartu Ingenuity comes into play. A team member, molecular biologist Rainis Venta had the eureka moment on how to use much cheaper and simpler compounds instead of the current expensive ones in synthesizing nano-particles.

«After a bit of testing the idea worked: we were able to synthesize nano-particles with starting substances hundreds and thousands of times cheaper,» said Mr Ustav. «Only after this, we could talk about moving towards consumer solution.»

The team features quite a bunch of scientists. In addition to Mr Ustav and Mr Venta, there’s the physics doctor and a leading Estonian materials scientist Martin Järvekülg, Holger Saare recently defending his Bachelor’s cum laude on nano-particles research, and economics student Andrew Wilfong.

Together they are Team ReLaDe. Last Saturday, the team arrived from Amsterdam with 3rd prize at Europe’s largest sustainable technology design contest ClimateLaunchpad. This year, over 700 teams participated from 28 nations, of which 82 made it to the finals.

What next?

Mr Ustav says it may be three years till all stages are passed in development and the tests done.

«We will really have to test everything, even what allergic reactions the new compounds may cause in people. Whatever we produce must be totally safe,» said the scientist. «In addition to the enzyme, other active principles will have to be included in the process – up until the rinse aids. It must all be there, inside the machine.»

Anyway, the Estonians’ idea has already attracted lively interest among European investors and lots of major players stand ready to support development processes as the time is ripe.

«Let me also underline that we are clearly a University of Tartu side business and our operations have only been possible thanks to support by the university and the opportunity to use world class apparatuses and competence while developing our technology,» said Mr Ustav.