What if a machine could dry your clothes without heat? What if, instead, the machine used ultrasound to vaporize the water and push it out of the fabric?

That’s the kind of breakthrough technology that researchers develop at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a government-funded research facility that collaborates with industry on anything from more efficient appliances to using the world’s most capable supercomputer to figure out genetic predispositions to opioid addiction.

ORNL researchers have worked with GE Appliances on the ultrasound dryer, primarily because it’s the sort of technology that allows for the potential replacement of century-old technology with a much more efficient and cost-effective approach.

Viral Patel

Current dryers “are dependent on relatively old tech,” said Viral K. Patel, an R&D associate staff member for building equipment research in the Department of Energy’s energy and transportation division.

The current tech requires that dryers take in air, heat it with a heating element to about 130 degrees, pass it to the drum, collect the moisture and vent the hot, moist air to the outside.

“It’s a very inefficient way to achieve drying,” Patel said recently as he stood in the Oak Ridge Maximum Building Energy Efficiency Research Laboratory, or MAXLAB, a state-of-the-art facility in which scientists work with researchers from industry to develop energy-saving appliances and technologies.

Kevin Mazzella

Kevin Mazzella, vice president of technology at GEA, said that although consumers use dryers only intermittently, the devices use as much energy as a household refrigerator, which essentially runs around the clock.

According to the Energy Department, operating dryers costs U.S. consumers about $9 billion a year.

The DOE spent $880,000 on the project initially, while GE Appliances contributed another $98,000 on engineering and research and development resources, but the potential savings are enormous, government researchers said.

Inspiration from pets

Patel, a mechanical engineer by training, said that years ago, as researchers brainstormed about ways to more efficiently dry clothes, they thought it might be worth to emulate what dogs do when they get wet: They shake themselves and get fairly dry with a relatively low use of energy.

That process induced the scientists to think about piezoelectric transducers, which take advantage of properties of certain materials, such as ceramics, that vibrate when exposed to electricity. The Oak Ridge/GEA team analyzed more than 100 transducers and asked other government researchers to build a power amplifier specifically for the new drying process.

In an initial testing phase, the researchers dunked a fingernail-size piece of cloth into water, placed it onto the piezoelectric transducer and turned up the voltage. The electricity caused the transducer to vibrate, sending ultrasonic waves into the cloth, turning the water into a cold mist.

The cloth was fully dry within 14 seconds, Patel said, as he stood next to a table of components and iterations of the tech, which is still prominently displayed in the MAXLAB.

The researchers next developed a bench top model that resembles a short ironing board with a lid and an array of piezoelectric transducers at the bottom. Patel recently placed a thin sheet of cloth into the machine, closed the lid and powered up the device, causing a cool mist to escape through the transducer array.

The bench top model reduced energy consumption by roughly 80 percent compared to traditional dryers, Patel said — though the savings decrease if you want to dry the cloth more quickly.

GEA continues to work on commercializing the technology and provides updates to Oak Ridge at least once a month. GEA employees at the company’s Louisville campus, which employs about 6,000, meet face to face with Oak Ridge researchers at least once a year.

Oak Ridge conceived of the technology and GEA agreed to work with the government researchers because the technology provided a potential breakthrough for dryers. Appliance technology typically advances slowly and only in small steps, GEA officials told Insider, but collaboration with ORNL provides a path for technological leaps that can set GEA products apart from the competition and help the company toward its goal of becoming the country’s leading major appliance business.

Collaboration intended to benefit industry, consumers

A GE Appliances water heater, production of which has ceased, is still displayed prominently at Oak Ridge. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

GEA has worked with ORNL for more than a decade and has taken previous research to the commercialization stage.

The company and government researchers worked together on a high-efficiency water heater, which reduced energy use by more than 60 percent compared with traditional heaters. The heater resulted in GE adding in 2012 its first new production line in Louisville in 53 years, though that success was short-lived. The heater never caught on with enough consumers, prompting the company to cease production at the end of 2016.

The water heater experience illustrates that consumers buy products based on more criteria than efficiency, and that aspects such as design and initial price also play important roles.

The efficient heaters cost almost twice as much as traditional heaters — and that was too high a price upfront, even though families could recoup the higher costs within as little as two years, GEA said when it was still selling the product.

Nonetheless, GEA officials said, the continued cooperation with ORNL can help the company’s products stand out in a competitive marketplace and lower consumers’ electric bills.

Patel said that means the projects also have the potential to lift U.S. economic growth, as lower utility bills mean consumers have more disposable income, which they can then spend on other things.

And that’s the point: Through the MAXLAB and other research facilities, ORNL develops market-driven solutions for energy-saving homes, buildings and manufacturing; sustainable transportation; and power generation.

Rick DeVos

The ultrasound dryer, in particular, may have additional benefits for consumers: Rick DeVos, GEA’s technical director, said that as the new technology employs no heat, the dryers would protect clothes from heat damage, meaning clothes would last longer.

While the collaboration with Oak Ridge is continuing, GEA officials said that getting the technology to the point where it meets consumer expectations for size, speed, cost and ease of use will take time.

Peter Pepe, the company’s vice president of clothes care, told Insider that a commercial product with the ultrasound technology is probably about a decade away.

Part of an occasional series on research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.