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Lab-Developed System Uses Carbon Dioxide To Clean Up On Dirt

April 23, 1998 Share This!

RICHLAND, Wash. – With a little help from science, carbon dioxide, a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas widely used in the food industry and in the synthesis of chemicals will provide consumers with a new, environmentally friendly option for cleaning clothes.

A recent agreement between Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and MiCELL Technologies Inc., a North Carolina firm providing unique cleaning and coating solutions, ensures the laboratory's discoveries related to the behavior of supercritical fluids will be commercialized.

According to Nick Lombardo, a commercialization manager at Pacific Northwest, the processes have the potential to revolutionize the dry-cleaning business by replacing conventional, solvent-based cleaning with processes that use no water, have low energy requirements, employ no toxic substances, create no waste issues and have no regulatory burdens. "And once a garment is cleaned with this process, the detergents and carbon dioxide are recycled. Very little of anything is discharged to the environment," he said.

The processes utilize special detergents to boost the cleaning power of compressed carbon dioxide, a "supercritical fluid" that has a density like water, a viscosity similar to a gas and the ability to reach places water and chemical solvents can't.

"Liquid carbon dioxide alone can't effectively extract dirt from clothing," said Lombardo. "But when you add detergents, carbon dioxide solubilizes a greater range of materials and becomes very good at processes such as cleaning and coating.

"MiCELL will take advantage of this improved performance for cleaning clothing and textiles, and for coating metals and precision parts such as optics," he added.

MiCELL, which developed the detergents used in the processes, expects to begin selling its MiCARE Garment Cleaning System later this year. The system resembles a front-load washing machine and uses the MiCARE detergent package to remove water, hydrocarbons and tannin stains, suspend the contaminants and provide wetting and brightening agents. A stain repellent can be added during the wash cycle just by pressing another button on the machine control panel.

In addition to being environmentally friendly, the system works on a faster cycle and safely cleans a wider range of fabrics than existing dry cleaning systems.

"This is a great example of how fundamental research can end up in everyday products and processes," Lombardo said. "The laboratory's supercritical fluid process patents will enable MiCELL to commercially develop new areas of carbon dioxide processing."

"The agreement between the laboratory and the company is an exciting development in the area of carbon dioxide chemistry and processes," said MiCELL founder and chairman, Dr. Joseph DeSimone. "We look forward to a long relationship and long-term commercialization opportunities made available through this strategic partnership."

Added Lombardo, "As part of the agreement, our researchers will provide MiCELL with strategic research, development and engineering support focused on carbon dioxide chemistry and processes." He says the partnership has the potential to unlock many new carbon dioxide applications including the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and polymers.

The laboratory's discoveries in supercritical fluids research have been the result of a long-term investment at Pacific Northwest by DOE. Through its contract with DOE, Battelle, the operator of Pacific Northwest, was allowed to patent the discoveries and grant exclusive licensing rights to MiCELL

Tags: Energy, Environment, Fundamental Science, Chemistry

Interdisciplinary teams at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory address many of America's most pressing issues in energy, the environment and national security through advances in basic and applied science. Founded in 1965, PNNL employs 4,300 staff and has an annual budget of about $950 million. It is managed by Battelle for the U.S. Department of Energy. For more information, visit the PNNL News Center, or follow PNNL on Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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