A traditional household washing machine consumes between 15 to 54 gallons of water per load; even with just two loads per week, that’s 5,600 gallons of water per year. Three MIT PhD students have teamed up to create a filter system that can use only 50 to 100 gallons of water per year for the same process.
“Of the water we use for each laundry run, less than 1 percent is the actual waste component,” says Alina Rwei ’11, Course 3, who co-founded AquaFresco along with Chris Lai, Course 10, and Sasha Huang, Course 3.
Rather than discard all of the water and detergent for each load, as machines do now, their filter system allows the reuse of both water and detergent. “The AquaFresco system filters out the waste components in the laundry water and recycles the clean water and detergent for further cleaning cycles,” says Rwei. “The science behind it is based on the difference in surface energy between water and the waste component. AquaFresco filtration technology utilizes a different mechanism [physical absorption] for waste separation from our competitors [ultrafiltration, whose mechanism is based on size separation], providing a safer and more energy-efficient filtration process.”
The trio says that their system could use one batch of water to clean for up to six months, and widespread use would save millions of gallons of water every year. This saving would be especially important to hotels, where millions of gallons of water a year are being used just to clean sheets and towels. Although they plan to build a comprehensive system down the road, their core product is currently the AquaFresco filter, which can be added to an existing machine, so the transformation would be low cost. The system could also open up opportunities in places where clean water for laundry is hard to come by since it filters the water, allowing more full-service hotels to open in places where fresh water is not as accessible.
The first prototypes are currently being tested in hotel markets, since they have the highest need and a relatively low entry barrier both in terms of engineering and market. “If we can prove our system works in hotels, which have a high standard of laundry quality, it would be easier for us to enter the customer market where there are high perception barriers of using recycled water for laundry,” says Rwei.
AquaFresco was first conceived as part of MIT MADMEC (Materials Science Solutions for Sustainability) competition in 2014 where they successfully developed a lab-scale prototype and took first prize. They also won awards in the MIT $100K pitch competition and Water Innovation Prize, were one of six grand finalists in the Clean Energy Prize, and were chosen as one of the gold winners of MassChallenge this year. If these accolades didn’t say enough about the potential for changing the way we do laundry, it became clear they were onto something when they were contacted by NASA in March.
“They heard of us because we were the winners of the MIT MADMEC competition and they realized that our technology could be applied in space as well,” says Rwei. “We have had steady connections since and are planning to receive laundry wastewater from NASA to test the efficiency of our device with their wastewater.”