Researchers in Australia have developed self-cleaning textiles that destroy dirt when exposed to light.

The development could mean that clothes that clean themselves are one step closer to becoming a reality – and 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 breakthrough by scientists at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) involves growing special nanostructures – which can degrade organic matter when exposed to light – directly onto textiles.

"The advantage of textiles is they already have a 3D structure so they are great at absorbing light, which in turn speeds up the process of degrading organic matter," explains RMIT's Dr Rajesh Ramanathan.

"There's more work to do to before we can start throwing out our washing machines, but this advance lays a strong foundation for the future development of fully self-cleaning textiles."

The researchers from the Ian Potter NanoBioSensing Facility and NanoBiotechnology Research Lab at RMIT worked with copper and silver-based nanostructures, which are known for their ability to absorb visible light.

When the nanostructures are exposed to light, they receive an energy boost that creates "hot electrons", which in turn release a burst of energy that enables the nanostructures to degrade organic matter. 

The challenge for researchers has been to bring the concept out of the lab by working out how to build these nanostructures on an industrial scale and permanently attach them to textiles.

The RMIT team's approach was to grow the nanostructures directly onto the textiles by dipping them into a few solutions, resulting in the development of stable nanostructures within 30 minutes.

When exposed to light, it took less than six minutes for some of the nano-enhanced textiles to spontaneously clean themselves. 

"Our next step will be to test our nano-enhanced textiles with organic compounds that could be more relevant to consumers, to see how quickly they can handle common stains like tomato sauce or wine," Ramanathan said.

The full research is published in the journal Advanced Materials Interfaces.