Hughes Environmental Systems decided to license its dry-cleaning system, DryWash, to Global Technologies of El Segundo. Global Technologies, in turn, has struck licensing deals with seven manufacturers of dry-cleaning machinery, five chemical makers who will produce detergent, and another firm that will make a specialized formula of liquid CO2 with additives to help the cleaning process, said company President Jack Belluscio. The system will be available to dry-cleaners in the second half of 1998, and Belluscio said he expects to capture 10% of the dry-cleaning market by 2000.
"We're expecting to revive the industry," said Belluscio, a former Citibank investment banker. "Real estate centers are not putting dry-cleaners in because they're worried about the environmental impact, and consumers are shying away too."
Environmental regulators have been exploring a technology known as "wet cleaning," which uses water in carefully controlled, computerized machines to protect fragile fabrics such as silk. But some fabrics, such as wool, are prone to shrinkage or damage in water, and the wet-cleaning process is more time-consuming than normal dry-cleaning. But those drawbacks don't plague liquid CO2 systems.
"Carbon dioxide is nontoxic, it doesn't impact anybody's health, and it's a very benign solvent," said Ranji George, program supervisor in technology advancement for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "In my personal opinion, it has great potential, and we look forward to its commercialization."
However, Global Technologies and Micell may have trouble convincing dry-cleaners to spring for the comparatively high cost of the new machines. A state-of-the-art machine that uses perc costs between $65,000 and $80,000, and machines that use petroleum are 20% more than that.
Micell says the first machines for liquid carbon dioxide will cost $125,000, and Global Technologies--although it won't give a price--also says the machines will initially be more expensive. In an industry where a majority of the businesses are family-owned and gross an average of less than $200,000 in sales a year, such capital investment is a significant hurdle.
Still, the companies say the new machines will pay for themselves. It takes about an hour to process a load of clothes using perc or petroleum, including 30 to 40 minutes for a high-energy drying cycle that isn't necessary when washing with liquid CO2. Dry-cleaners could therefore process two to three times as many loads with one machine. Pollution-prevention grants in some states might also help cleaners cover the cost of a new machine.
Another slight drawback is that the CO2 process shrinks acetate fibers somewhat, Alquist said. But that is outweighed by the fact that it is gentler on dyes and prevents clothes from fading, he said. Plus, since there's no heat in the drying cycle, garments should last longer, he said.
Indeed, a Micell demonstration in June at Clean 97, the industry's biannual trade show, showed that the liquid CO2 method works at least as well or better than perc on berry, coffee and other stains, Alquist said. Hundreds of dry-cleaners pressed both companies for information about the new technology and when it would be available.
Chris Edwards, president of Cleaner World, a chain of 55 dry-cleaning stores based in High Point, N.C., said he is very interested in testing the liquid CO2 cleaners. A pollution-prevention grant from the state of North Carolina might help him cover the cost of a new machine, he said.
Dry-cleaners in Los Angeles said the higher cost of new liquid CO2 machines would not necessarily be prohibitive if the process works as promised. Increasingly stringent federal regulations are forcing them to consider expensive upgrades of perc-based machines anyway, they said.
Vivian Bowers-Cowan, president of Bowers & Sons Cleaners in central Los Angeles, said her family has been cleaning clothes with perc for three generations without suffering any adverse health or environmental effects.
But EPA and AQMD regulations have boosted her paperwork by one-third, and increases of about $1 per gallon in the price of perc since last year have made her more eager to find an alternative. Liquid carbon dioxide would also be convenient, because without a drying cycle, buttons, bows and other clothing embellishments would be far less prone to damage, she said.
Allen Gershenson, vice president of sales for Sterling Cleaners, which has two locations in the Westwood area, said that he was intrigued by the Clean 97 demo but that more tests would be needed to convince him the technology can live up to its promise.
"We're all looking for something that's better for the environment, and this is positive from the standpoint of eliminating chemicals," Gershenson said. "It's potentially a real viable solution."
Karen Kaplan covers technology, telecommunications and aerospace. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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A Different Solution
Traditional dry cleaning methods use harmful and polluting solvents like perchloroethylene and petroleum. An alternative system using liquid carbon dioxide promises to clean up dry cleaning because it is reusable, produces little waste, and is as safe as the air we breathe, or at least exhale. Here's how it works:
Liquid CO2, clothes, and specially formulated detergent are put into machine.
Machine is kept at high pressure to keep the CO2 liquefied. Clothes and detergent are stirred in the CO2 and dirt is drawn into the interior of detergent particles, called micelles.
At the end of the cycle, pressure is released and CO2 reverts to gas, which is collected for reuse. Clothes dry immediately as CO2 evaporates. Remaining detergent and dirt particles that are left behind are collected for disposal.
Researched by KAREN KAPLAN/Los Angeles Times