Tuesday, September 28

Mr. Clean


To find Kim Hyung Gyoon's office in Samsung's R.-and-D. complex, just follow the baskets of dirty clothes. No, Kim is not running the company Laundromat. As chief of Samsung's washing and cleaning technology group, he is the man behind a new washing machine that deposits tiny silver particles - about 11/410,000 the thickness of a human hair - onto clothes to make them bacteria-and odor-free without the use of hot water. The device represents the first mass-produced application of this type of nanotechnology - the science of very small structures - to home appliances. "In the summer of 2002, I asked everyone in the office to take off their socks," says Kim, 48. "I took one sock from each person and placed it in a regular washing machine; the others were washed in a machine with the Ag+ Nano System. The next day I asked everyone to check the odor of their socks after a day's wear. One began to stink, and the other was odorless."

Here's how it works: a grapefruit-size device near the tub uses electric currents to nano-shave two silver plates the size of chewing-gum sticks. The resulting silver particles are sprayed into the tub during the wash cycle. The silver ion inhibits bacterial growth. According to the Korea Testing & Research Institute for the Chemical Industry, Samsung's device kills 99.9% of bacteria and fungi. Kim says garments stay germ-free for up to a month after being laundered. The Ag+ Nano device went on sale in March 2003 (just ahead of other silver-nanotech appliances from competitors LG and Daewoo) and costs around $1,150. The revolutionary technology is also being used in Samsung's refrigerators and air conditioners.

No wonder: consumers seem to like a little silver in their spin cycles. Since Samsung's nano-armed products were first launched, they have brought in an estimated $779 million in revenue. Overall, nanotechnology has been one of science's fastest-growing fields in recent years, with potential applications in fields as diverse as energy production and toothpaste manufacture. The nanotech market is projected to be worth $1 trillion by 2015.

Because this is such a hotly competitive field - Daewoo has introduced air conditioners that spray vitamin C into the environment - Kim isn't about to divulge what other nanotech projects he's working on. But one thing is for sure ‹ from now on, even his dirtiest clothes will have a silver lining.

--By Mingi Hyun/Seoul