It sounds like a householder's dream – clothes could soon clean themselves while they are being worn.
Nanostructures attached directly onto textiles could end the hours spent each week washing and drying clothes by degrading stains and dirt when exposed to sunlight.
Scientists have found they are able to attach tiny metal structures onto cotton which then catalyse a reaction that breaks down any grime on the fabric.
Scientists have created a cotton fabric that is able to clean itself when left in sunlight for just a few minutes. They did this by 'growing' metal nano-structures on cotton (pictured), which became integrated throughout the fabric. These catalyse a chemical reaction in sunlight that breaks down organic matter
The reaction is sped up using light to boost the transfer of elections needed to degrade organic matter.
Dr Rajesh Ramanathan, a materials engineer at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia, who led the research, said: '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.
The researchers 'grew' nanoscopic three dimensional structures of copper and silver on the surface of cotton.
These took around 30 minutes to attach in a stable way so they could be woven into the fabric.
When exposed to light, the metal nanostructures absorb energy, which causes their electrons to become excited.
These transfer to organic material on the surface of the fabric, catalysing its degradation.
The scientists showed it took less than six minutes for the nano-enhanced materials to clean themselves in sunlight.
'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, whose study is published in the journal Advanced Materials Interfaces, grew three dimensional copper and silver nanostructures on cotton thread.
The process took around 30 minutes for the metals to become firmly attached to the textiles, allowing them to be woven into the cotton fabric.
When exposed to light, the nanostructures absorb the energy, causing the electrons in the metal atoms to become excited.
This then catalysed the breakdown of organic material on the surface of the cotton.
The researchers said it took less than six minutes for some of the nano-enhanced textiles to spontaneously clean themselves.
It suggests that it would be possible for clothes to clean themselves even as they are being worn in everyday life.
The three dimensional metal structures were found to attach firmly to the cottom fibres and became spread through out the material (close up of the nanostructures on the cotton magnified 150,000 times pictured). This meant textiles can clean themselves effectively
The researchers hope their techonology will eventually allow poeple to clean their clothes purely by leaving them out in the sunshine or under a bulb for a few minutes. It could even mean clothes can clean themselves while being worn, saving the need for hours spent washing each week (stock image of clothes hung outside)
Scientists have attempted to use hydrophobic molecules, which repel water, to make clothes more resistant to staining in the past.
These fabrics cause mud, sweat and other water based dirt to fall off the surface before it can stain.
But they these approaches struggle to prevent staining from non-water based sources such as oil.
Dr Ramanathan said his team hoped the research would eventually allow consumers to stop having to wash their clothes at all.
While they tested their technology on cotton, the scientists said it may be possible to get it to work on other types of fabric.
Dr Ramanathan added that he hoped to develop new nano-enhanced textiles capable of handling even difficult stains that most modern washing powders struggle to remove.
He said: '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.'
The nanostructures are invisible to the naked eye but at a microscopic level (cottton fabric pictured) they work to keep the clothes free of dirt and grime. The scientists are now hoping to develop self-cleaning textiles that can cope with difficult staining materials like red wine and tomato sauce