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 & Cleaning Technology Group, he's the man behind a new washing machine that deposits tiny silver particles—about 1/10,000 the thickness of a human hair—onto clothes to make them bacteria- and odor-free without the need for 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 summer of 2002, I asked everyone in the office to take off their socks," says Kim, 48, a short, talkative man with large glaring eyes. "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, the other was odorless."
Kim says he came up with the idea five years ago while on a business trip to Japan, where he learned of a brand of socks that retained their freshness even after many days of unwashed wear and tear. Tiny strands of silver with disinfectant qualities were woven into the fabric. When he got back to Seoul, Kim applied the principle to washing machines.
Here's how it works: a grapefruit-sized device near the tub uses electrical 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. 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, nanotech 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.
Nanotechnology has its detractors, though. Lee Jo Won, director of Tera-level Nanodevices, a Seoul-based state-run R. and D. organization, believes "there is always danger with new technologies. We've done testing in laboratories with rats, and certain nano-sized particles ended up imbedded in rats' lungs after consistent exposure. However, with silver, I don't foresee problems, as it's a disinfectant."
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's for sure—from now on, even his dirtiest clothes will have a silver lining." — By Mingi Hyun/Seoul/Time/Europe