Clothes dryers in the United States use about as much energy each year as the entire state of Massachusetts, according to an estimate from EnergyStar, which is part of the reason the Department of Energy is trying to develop more efficient home appliances.
Among those making significant progress is Ayyoub Momen, a staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Like most Americans, he owns a dryer. But he says he hates using it. He knows it's an energy hog, and it takes so long to dry anything.
Then, one day, he was thinking about ultrasonic humidifiers — a kind of portable room humidifier that uses high-frequency vibrations to turn water into steam without getting hot. And Momen thought: What if I use the same technology on a piece of wet fabric?
“The result was so amazing. It was, like, mind blowing," he says. "In less than 14 seconds, I could dry a piece of fabric from completely being wet. If I wanted to do the same thing with heat, it’s taking somewhere between 20 to 40 minutes."
Momen’s current prototype looks nothing like a conventional dryer. It's basically a small circle of metal called a transducer that he plugs into a battery. He then douses a small piece of fabric in water and places it on top.
The fabric sizzles and steams, and in about 20 seconds, it's dry. Momen says it uses barely any energy.
"This dryer technology has the potential to save somewhere [around] 1 percent of the overall energy consumption of the United States," he says.
Venkat Venkatakrishnan, director of research and development at GE Appliances, calls the technology a "big breakthrough."
"It is not very far-fetched, not very difficult to do," he says. "But it is not an idea that everybody thinks of, because there is a lot of science that goes into it.”
GE has partnered with Oak Ridge to help put the ultrasonic dryer on the market. They still have to test this technology on bigger batches of clothes and build a more sophisticated prototype. But, he says, "I think we are about four years away from being able to buy this dryer at a Home Depot or at Lowe’s or any appliance retailer.”
He doesn't know how much they'll cost yet, and people might not run out to buy what could be an expensive purchase. Still, Venkatakrishnan thinks consumers will be willing to pay more to dry their clothes much faster — and, of course, save money on their electricity bill.