[VIEWPOINT]Beware of Overhyped 'New Technology'

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[VIEWPOINT]Beware of Overhyped 'New Technology'

Newfangled washing ma-chines that do not use detergent are the talk of the town these days. At a time when the overuse of chemical detergent exacerbates water pollution, I welcome the development of the world's first technology for making such machines. Indeed, the government has given the washers a "New Technology" stamp of approval.

Clothes made of delicate fabrics such as wool or silk should be dry-cleaned, which dissolves dirt with a volatile organic solvent. But the most common way of doing laundry is to use water. Just giving clothes a long soak in plain water, which has the chemical characteristics to eliminate dirt, will do the trick. It is better to rub, wring or beat soaked clothes or to use warm water. In fact, most people used such methods to clean their clothes before the use of soaps became common.

Of course, laundry becomes even easier with the use of chemistry. Lye, an extract from the ashes of burned wood, is alkaline and thus helps to dissolve dirt easily. For the same reasons, adding soda ash, caustic soda or vinegar to water produces fine results.

The work of soaps and synthetic detergents is amazing because they surround dirt and remove it from fabrics. But soaps, made from animal protein or vegetable oil, were scarce in the past. So only a handful of people could afford soap. It was not until the 1790s that soap was produced in mass quantities. Synthetic detergents were developed in the 1930s. In Korea, soap was not in full supply until the 1950s, and synthetic detergents didn't arrive until the late 1960s.

When soap and synthetic detergents became affordable, almost everyone could savor the joy of wearing clean and sanitary clothes. Forgetting the old way of washing clothes with plain water has caused people to use detergents excessively. Therefore, the problem of environmental pollution has become even more serious. Still, it is unrealistic to expect people to keep clothes dirty to protect the environment. Thus, something must be done.

Detergent-free washing machines, which were invented in Japan, offer a clear alternative. The machines use ultrasonic waves in the frequency range of over 20 kilohertz, which is a shock wave much like a sound wave, but inaudible to the human ear. Basically, the machines are the same as the machines used to wash eyeglasses.

Still, I have no idea how the washing machine developed by the Korean company works. By studying the advertisement, I can only guess that the important part lies in the sloshing water rather than in the mechanical functions of the machine. Presumably, if it uses water electrolyzed by sodium carbonate, the water is chemically the same as soda ash or sodium hydroxide. If so, there is no need to use complex devices or to label the machine "New Technology."

Because the government has certified the technology, there will probably be other secret ingredients. Nonetheless, the developer talks about "positron" and "plasma." Using such words is ridiculous and only builds suspicion. There is a fine line between what is a new technology and what is a gimcrack. The same company that developed the washing machine has a history of deceiving consumers with refrigerators that it claimed would make water with a hexagonal molecular structure, an alleged contributor to good health.

Experiments conducted on a television program did not help matters for consumers. Instead of comparing the performances of washing machines that are affected by various factors, the program should have tried to unmask the true nature of the water.

One cannot justify a new technology with such rhetoric about being the "world's first" or being "environmentally-friendly." The technology to make washing machines must be protected, but not the makeup of the water.

The government should also be responsible for telling the public exactly why it gave the "New Technology" certification to the developer. Nobody should endorse a product if that product cannot be figured out.


The writer is a professor of chemistry at Sogang University.

by Lee Duck-hwan

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