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New Dry Cleaning Method Tested

March 12, 2000

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) _ Joseph DeSimone set out to make a better plastic and instead could revolutionize the dry-cleaning business.

DeSimone and his colleagues were tinkering with new ways to use liquid carbon dioxide and detergents to manufacture better plastics. It suddenly dawned on them one day in 1990 that the same process that improved plastics also could dry-clean clothes.

Micell Technologies was born. Based in Research Triangle Park, Micell has since spawned 11 franchises in North Carolina and Providence, R.I., that dry-clean clothes with liquid carbon dioxide. And the company plans to establish franchises, called Hangers, in 40 markets by the end of this year.

In a skeptical industry burned in the 1970s by the failure of chlorofluorocarbons as a dry-cleaning method, Micell is revolutionary, said Ted Lee Williams Jr. of Wilmington, whose family dry cleaners was the first to switch to Hangers.

``It’s just the right thing to do. It’s environmentally right,″ he said. ``It’s safe for our employees. It cleans better. It was just all good, all good.″

Clothes smell better and last longer when cleaned with CO2 because there’s no heat to damage fibers, said Williams, whose family has been in the business 59 years and now operates nine Hangers franchises. The stores themselves are quieter and cooler, he said.

``If we had to go back to doing things the old way, I would quit,″ Williams said.

For 50 years, the dry-cleaning industry has mostly relied on perchloroethylene or perc, a groundwater contaminant and probable human carcinogen.

Then DeSimone, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a chemical engineering professor at North Carolina State University, and the other researchers came up with the liquid carbon dioxide method.

Dry cleaning with CO2 isn’t new. The trick was finding the right detergents, because cleaning with CO2 alone is like washing your clothes in water with no soap. DeSimone’s group _ students among them _ found the right detergents.

CO2 is not governed by environmental regulations, unlike petroleum and perc, whose residue, filters and lint are classified as hazardous waste.

The CO2 cleaning method also can replace toxic solvents in textile dyeing, in the automotive industry and in making Teflon and semiconductor circuitry. DuPont plans a $40 million factory in Bladen County employing the new Teflon process.

But DeSimone predicts CO2 cleaning will have the biggest impact on dry cleaning.

``Everyone takes clothes to the dry cleaners,″ he said. ``It’s one of the most common mechanisms by which everyday people are exposed to toxic solvents in the household.″

Still, the business of green cleaning advances slowly. In heady projections made in 1997, Micell predicted it would have 500 outlets by the end of 1999.

And some industry skeptics are awaiting more evidence before advocating CO2 cleaning. The International Fabricare Institute, an industry trade group based in Silver Spring, Md., said outside researchers must test CO2 and compare it to other methods before the institute can recommend it.

``I think we’re all looking for alternatives down the road, and there are several promising candidates,″ IFI spokesman David Uchic said. ``We just don’t know which one it will be.″

Other alternatives include a safer petroleum solvent, called Rynex, which is silicone-based and wetcleaning.

James DeYoung, Micell research director, said the company is testing its process with various groups, but results are incomplete.

Research by the nonprofit group Cotton Inc. showed cotton cleaned with CO2 loses less fiber and retains color better than cotton cleaned with perc or wetcleaning, DeYoung said.

DeSimone’s work is supported by the National Science Foundation, which in July accepted an $18 million proposal from four schools to study environmentally responsible cleaning solvents at a new science and technology center.

The CO2 process holds incredible promise, said Anthony Star, research and outreach associate at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, which advocates sustainable neighborhoods. But Micell must overcome several obstacles, including its machinery’s price and size, he said.

CO2 cleaning machines are about 50 percent bigger than perc machines, but do the work of eight of them. The CO2 machines cost $150,000, about three times a perc machine.

``Dry cleaners are a very tough, skeptical bunch,″ Star said. ``They’ve been burned in the past by products that haven’t proved to work the way they were supposed to.″

In the 1970s, some cleaners converted to CFCs, later phased out by the government because they depleted the ozone. Dry cleaners adopted perc before there were guidelines for its use, and now must treat it as hazardous waste.

The biggest obstacle, Star and Williams said, is that a dry cleaner must become a Hangers franchise to buy the CO2 equipment.

``It’s hard to tell a mom-and-pop cleaner, ’You’ve got to have this machine and you have to pay these royalties,‴ said Williams, who noted that his prices have remained the same.

On the other hand, DeSimone said, franchisees get an exclusive territory, meaning Micell will not set up competing Hangers stores.

One possible kink in Micell’s franchise plans is Global Technologies, based in El Segundo, Calif., which has licensed several manufacturers to make CO2 dry-cleaning machinery. Although its commercialization plans have moved more slowly than Micell’s, President Jack Belluscio said its machines cost between $80,000 and $110,000, available with no franchise costs.

``Our program is geared that no less than 60 percent of dry cleaners could afford it,″ he said.

That could cut into DeSimone’s plans for franchising, if one dry-cleaning business pays big bucks to become a franchise, while a nearby business buys a Global Technologies machine for less money.

Besides Williams’ franchises and the two in Rhode Island, an industrial business in Lansing, Mich., cleans drapes and smoke-damaged clothing and furnishings.

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