Tech Talk: Trends in Fiber Material Science & Innovation

“The industrial biofermentation process utilizes isolated genes from squid to produce fibers that are not only 100 percent recyclable, but also have the ability self-heal and create longer lasting materials.”

By Chris Plotz, Director of Education & Technical Affairs, INDA

Chris Plotz

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” – Stephen Hawkins.

Material science plays a huge role in fiber innovation. Whether simple improvements of existing products or entirely novel approaches, the world of fibers is always pushing forward via breakthroughs in material science. There are many drivers to this change, such as reducing plastics in the environment, the pursuit of a more circular economy, and regulatory changes, just to name a few.

Incremental Advances

Environmentally friendly resins, fibers, and polymers are seeing some incremental innovation. And nature itself, in many ways, is leading this innovation, as fibers from plants, animals and insects show signs of promise.

Plant-based fibers derived from hemp, linen, bamboo and ramie are particularly friendly to the environment, as they do not require the use of pesticides or chemicals to grow. They also have natural resistance to mold and mildew and are disease-free.

Animal fibers – albeit natural – are not as environmentally friendly as some of the plant-based fibers, primarily due to contamination from residual pesticides and drugs typically required in the farming of fiber-producing animals.  Alpac fibers, which come from the fleece of the Alpac, are a bit of an exception to the rule, as they eat grass that does not need to be industrially maintained and they need very little food or water to produce a relatively high yield of wool.

Insect-derived fibers – specifically silk from silkworms – have been around for a very long time. However, recent innovation around synthetic spider silk shows promise in terms of durability and biodegradability.  Insect derived fibers originate from their proteins in the form of a cocoon in the case of a silkworm, and spiders directly spin their fibers at room temperature using water as a solvent. Both of these fibers are a renewable resource and can be farmed like animal based fibers.

Tandem Repeat Technologies has developed self-healing fibers and coatings in powder, polymer and liquid forms,
allowing for easy garment repair or assembly as shown here. The technology is being positioned as a “green” alternative because it is easy to recycle, repair, and reuse. Photo courtesy of Tandem Repeat Technologies.

A Game Changer

One area where fiber engineers are investing some time and effort is in the mimicking of spider silk, which is among the strongest and toughest materials in the natural world.  Spider silk is as strong as some steel alloys with toughness greater than bulletproof Kevlar. Scientist from Washington University have engineered a bacterium to produce a biosynthetic spider silk with performance on par with its natural counterpart.  This innovation was due in large part to increasing the molecular weight of the protein prior to spinning it into fibers, producing a material that is not only exceptionally strong, but also biodegradable. Scalability is key to taking advantage of this innovation.

Programmable Fibers

There are several biotechnologies that are currently being positioned as renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fibers such as nylon, polyester and acrylic. One such material is from a company by the name of Tandem Repeat, which uses the process of biofermentation to create a biodegradable polymer. The industrial biofermentation process utilizes isolated genes from squid to produce fibers that are not only 100 percent recyclable, but also have the ability self-heal and create longer lasting materials. These fibers can be processed using standard industrial technologies, which makes them a viable alternative to many polymers.

Circular Solutions

Most synthesized polymers are not biodegradable under normal environmental conditions, whether they are derived from fossil fuels or renewable biomass sources.  Degradation only occurs under favorable conditions, such as higher temperatures, physical abrasion and exposure to UV radiation, with the rate dependent on the type of polymer and presence of stabilizing compounds. But this process typically only weakens or fragments the material. However, material science is bridging the gap and providing alternative materials to widen the adoption of complementary materials.  Catalysts like zinc chloride and others are leading the way to make fibers easier to depolymerize and recycle. The wider adoption of these new fibers provides an opportunity for replace the typical linear production-use-disposal model with a more sustainable circular production process.

Material science is the engine that creates innovation in fibers. 

At INDA’s upcoming RISE (Research, Innovation & Science for Engineered Fabrics) conference, Sept. 24-25 in Raleigh, North Carolina, we will highlight next-generation applications and product development directions. If you are interested in sourcing new ideas, scouting new technologies and/or discovering new market segments, I encourage you to visit our website at www.riseconf.net to review the RISE conference program and consider attending.

Chris Plotz is the director of education & technical affairs at INDA, Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry. Plotz is a business leader with 19 years of technical nonwovens- and filtration-related experience in global product management and product development within leading manufacturers including Parker Hannifin, ITW Pro Brands, and BHA Technologies, Inc.  Most recently, Plotz was the director of innovation with The Green Edge, management consultants, where he led product lifecycle activities for sanitizing technologies. Chris can be reached at cplotz@inda.org or 919 459-3748.