Fiber innovation follows its natural course


Fiber developers are looking to nature to help guide their designs
Fiber developers are looking to nature to help guide their designs and make materials that can be environmentally digestible. Photo courtesy of iStock/plyaset

Fiber technology development is critical to the advancement of textile applications in the modern age for many reasons. The 20th-century ideal was to create mass production of plastic fibers that would last forever. By contrast, today’s fiber technology development places a premium on fibers that decay gracefully.

The characteristics of the fiber and fabric structure have a direct relationship to the performance of the finished textile. Fibers are the building blocks for high-spec-driven applications and represent the driver of industrial innovation on many fronts.

Engineers and fiber developers are looking to nature to help guide their designs and make materials that can be environmentally digestible, like other material elements that keep us alive. The modern age demands performance, but not at the cost of the environment. This balance is driving product development and the way the world views fibers and their relationship to textiles.

Natural vs. synthetic fibers

“Nature-based fibers” are designed to act as a substitute for synthetic fiber composites and offer superior properties, such as biodegradability and abrasion resistance, which increases their demand in various applications. Increasing concerns regarding the biodegradability of synthetic fibers, with growing emphasis on reducing the usage of plastic-based materials in various regions, is also expected to drive demand for nature-based fibers. Furthermore, rising product demand in the manufacturing of advanced natural fiber composites used in automotive interiors and medical applications is expected to fuel market growth in the coming years. In addition, increasing demand for high-strength products, such as sisal, ramie, and curaua fibers, is likely to contribute to market growth.

The sustainable fiber movement faces intense competition from the synthetic fibers, which has high penetration across various end-use industries, such as automotive, textile, and medical. Moreover, the manufacturing and other operational processes required to manufacture sustainable fibers are often energy- and cost-intensive, which increases the cost of the final products.

This may have a slightly negative impact on the industry. However, the emergence of advanced technologies for fiber production is expected to lower the overall costs, which in turn is expected to boost growth for nature-based fibers in the longer term.

Engineers and fiber developers are looking to nature to help guide their designs and make materials that can be environmentally digestible, like other material elements that keep us alive. The modern age demands performance, but not at the cost of the environment.

Historical perspective

Nature-based fibers – both plant and animal – were the staple of fibers known as first-generation fibers and dated as far back as 4,000 years with continued and unchallenged use up until 1940.  At that point in time, Dupont introduced a completely synthetic nylon fiber, which changed the face fibers ever since.

Looking back over the last 100 years in fiber technology, this development was the tipping point and game-changing moment in fibers. For the next 80 years, fiber technology has been driven by synthetic structures making products stronger, cheaper and more diversified.

The future

Although synthetic fibers continue to innovate and fill ever-increasing niches, they are increasingly taking their cues from nature both in structure and their ability to be recycled. The lines between nature-based fibers and synthetics are blurring as chemistries and processes are evolving. Biomaterials are being generated by natural microbial waste verses petrochemical or plant or animal-based fibers.  An example of this is Nullarbor Fibre, which is a plant-free cellulose technology.

A highly sustainable technology that grows fiber structures much like root system of a mushroom, Mycelium is the network of thread-like cells that make up fungi. It’s made up of billions of tiny branching cells, which form a 3D micro-scale mesh structure. It holds the forest floor together and acts as nature’s recycling system by releasing enzymes that break down natural materials and release nutrients into the soil. This technology can be engineered to assemble into a supple yet durable materials that can replace both real and synthetic leather.

Another promising technology is an offshoot of bicomponent fibers which incorporates fluid cores into fibers. As a platform, this technology has the ability to address complex problems. This combination of fluids and solids can incorporate the best of both technologies in these fibers. It can move heat, sound and be equipped with active ingredients for medical or consumer applications that require time release over a large surface area.

As I look into the future, the single greatest challenge I see for fiber technology developments will address the persistence of fibers in the environment. I think the challenge will be to develop fibers that address an appropriate use-time and a balance of resources.

Making fibers requires a tremendous amount of energy to maintain the bonds of the fiber. I believe addressing and developing technologies for bond breaking that is compatible with the environment will require a deeper understanding of how molecules disintegrate at the end of their materials lifetime.

Nature can provide clues to a cleaner environment, and science can aid in the process as well as add significant commercial value.