While color is one of the biggest indicators of sales success in the fashion industry, it’s also one of the biggest sources of water pollution in the world. In fact, textile mills often dump residual dyes and dangerous chemicals into canals, streams and rivers.
At NC State, researchers from the College of Natural Resources and Wilson College of Textiles have developed a process that could one day solve this problem — and it involves the use of nanoscopic particles extracted from wood.
“Textile factories use dyes and other highly toxic coloring agents,” explains Nathalie Lavoine, assistant professor in the Department of Forest Biomaterials. “The use of nanocellulose is a route to sustainable treatment.”
Nanocellulose is a natural substance extracted from cellulose – the main substance of a plant’s cell walls. It is divided into two types: nanocrystals and nanofibrils, both of which are biodegradable and non-toxic. The former is also stronger than steel.
With funding from the Wilson College of Textiles Research Opportunity Seed Fund Program, Lavoine and his collaborators have developed a process that allows them to use nanocellulose to produce garments with iridescent characteristics resembling the rainbow shimmer that ‘we see on the scales of fish, the feathers of birds and the bodies of insects.
“The researchers were able to make iridescent films with these nanoparticles,” Lavoine said. “But until now, there was no way to apply these particles to textiles.”
Researchers extract cellulose from wood chips and pulp used in papermaking and combine it with water, treating the resulting mixture with acid to uncover the nanocrystals. They then purify the mixture to remove unwanted components.
After the purification process is complete, the researchers add the mixture to the frames so it can solidify into plastic-like films. Then, using a computer-aided design table, they cut the films into shapes and patterns that can be printed on clothing.
Lavoine said the use of nanocellulose in textiles ensures the sustainable use of natural resources, paving the way for new uses of low-grade wood and traditional wood sources. It could also reduce dye pollution from the fashion industry.
The United Nations Environment Program has found that not only is the fabric dyeing process the second biggest source of water pollution, but the fashion industry alone produces 20% of wastewater. world.
While Lavoine and his collaborators have not figured out how to provide all the colors, they are currently working on it. They are also testing the application of nanocellulose to a variety of other items, including phone cases.
“We can extend this work to much more than textiles,” Lavoine said. “The only limit is our imagination.”
Lavoine and his collaborators recently presented their work at the 2022 ACCelerate Festival in Washington, D.C. The three-day event, hosted at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, showcases “creative exploration and research at the intersection of science, engineering, arts and design” through the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Going forward, researchers will collaborate with NSF I-Corps to commercialize their work. The training program aims to help NC State researchers bring their ideas and inventions to market through customer discovery and market research.
“There’s still a lot of research to be done,” Lavoine said. “But ultimately, we’d like to find one or two industry partners who can bring commercial value to this project.”
This post originally appeared in College of Natural Resources News.