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A new development in sustainable fabrics is Ioncell-F

A new development in sustainable fabrics is Ioncell-F

To simply define the plant cellulose-based fibre know as Ioncell-F, you need not look any further than Ecouterre’s brief summary, highlighting the substance and the captivating process by which it is made. The explanation is concise, serving as an excellent starting point. But there’s much more to explore when it come to this exciting textile fibre, and a host of future applications that are worth taking a look at. So shall we get excited about this new development in sustainable fabrics?

High Tech Process For Existing Materials

Merging plant matter with ionic liquid yields a sticky material known as Ioncell-F. This material is known in the industry for its impressive strength. A multiple-step process is able to evolve this matter from a sticky substance to a high-quality and durable textile.

The complete process, highlighted in this video, is a huge breakthrough for the fibre industry.

The project was founded by Scandinavian art and science students together with enthusiasts of Forest Product Technologies. It’s amazing to see these specialties merge to create one mesmerising textile (and why I’m such a huge fan of collaboration!). Their reasons for beginning such a large endeavour was all due to the rising demand of cotton textiles. As I’ve mentioned time and time again, cotton is one of the most polluting and resource-intensive fibres to produce. This is further complicated as the process of growing cotton and other cellulose materials takes a (relatively) long time.

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Team Ioncell looking the business! Courtesy of Helsinki Challenge

 

Properties of Ioncell-F

In developing Ioncell-F, the team hasn’t simply found a replacement for more traditional fabrics. Instead, they’ve developed a fibre that is an upgrade in many ways. Firstly, it is far stronger and more durable than your typical fabric, which in turn, makes for more durable fashion and household linens. According to the Aalto University School of Engineering’s Department of Forest Products Technology page, this strength is not compromised when the material becomes wet, and the fibres are exceptionally soft. It also has a high tenacity, which makes it ideal for technological applications.

Why is it eco-friendly?

According to a recent Ionic Liquids and Cellulose study found in the Textile Research Journal, not only is this one of the strongest textiles available with an extremely high tensile strength even when wet, but it is also far more sustainable than more common choices like cotton or rayon. The fibre can be manufactured using a “closed loop system”, where none of the toxic effluents are disposed of into the ecosystem. The process amazingly doesn’t require water either, therefore reducing water wastage, one of the biggest issues with cotton manufacture, and therefore further eliminating the possibility of water contamination. The material can also be produced without the need for land – bonus.

The most amazing thing though? The process of dissolving the cellulosic fibre can be applied to existing clothing! That’s right – it can be used to turn old clothes into new fabric.  Most clothing today isn’t actually recycled; it’s reused. Some of it ends up on the shelves of charity shops, but most are shipped to Asia and Africa. This is causing a knock-on issue, where the local textile markets are suffering with a lack of need for local fashion production.

After charity shops and shipping them off to faraway lands, a smaller amount of our waste fashion is cut down to make industrial cleaning rags and insulation. And finally, an even smaller percentage is turned back into raw fibre elements, a process known as fibre conversion – which is the most similar process to Ioncell, but couldn’t be more worlds apart in it’s environmental impact. In fibre conversion, fabrics are physically pulled apart using an industrial shredder and combined with stronger, new fibres to create a new yarn. The resulting textile is (not surprisingly) not as strong or as versatile as its source material. Therefore, the products made of “recycled” fibres are often down-cycled or turned into carpet or paper, as they simply are high quality enough for fashion products. So while currently available textile recycling methods might keep some of our fast fashion from being a total waste, Ioncell-F may finally be a solution to keep fashionistas from constantly pouring resources into clothing.

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Pros & Cons

The team is passionate about their fibre development, even  Ioncell-F is strong and good for the environment, with quality similar to the highest-rated cotton, but it isn’t without drawbacks.

The technology needed to reproduce Ioncell-F, particularly on a large-scale, is currently expensive and not widely available. It’s something that will need to be researched and remedied if manufacturers wish to use it on a wider scale. It is also a complex process that requires individuals with knowledge and training to make it run smoothly. Due to this, Start Up Fashion theorises that it will be five to ten years before the average consumer will even have access to Ioncell-F clothing. But, similar to the renewable energy sector, it is truly an exciting prospect for not only the planet, but also the job market and young people looking forward to their careers; more skilled work, particularly in such worthy biochemistry sciences is always a good thing! Especially when we measure up five to ten years of waiting time versus the long-lasting impact of the current water-intensive and toxic fibres currently in use.

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Just as the commitment of money, research, time and brainpower towards renewable energy is absolutely necessary as well exciting for young people and for the current job market, so is commitment to science efforts focused on developing sustainable textiles.

Potential Applications

The first ever product created from the Ioncell fibre was a woven scarf with an artistically geometric pattern created by Marjaana Tanttu, an art student. The team also designed and created a runway-worthy dress.

This is only the beginning of the applications we could see Ioncell-F being used for. And this goes beyond just fashion or home interiors – the team suggests that the raw material is well-suited for more technical materials, such as films, powders and hydrogels. It could be used to weave clothes ranging from durable daywear to beautiful and elegant gowns, and at the same time be the most intricate material inside a high-tech laboratory. Who said beauty and brains didn’t go together?

 

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