Innovation in synthetic fibers
Traditional materials reinvented
Technologies - MU Sustainable Innovation
With over 66 million tons produced, synthetic fibers are the most used raw materials in textile processes, since the beginning of the 90s their use has exceeded that of natural fibers.
The dominant fiber is polyester (55mln of tons for over 60 billion dollars in value) which has clothing for approximately 50% and home textiles for 25%, while the production of polyamide is nearly 6 million tons per year of which about 1/3 (2 thousand tons) used as textile fiber, the rest as plastic material.
Synthetic fibers traditionally origin from petroleum cracking, a non-renewable and fossil source.
The carbon contained in the subsoil in the organic molecules of oil is released into the atmosphere in an oxidized form, CO2, which is one of the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect that causes the rise in global temperatures.
Compared to natural fibers, synthetic fibers have both environmental advantages and disadvantages.
The main problems are the energy-intensive production process (which, if produced from fossil sources adds CO2 release to the atmosphere) and very long biodegradation times, of the order of centuries, which make the waste permanent in the environment.
The advantages are the minimum consumption of water, minimal dangerous chemical substances, and almost zero consumption of soil.
Innovations for the reduction of the environmental impact
Innovations for cutting the environmental impact of synthetic fibers have developed along three strands:
- Recovery and recycling, either thermo-mechanical or chemical. Thermo-mechanical recycling has a limitation in the number of reuse cycles compatible with adequate technical performances. Chemical recycling still needs to solve the problem of high energy use for depolymerization and subsequent reconstruction of the polymer chain.
- Improvement of the biodegradability to reduce the permanence in the environment of plastic materials and pollution from macro and microplastics
- "Decarbonization," i.e., the replacement of petroleum derivatives as raw material with bio-based materials, vegetable oils, starches, sugars, to reduce the use of fossil raw materials and net emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere
The first solution is already widely practiced, for polyester mainly from the recycling of post-consumer sources (PET bottles), for Nylon from both post-consumer and post-industrial sources.
A few Biodegradable synthetic polymers can be found on the market. However, biodegradation remains problematic and requires controlled and industrial facilities, far from easy diffusion.
The switch to biomasses as sources for synthetic fibers, substituting oil, is perhaps the most exciting strand from an innovative point of view and could make a significant contribution to the decarbonization of the textile industry.