Biofibers made from agricultural waste could be the next big thing in haute couture

chicken_feathers.jpg A knit fabric made from 50 percent rice straw fiber and 50 percent cotton.  Courtesy of Yiqi Yang

Fashion’s new wave could come not from runways of Europe but the farms of the Midwest.

Every year, farms worldwide produce millions of tons of agricultural waste, which includes wheat gluten, rice straw, and even chicken feathers. Now scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are turning this refuse into biodegradable fabrics as an alternative to the ubiquitous nylons and polyesters made from petroleum.

Petroleum-based nylons and polyesters make up 60 percent of the world’s textile fiber consumption. Producing such fabrics takes lots of energy and emits lots of greenhouse gases.

Further, it’s already been established that petroleum is not only harmful to the environment, but that the supply of petroleum is finite.

Making textiles from plentiful, cheap, and renewable materials is “absolutely the right direction for research,” says biotextile engineer Yiqi Yang, whose lab is heading this project.

Two years ago, Yang’s group tried to make durable fabrics from cornhusks. Today, it’s still a work in progress.

“What’s hard is finding high-quality fibers,” he said. “If you just want to make paper, it’s easy. But textiles need strength and elongation.”

Yang is excited now about two promising new fibers that he is presenting to his colleagues this week at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in San Francisco.

The first is a wool-like fabric made of chicken feathers, still in the early stages of production. The second fiber, made of rice straw, is considerably farther along. Yang has already made 12-inch-square samples of the fabric.

“[It’s] softer than linen, but not as soft as cotton,” he said.

The fiber is also durable, he said, which is not surprising, given that rice straw is used as roofing material in many countries. 

Turning rice straw into fiber involves using chemicals and enzymes to strip everything but the natural fibers from the straw. The process, currently under review for a patent, is not only environmentally friendly, but also relatively inexpensive, Yang said.

Now that Yang has made small patches of rice fabric, the next step is to make and distribute garments. And, of course, to find the investors who can make it all happen.

But despite the national fervor over biofuels, which could replace gasoline, it might be a while yet before models start strutting down the runway in biofiber coats.

“Nobody’s really looking to invest in the fiber area,” Yang said.

That may change soon though, said Elizabeth Mygatt, a staff researcher at the Earth Policy Institute.

Besides being employed for fuel and fibers, petroleum is used in the manufacture of many everyday products, such as plastic bottles. In fact, producing the amount of bottled water consumed in just a year in the United States requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil, the Earth Policy Institute reported in a recent study.

“It’s the same sort of thing for textiles,” said Mygatt. “As we run out of oil, we’re going to have to explore alternatives.”

Originally published September 11, 2006


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