Today it takes up to 7,000 litres of fresh water to grow cotton for just one pair of jeans. And the demand for cotton is increasing. But what if cotton could be recycled without quality loss?
Cotton is one of our most loved textiles. But producing 1 kilo of cotton requires 10,000 litres of water. In recent years, production of this material has decreased while the demand has increased. Some studies predict demand will exceed supply by 20 million tons annually by 2030.
The Finnish forest industry identified this gap as an opportunity. Since demand for paper has decreased, the industry started investigated application areas for wood-pulp. A major research project was initiated in 2009 in collaboration with Aalto University in Helsinki. The challenge was to develop a solvent free from toxic chemicals that could dissolve the fragile cellulose without damaging it.
“While developing the process, we discovered that it was very strong, so there was no need to use wood pulp. Instead, we could use waste materials such as paper and cardboard,” explains Michael. “And since cotton is 100 percent cellulose, why not recycle it?”
Since receiving the award in 2016, the technology to recycle waste cotton and spin entirely new textile fibres has progressed faster than Michael and his team anticipated.
In 2017, funding for two big projects could be secured from a public funding and key industrial partners. The projects focus on the further development of the technology, in particular to close the process loop, and on preparing its commercialization. The project durations are 2.5 and 2 years, respectively, and capitalizes on expertise centres across Finland. Thereafter, the plan is to install a pilot spinning line to lift the technology onto the next level.
“The Global Change Award has boosted the development, not only through the grant, which allowed to intensify our research and development activities, but also through dissemination of our development via various channels that were opened and provided by the Global Change Award. The award gave us a broader and more international audience and made our technology more tangible. This also motivated our previous partners to stay dedicated to us, as well as new partners to join the development,” says Michael.
Team members: Ali Harlin, Michael Hummel, Ilkka Kilpeläinen, Pirjo Kääriäinen, Herbert Sixta and Marjaana Tanttu