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Research to produce sustainable plant-sourced fibres

Research Scientist Helen Ashmead outlines Lincoln Agritech’s research into sustainable textile fibres to the Textile Institute World Conference.

Endemic New Zealand plants may become a new source of sustainable textile fibres, guided by mātauranga Māori.

With the support of an $8.3 million, five-year grant from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment Endeavour Fund, Lincoln Agritech is leading a project that investigates the potential of harakeke (New Zealand flax), ti kōuka (cabbage tree) and the hardwood tawa for producing man-made cellulous fibres.

Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) has guided the choice of plants, with harakeke traditionally being used for weaving and ti kōuka used for food, fibre, and medicine.

“Our ultimate goal is to develop the basis for a new industry exporting a substantial volume of regenerated cellulose fibres,” says Rob Kelly, Lincoln Agritech’s New Materials Group Manager.

Working with project partners the Ferrier Research Institute, Scion, and AgResearch, they successfully created films from ti kōuka leaves and the whole plant material of tawa wood. “Producing films is a good indication that the cellulose present in the plant can be extracted and shows good materials properties,” says Research Scientist Helen Ashmead.

Tawa shows particular promise, with a higher molecular weight than wood pulp from radiata pine, meaning its cellulose is good quality and will produce strong materials.

Textiles made from biodegradable fibres are seen as an attractive alternative to petroleum-based synthetic fibres such as nylon. However, current production methods can be environmentally damaging in many ways, including high energy use and producing a large amount of waste products, including toxic chemicals.

The research is also investigating ways to use the entire plant material to make fibres with minimal processing, so minimising any waste.

“We propose to revolutionise the global fibre industry by developing a completely new, and environmentally low-impact approach to extracting cellulose from plants,” says Rob. “We also hope to divert current streams of lower-value or waste cellulose material and foster the development of high-end textiles made by New Zealand designers with embedded mātauranga Māori.”

The research aims and progress was recently well-received at the Textile Institute World Conference, held at the University of Huddersfield, in the United Kingdom, where Helen presented a poster, which was awarded second prize.

“The key focus of the conference was sustainability in the textile industry and the work we presented generated a lot of interest,” she said. “Many of the attendees and presenters commented on the ‘green-washing’ that can sometimes happen with man-made cellulose fibres, and were pleased we were addressing this.”