Renewable cellulosic fibers offer solutions to the pressing sustainability challenges in the textile industry. But without chemistry, these alternatives to cotton and polyester are not possible. Chemistry is crucial for the emerging cellulosic textile and nonwoven applications. It helps create needed properties for the cellulosic textile fibers and enables efficient production processes that save water and energy. Chemistry plays its role also in cotton waste and textile recycling processes.
We’re keen to offer our chemistry expertise and work together to help the textile value chain to fully leverage the possibilities of renewable and circular raw materials.
The textile industry is grappling with urgent challenges. We need to find more sustainable ways to produce and reuse textiles. In this transformation, renewable cellulose-based raw materials and textile recycling have a vital role. To unlock their true potential, chemistry expertise is key.
Without chemistry, the new sustainable textile innovations would simply not be possible
Principal Scientist, Microbiology and Biotechnology, Kemira
Questions you might have
Man-made cellulosic textile fibers (MMCFs), also known as regenerated cellulose fibers, are fibers that are derived from cellulose, a natural polymer found in plant cell walls. These fibers originate from plant-based materials, typically sourced from wood pulp, and offer a renewable and biodegradable alternative to non-renewable petroleum-based synthetic fibers.
Unlike natural cellulosic fibers like cotton or linen, man-made cellulosic fibers are typically produced through a chemical process where the cellulose is initially dissolved and then reformed and converted into fibers, I.e. regenerated through different technologies. Regenerated cellulosic fibers can be further processed and turned into various forms, such as yarns and fabrics or nonwovens, making them suitable for a wide range of textile applications, including clothing, home furnishings, and industrial products. They are also utilized in nonwoven materials for personal care and hygiene industry. MMCFs can also be easily blended with other fibers, creating composite materials.
In today’s market, several types of man-made cellulosic fibers, including lyocell, viscose, and modal, are already produced on an industrial scale. Novel ways to produce cellulose-based textile fibers are currently emerging. These ongoing innovations in the field of cellulosic textiles are primarily focused on reducing the environmental impact of production, aiming at e.g., eliminating harmful substances and minimizing water usage. The efforts are also geared toward exploring new, circular sources of cellulose-based raw materials, such as recycled cotton and secondary feedstocks.
Man-made cellulosic fibers are experiencing a surge in popularity within the textile industry, driven by several factors.
First and foremost, these fibers offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional synthetic fibers, such as polyester or nylon, which are derived from non-renewable resources. Man-made cellulosic fibers are derived from natural sources, primarily wood pulp. This renewable origin makes them not only more environmentally responsible but also biodegradable. The growing concern about textile waste increases the interest and demand for more renewable and recyclable alternatives, such as cellulosic textiles.
Secondly, man-made cellulosic fibers have properties that make them suitable for a wide array of applications. These fibers are known for their inherent softness, breathability, moisture absorption, and thermal regulation properties. These qualities allow for comfortable and lightweight garments. One of the advantages of cellulosic fibers is that their properties can be easily modified through chemical treatments during the manufacturing process, e.g., to enhance their strength, durability, moisture absorption or dyeability. Additionally, they can be blended with other fibers to create hybrid materials with improved characteristics.
Cellulosic textiles are made from natural resources such as wood pulp or plant-based materials. They are considered to be a more sustainable choice when assessed against clothing manufactured from synthetic fibers or cotton in terms of environmental impact.
Cellulosic textiles have a lower environmental impact in contrast to synthetic fibers or cotton. Synthetic fibers, such as polyester or nylon, derive from non-renewable resources like petroleum, which are finite, and involve energy-intensive production processes. Additionally, synthetic textiles are known to contribute to the concerning accumulation of non-biodegradable microplastics and waste in the environment. On the other hand, cotton, despite being a natural fiber, is often grown in regions where arable land is essential for food cultivation. Additionally, cotton production requires significantly more water and prime land when compared to wood biomass.
Cellulosic fibers can be produced using responsible renewable resources, such as sustainably managed forests. Their production process can also be less energy-intensive, often operating within a closed-loop system. This can reduce water consumption and facilitate the recycling and reusing of resources in the manufacturing cycle. An essential aspect of cellulosic textiles is their end-of-life disposal. These textiles hold an advantage in being biodegradable and compostable. When they reach the end of their lifecycle, cellulosic textiles undergo natural decomposition, reducing the long-term environmental impact and minimizing waste accumulation.
Cellulosic nonwoven refers to a category of nonwoven fabrics that is primarily composed of cellulose fibers, which can be extracted from a variety of sources such as wood pulp, cotton, hemp, and bamboo.
Nonwoven products represent a type of fabric-like material that is created by bonding or interlocking fibers together, rather than weaving or knitting them. Instead, nonwoven products are directly formed from fibers and bonded together by physical and/or chemical means. This process forms a sheet or web-like structure where the fibers are held in place. These manufacturing technologies result in versatile materials with a wide range of applications.
Cellulosic nonwovens have numerous common uses, particularly in the hygiene and healthcare sectors. In hygiene applications, these materials are used in products like wet wipes, baby diapers, and feminine care items. In the medical field, they are used in surgical gowns, wound dressings, and medical wipes. Additionally, cellulosic nonwovens can serve various industries as linings and filters.
One of the key advantages of cellulosic nonwovens is their biodegradability. Since they are primarily made from natural cellulose fibers, they readily decompose, making them a more sustainable option compared to nonwovens made from non-renewable synthetic materials. Another advantage of cellulosic nonwovens is their high absorbency. Cellulose fibers have excellent water and liquid absorption capabilities, making them suitable for use in products that require moisture management.
Chemistry has a vital role in the production of man-made cellulosic textile fibers. Cellulosic fibers, the essential components of cellulosic textiles, are derived from cellulose, a natural polymer found in plant cell walls. The process of transforming cellulose into fibers involves several chemical processes that are essential for producing high-quality cellulosic textile fibers.
Fundamental steps in the production processes for man-made cellulosic fibers are dissolution and regeneration of cellulose. Cellulose pulp, which is extracted from plant sources such as wood pulp or cotton, first undergoes dissolution. The dissolved cellulose is then regenerated back to solid fiber form using antisolvent, and the fibers are further processed into e.g. yarns for a wide range of textile applications.
Additionally, chemistry is instrumental in modifying the properties of cellulosic fibers to make them suitable for textile production. These functional chemistries can be used to enhance durability, hydrophobicity, and absorbency. Careful selection of chemicals is vital to ensure that the treatment done achieves the desired modifications while preserving the innate safety and recyclability of the cellulosic fibers.
Chemistry can also significantly impact energy, raw-material, and water efficiency in cellulosic fiber production. Process chemicals can enhance production performance and efficiency, preventing issues with process runnability. Chemicals also play a role in maintaining the purity and hygiene of the production process and the raw materials, as well as in managing wastewater.
In summary, chemistry is an essential enabler in various aspects of cellulosic textile fibers, impacting both functionality and process efficiency. By understanding and optimizing chemical processes, manufacturers can produce high-quality cellulosic fibers that meet the versatile demands of the textile industry.
Chemistry plays its role in textile recycling in many ways, ensuring efficient processes and ensuring effective fiber reuse.
Firstly, chemistry is crucial for the textile recycling process by enabling e.g. the separation of cellulose-based and synthetic fibers from each other and the removal of impurities from discarded textile materials. Textiles often contain various contaminants such as dyes, finishes, and dirt, which need to be removed during the recycling process. Chemistry provides effective solutions for contaminant removal and plays a key role in decolorization. It is essential for enabling the reuse of the recycled materials in various applications, as differently colored textiles pose challenges in creating white and bright pulp from them. Chemical solutions for microbe control ensure the purity of both the production process and the recycled fiber raw materials.
Through chemical processes, textile waste can be transformed into valuable resources. Chemistry also enables the creation of new materials from these recycled textile raw materials.
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Building on our long experience with chemical applications in the pulp and paper industry, we can provide a comprehensive portfolio of process and functional chemistries and water treatment solutions that suit the needs of cellulosic textile fiber manufacturing and textile recycling.