Source: Textile Review


In the last 20 years a dramatic rise in biotechnology innovations is leading to an escalating number of low-cost and effective biotechnology solutions in textiles processing and the discovery of exciting new fabrics. To produce those fabrics, yarn and fiber manufacturers currently are experimenting with a variety of bio-based products that offer a three-fold market appeal - one is that the products are derived from a natural renewable resource, are more earth-friendly than synthetics and are far less dependent on petroleum-based ingredients. The product that has emerged an as promising alternative to synthetic fibers is derived from corn.


Biotechnology has been used in the textile industry for more than 100 years, since amylase enzymes from malt extract were first used to degrade starch-based sizes for cheap and effective desizing. In the last 20 years a dramatic rise in biotechnology innovations is leading to an escalating number of low-cost and effective biotechnology solutions in textiles processing and the discovery of exciting new fabrics.


To produce those fabrics, yarn and fiber manufacturers currently are experimenting with a variety of bio-based products that offer a three-fold market appeal - one is that the products are derived from a natural renewable resource, are more earth-friendly than synthetics and are far less dependent on petroleum-based ingredients.


The product that has emerged as a promising alternative to synthetic fibers is derived from corn. Corn fiber is made using fermentation of simple plant sugar to create a range of textile products and applications. Although the fiber itself comes from corn starch, which generates a lactic acid (the basis for a polymer) by fermentation, it is not "natural" since there is chemical transformation. It is however considered 'renewable' since it does not come from a fossil product. The company that makes the corn-based plastic resins marketed under the NatureWorks PLA and Ingoe fiber brand is NatureWorks LLC, USA. The name Ingoe literally means "ingredients from the earth".

About the fiber

Corn fiber is a man made fiber derived entirely from annually renewable resources. These fibers have the performance advantages often associated with synthetic materials, and complementing properties of natural products such as cotton and wool.


The process for manufacturing the polymer used to make corn fiber on an industrial scale centers on the fermentation, distillation and polymerization of a simple plant sugar, maize dextrose. The sugars are fermented in a process similar to making yogurt. After fermentation products are transformed into a high-performance polymer called polylactide, which can then be spun or otherwise processed into corn fiber for use in a wide range of textile applications.


The production and use of corn fiber means less greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are the chief contributor to global climate change. Compostability and chemical recyclability mean that under the right conditions and with the right handling, the complete life cycle of production, consumption, disposal and re-use is neatly closed.


Important attributes of Corn Fiber

The fiber comes entirely from corn, is fully eco-compatible and has exceptional qualitative features. The properties associated with the corn fiber are:


  • Corn is available in both spun and filament forms in a wide variety of counts from micro denier for the finest lightest fabrics to high counts for more robust applications.
  • It is derived from naturally occurring plant sugars. When products come to the end of their useful life, they can be returned to the earth, unlike petroleum based products, which can only be disposed of through thermal recycling, physical recycling or landfill.
  • Corn fiber balances strength and resilience with comfort, softness and drape in textiles. Corn also uses no chemical additives or surface treatments and amazingly, is naturally flame retardant.
  • It is reported to have outstanding moisture management properties and low odor retention, giving the wearer optimum comfort and confidence.
  • Corn fiber filament is said to have a subtle luster and fluid drape with a natural hand offering a new material to stimulate creativity.
  • Corn fiberfill allows outerwear garment makers to offer a complete story and a more environmentally friendly alternative to polyester and nylon combinations in padded garments.
  • It reportedly outperforms other synthetics in resistance to UV light, retaining strength color and properties overtime.
  • Easy care, independent wash and dry cleaning tests have shown that the Corn fiber garment tested can be laundered using standard washing and drying machines.
  • Independent testing has confirmed Corn fibers have superior or equal performance to polyester in key active wear applications.
  • Garments in corn fiber reportedly demonstrated good soil release, quick drying and show excellent after-wash appearance.


Applications of Corn Fiber


Once produced corn fiber has a natural feel that provides true innovation from yarns to garments. The fiber was developed about five years ago, and can be used both with woven and non-woven fabrics. The natural source and inherent performance attributes of corn fiber make it ideal for use in a wide range of fiber applications.

 

Apparel - Characteristics like strength, resilience, comfort and drape combined with loft, natural insulating warmth and moisture management make corn fiber the perfect solution for both outer and inner fabric performance needs. Moreover, because of its easy-care properties, corn fiber-based fabrics are an easy choice for clothing manufacturers. Corn fiber is used in many different apparel applications such as contemporary sports and casual wear t-shirts, fleece and jeans. Functional fashion separates like shirtings, trousers, duvet jackets, jersey dressing and essential next- to-skin items such as underwear and hosiery. Corn fiber can also be used in new fiberfill blends for thermal wadding that offers unique natural insulation properties. The use of corn fiber in clothing fabrics translates into garments that are both easy care and easy wear.


Home Textiles - The natural versatility of corn fiber allows it to be created as furnishing and home textile also. Corn fiber is used in different home textile product categories and it is suitable for bedding fiberfill (such as pillows, duvets and quilts), ticking fabric5, mattresses, blankets, carpets, draperies, upholstery fiberfill and in office wall paneling.


Nonwovens - Corn fiber is already in use in two non woven applications: wipes and feminine hygiene products. With its unique end-of-life options, it is well suited for use in cosmetics and diapers.


Industrial applications - Corn fibres can be used for geotextiles, agrotextiles and specialist filtration media. Corn in form of biopolymer can also be used, in its plastic form, for packaging.


Reduced Environment Impact


Corn fiber leads the way toward producing a wide range of materials from renewable resources, to meet the world's needs today without compromising the earth's ability to meet the needs of tomorrow. Corn is a clean product; i.e., on reaching the end of its lifetime, it is completely biodegradable, compostable, burnable (without producing dangerous fumes) and recyclable.


Corn fiber is an environmentally preferable option to petroleum-based synthetic materials as it uses natural resource, field corn, instead of petroleum, to make synthetic materials.


Corn fiber in fashion


Corn fiber has already threaded its way into some winning outfits produced by designers from across the globe. It is currently used in contemporary sportswear, fashion separates, essential and other knitwear by a number of designers who firmly believe that through the use of corn fiber in their designs they can raise awareness for the environmental, social and political issues close to their hearts with the aim of making the consumer aware and inspiring them to act by taking responsibility for the world we live in and the one that we leave to future generations.


References


Originally published in Textile Review; October 2009