Born out of $10 million in research funding from the Department of Defense, Natural Fiber Welding (NFW) has the potential to change the way textiles are made and discarded materials are reused.
Dr. Luke Haverhals, the developer and co-inventor of fiber welding, said the platform has the potential to create a continuous supply of sustainable, economical materials for the textiles, home goods, building products and other industries.
He explained that fiber welding came about from Air Force funding that sought to explore manipulating biomaterials, with a particular interest in silk.
“Fiber welding is the ability to get fibers to fuse together without using glue and without denaturing the underlying substrate,” Haverhals said in a phone interview.
In the process, small amounts of bio-based polymers like cotton are temporarily liberated from their intermolecular constraints and made free to interact, he explained. As polymers from the outside of fibers interact, intermolecular forces extend from one fiber to the next, naturally “welding” them together and producing robust fiber-based filaments.
During the fiber welding process, value-added functional properties like magnetism, conductivity, fire resistance and energy storage can be incorporated through engineering of the patented processes, Haverhals noted.
Fiber welding can produce 100 percent natural fiber composites that can be used in everything from high performance yarns and fabrics to rigid upcycled building materials from discarded clothing that would have ended up in a landfill, Haverhals said.
Of particular interest for the textile sector, the main focus of NFW is on transforming cotton at the molecular level from a loose collection of fibers to a tunable filament. The process of fiber welding can be applied to yarn, new fabric or recycled products.
“Natural Fiber Welding is beneficial to the manufacturing side and the performance the user can get out of it,” Haverhals said. “It’s a very scaleable process, a new way for people to think about where they get their textiles and building materials using natural materials that biodegrade, thus avoiding the use of plastics and petroleum-based materials that can be harmful to the environment.”
Fiber welded cotton is 100 percent natural with no synthetic processes or additives.
Haverhals explained that the proprietary chemistry process used to weld the fibers is closed loop, with no waste or byproduct. Based in Peoria, Ill., the facility uses “smart green chemistry with automation,” he noted.
“The raw material is derived from upcycled cotton from mills that are reclaiming cotton from used garments,” he said. “But the cotton fiber gets shorter when upcycled and limits the products that can be manufactured. We’re working with those mills to have them spin yarns they would not have thought about using before.”
Haverhals noted that NFW also has products that blend wool and cotton, and has also worked with silk, linen, flax and industrial hemp.
“Our palette is the natural fiber world,” he said.
NFM is now in the “pilot” stage, working with mills and raw material providers on sampling and product testing.
“Our engineers are building the next generation equipment,” Haverhals said. “In the short term, we will manufacture fabrics ourselves and get market adoption and at some point we will license our automated solutions to mills and create partnerships.”