What is the next phase for the advanced textiles sector? Functional textiles that provide added applications and at the same time support sustainability is the way forward for the sector.
Functional characteristics must be part of the textile chain right from the fiber level. The industry has gained recognition at the “common man” level since COVID-19, which is predominantly due to performance characteristics such as the filtration of high surface area substrates like nonwovens, nanofibers and activated carbon. This global recognition provides opportunities for the sector to build on the momentum to diversify and grow beyond current markets, receive major government support, and enable many new start-ups.
What’s Next in Functionality?
As a table stands on four legs, advanced textiles sector should stand on four legs 1) Performance; 2) Comfort; 3) Sustainability; and 4) Cost.
First and foremost, enhancement of performance characteristics beyond the current level is an important task for the industry. In addition to active performance capabilities, another important aspect is comfort, including breathability, next-to-skin friendliness, fit, and light weight, to name a few.
While performance and comfort are two major performance attributes that will drive the industry forward, immediate efforts must be dedicated by the industry to two additional aspects, namely sustainability and cost.
The industry should focus on having next-generation fibers with improved functionality. The textile industry has advanced in this area, with regard to synthetic fibers and regenerated fibers. Dedicated attention should focus on the natural fiber industry. As the natural fiber sector is dependent on weather, it is subjected to volatility regarding quality, quantity, and cost. There needs to be a better handle on these aspects as judiciously and efficiently as possible by this sector.
The United States’ cotton sector has been at the forefront in enhancing the yield per acre, using supplemental irrigation and practice conservation approaches such as no till farming. Currently efforts are focused on avoiding plastic contamination and enhancing better flow of commodities. The global cotton sector in regions such as Asia and Africa should enhance this sector as this industry provides lifelines to many small farmers who own less than one hectare of land.
The nonwoven and advanced textiles sector, which has been heavily dominated by synthetic fibers such as polypropylene and polyester, is now looking into cotton and other alternate fibers. In this regard, it is worthy to highlight international collaborative activity between U.S.-based Texas Tech University and South India-based Jayalakshmi Textiles. Natural cotton-based nonwoven substrates evolved out of this partnership, which resulted in environmentally friendly oil absorbents. These are some real-world examples of sustainable non-wovens, which find applications in environmental protection and healthcare markets.
The industry should focus on having next-generation fibers with improved functionality.
The advanced textiles sector is now looking into developing products using hemp, ramie, coarse wool, and jute. Much attention is also being paid to industrial applications for hemp and ramie. Opportunities are there for nonwoven machinery makers and the specialty chemical industry to develop products that will enable cost-effective applications for these natural fibers.
“Natural fibers, such as hemp, are an exciting part of the growing global bioeconomy because they provide a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based synthetic fibers. Natural fibers are also exciting because they each have their own properties when woven into textiles or made into advanced textiles using a myriad of technologies and can provide consumers with a wide range of sustainable and advanced textiles,” stated Professor Brendan Kelly, fiber expert in the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech University.
New medical applications can emerge if collaborations exist between the biomedical, functional chemicals, fibers, and nonwovens sector. Vector repellant and viral barrier fabrics, which are cost effective, provide new opportunities for the nonwovens and advanced textiles industry.
Nonwoven and advanced textiles sectors have opportunities in developing cost-effective, sustainable and health-friendly products. Single-use applications involving green products will be accepted in markets such as enhancing human life, environmental safety, and protection. Such efforts will lead to positive symbiotic relationships with academia, regulatory bodies, and research organizations.