Fibres for the future must be sustainable
Opinion article by Prof. Xungai Wang, Pro Vice-Chancellor at Deakin University
In my role as the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Future Fibres) at Deakin University and Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded Research Hub for Future Fibres, I often get asked what are future fibres, a question I also wonder about myself.
I recall back in June 2012, I asked this very question at a joint function attended by fibre materials researchers from CSIRO and Deakin University. The answers range from high performance fibres such as carbon fibres, to nature’s wonder fibres such as wool, and fibres that are yet to be discovered. Back in 2009, we decided that our research focus should be in the areas of green natural fibres, carbon fibres, functional fibrous materials, and nanofibres. This focus remains the same today at Deakin University, while CSIRO fibre research has since shifted to a focus on carbon fibres and associated research only.
The 1st International Conference on Natural Fibres (ICNF) was held in the historical city, Guimarães (Portugal), in June 2013, with a focus on Sustainable Materials for Advanced Applications. To the credit of the conference initiator and Chair, Professor Raul Fangueiro, this series of conferences has now become a major international event in the fibre and textile research community. The theme of the recently held 4th International Conference on Natural Fibres is Smart Sustainable Solutions. So “sustainability” has been an on-going focus for this series of conferences, and quite rightly so.
What is so great about natural fibres is that they provide a constant source of inspiration for researchers and industrialists to reveal and mimick their unique hierachical structures and intrinsic properties.
Future fibres are fibres for the future, and fibres for the future must be sustainable. In this context, natural fibres have a very bright future, provided that the whole value chain from fibre production, to processing and end use remains “green” and sustainable. This is also what we meant by “green natural fibres” back in 2009. There is a long way to go still, but the natural fibres will remain as key members of the family of future fibres.
There are many types of natural fibre, derived from animal source, plant source, and even mineral source. Their applications have gone far beyond their traditional textile and clothing applications. Natural fibres are now routinely used in the composites as well as biomedical industries.
What is so great about natural fibres is that they provide a constant source of inspiration for researchers and industrialists to reveal and mimick their unique hierachical structures and intrinsic properties. We continue to discover new attributes of natural fibres and also add new functionalities to these fibres through multidisciplinary effort. Going forward, the added functionalities should not come at the expense of sustainability, and the whole fibre value chain will need to be circular.
Exciting research activities are now happening in the area of polymer design and development using biological sources.
In the era of circular economy, design will be a critical aspect. I mean design at all stages, from polymer/fibre design, to yarn composition and fabric structure design, so that the final product is easily reusuable, recyclable, or biodegradable. A case in point is the fibre blends. Cotton and polyester blends are prevalent in apparel market, yet the recycling of such blends is notoriously difficult. It is conceivable that such blends will be gradually replaced with more sustainable and compatible fibre types in the future. The R&D challenge then becomes how to make the more sustainable and compatible fibre blends behave similarly to, or even better than, the typical cotton polyester blends in terms of product performance, durability and cost.
Exciting research activities are now happening in the area of polymer design and development using biological sources. There is scope in designing certain performance attributes into these new polymers, so that the fibres and products from such naturally derived polymers can effectively compete with their dominant synthetic counterpart.
I look forward to hearing more on these and other natural fibre related activities at the international conference on natural fibres in the future.