A research collaboration between Cotton Incorporated and North Carolina State University is underway to see whether post-consumer cotton textiles can be transformed into the building blocks for new products.

Compared to other fibres, cotton is inherently unique from a chemical and biological perspective, the researchers say, because it is essentially pure and natural cellulose. 

As a result of this composition, cotton clothing has the potential for near complete hydrolysis into bio-based building blocks such as glucose. Put another way, cotton clothing has the potential to be utilised as a post-consumer biomass for the production of new value-added products. 

Although this idea and area of research is not new, there are limited studies specific to post consumer and or textile-based feedstocks. Additionally, most academic work in this area utilises exotic processes and/or components making industrial feasibility highly questionable. 

For the last few years, research at Cotton Incorporated, led by Matt Farrell and Mary Ankeny in the Textile Chemistry Research Department, has focused on developing a facile chemical and enzyme-based cotton-to-sugar concept that could be easily adapted in the commercial realm. 

Cotton Incorporated is now collaborating with North Carolina State University (NCSU) researchers to investigate the technical and economic feasibility of this approach. 

The NCSU team has researched and developed a highly efficient and simple process to degrade cotton fabric, which in turn supports the research into converting recycled cotton textiles to bio-based building blocks suitable for the manufacturing of sustainable chemicals and additives. 

The NCSU project team has been working on the development of a chemical free, low energy consumption, and low capex conversion process. The technology has been proven at bench-scale and the team is working toward a pilot scale demonstration in 2021.

The disposal of used textiles is a growing environmental concern, and the research is at the heart of the circular economy enabling the transformation of waste materials for further utilisation.