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Texas Tech research seeks new uses for low-grade cotton

Noureddine AbidiThe use of masks, whether they are cloth, N-95 or some other iteration, is being touted by health care professionals and governmental leaders as the main mitigating act the public can undertake in the battle against the novel coronavirus.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States, people in communities across the country have stepped up, making masks for friends and health care workers. Most of those masks have been of the cloth variety. In the future, mask production will be influenced by research into what materials and methods offer the best protection against this and future viruses.

That research will almost certainly include results produced from Texas Tech and its Zoonotic & Infectious Diseases Research Center. A key contributor to that research will be Noureddine Abidi in Tech’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.

Abidi, the Leidigh Professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science and director of the Fiber & Biopolymer Research Institute, is a polymer chemist whose research focuses on the physical and chemical characteristics of biopolymers and their functionalization and transformation, which leads to practical, advanced applications. One of those applications is the potential antimicrobial properties of certain natural and manmade fibers.

“I feel that my expertise in biopolymer chemistry and physicochemical characterization could contribute greatly to this new research initiative,” Abidi said. “Physical and chemical characterization is important for any field of research. Our instrumental tools and expertise could be used alongside other research to confirm and support the results obtained from various research projects undertaken by members of the newly created center.”

A new home for low-grade cotton

One of Abidi’s most recent research discoveries could have a huge impact in providing not only protective masks but other personal protective equipment, while at the same time creating an economic advantage for the cotton industry.

Noureddine AbidiIn September, Abidi was awarded a patent for a process he developed that can break down low-grade cotton into pure cellulose, which then can be converted into a gel that can be used in 3D printing, for example, or other processes to create usable, biodegradable products such as bioplastic materials.

The idea is to find a new use for low-grade cotton or any recyclable that is 100% cotton, and trying to replace, to some extent, petroleum-based products,” Abidi said, when the patent was awarded. “It is still a valuable product that we need to transform into something else.”

Abidi’s goal with the research is to be able to take the gel from low-grade cotton and use it to replace as many nonbiodegradable products, like plastic trash bags, as possible. Abidi and fellow researchers already have shown in the FBRI laboratory that the process will work, using it to convert low-grade cotton into products such as protective film, which could potentially be used to make face shields for hospital workers caring for coronavirus patients.

The gel also can be used in 3D printers, which can then be used to create myriad products with the potential of helping curb the coronavirus outbreak. During their research, Abidi and his colleagues placed the gel into a 3D printer jet to produce scaffolds or the skeleton of other products, or placed it in a mold to give it a certain shape, such as porous materials.

About the only limit to the process is whether there is a need for a product that can withstand specific conditions, such as high humidity, high heat or high strength/elongation.

“The use of a face mask/covering is one approach to effectively prevent airborne infectious diseases,” Abidi said. “Although my current research has not been focused on face masks in particular, my expertise in textile and polymer chemistry can be used to develop a new generation of effective face masks that also can incorporate a face shield.”

Texas Tech University contributed this article.