Sunday, November 27, 2022

Transform Low-Quality Cotton Into A Plastic Alternative

How To Market Cotton Not Suited For Textile Processing

• By Karen Michael,
Texas Tech University •

plastic alternative from cotton
Bioplastic, made from cellulose, can mimic petroleum-based plastic but will decompose when thrown away.

When cotton is abundant but the quality is low, farmers still need to sell the product.
Texas Tech University researchers are exploring ways to use cotton that may not be ideal for a shirt or jeans.

Noureddine Abidi is a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Science and the director of the Fiber & Biopolymer Research Institute, or FBRI. One of the possible ways he has found to make a profit from low-quality cotton is in mimicking another product entirely.

Researchers at FBRI have found a way to make a gel from low-quality cotton that can be formed into a product similar to plastic.

When handled, the smooth and pliable product looks and feels like the same plastic found in sandwich bags. It can also be made into thicker forms for other needs.

Normal plastic is a petroleum-based product. It does not decompose easily. But the benefit of using cotton for a similar purpose, such as the ubiquitous grocery bags overflowing from under the sink of almost every home, is that once the product is tossed in the trash and exposed to rain and soil bacteria, it will decompose.

“It is basically going from the soil to the soil,” Abidi says of that process.

The tricky part of using cellulose in cotton fibers to form a product is that it cannot simply be melted into the desired shape. Cotton fibers must be dissolved and molded in a gel form and film because cotton does not melt.

Discounted Cotton Market

Abidi says the new “plastic” was not developed to make a new cotton product necessarily, but as a way to make a product from low-quality, low-micronaire, cotton.

“We are not just going to tell cotton producers, don’t worry about cotton quality, just make fiber,” Abidi says.

There is plenty of demand for high- quality cotton from textile mills. However, growing cotton can be affected by Mother Nature. When cotton producers harvest cotton that is less desirable for textile processing, they need a place to sell it.

We are still going to find a market for that,” Abidi says. “Every year, we have a good amount of cotton that is discounted. That is really what we are looking for.”

FBRI Labs

For many years, FBRI has been a leader in interdisciplinary, collaborative research with different entities within and outside Texas Tech. The FBRI labs provide valuable research and evaluation services to cotton breeders, researchers, producers and seed companies. They also provide opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to perform their cotton research projects.

The FBRI facility, located off East Loop 289 in Lubbock, tests every aspect of the cotton fibers, from seed cotton ginning, to processing, spinning, dyeing and finishing.

“Everything is under one roof,” Abadi says. “We gin the cotton. We test for the quality. We spin, and then we form a small piece of textile product, either knitted or woven, and then we can test for the quality of that textile product. We can also do dyeing here, and we can also finish. Everything here is under one roof.

“I think we are the only one in the world going all the way from the seed to the final product. FBRI is becoming the premier institute to do this kind of work on cotton.”

Karen Michael is a senior editor in the Texas Tech University Office of Research Development and Communications.

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