NEW YORK — The textile industry is looking beyond the oil fields to cornfields and chicken coops for the basic building blocks of synthetic fibers.
Petroleum-based fibers have been a major focus of the textile industry since DuPont scientists Gerald Berchet and Wallace Carothers invented nylon, the first commercial synthetic fiber, in 1935. The recent upswing in the price of oil has prompted an increase in the price of petroleum-based fibers, such as polyester. A pound of polyester staple last month cost 63 cents, up from 57 cents a year ago and 52 cents two years ago, according to consulting firm DeWitt & Co.
Profit margins throughout the fiber industry have also been squeezed by global competition.
Given the intensity of the global marketplace and the volatility of oil prices, industry experts said that methods to make fibers out of other raw materials — such as corn or feathers — could prove economically viable.
“With the cost of oil going up, people are going to start exploring alternative sources,” said Brian George, assistant professor of textile engineering at Philadelphia University.
At the end of last week, a barrel of crude cost $40.71, up from about $30 a year ago, according to WTRG Economics.
“You’re going to see more people going that route,” George said. “If nothing else, it’s a good marketing tool.”
George is among a growing coterie of academics and industry executives ramping up research and launching pilot programs that make use of new, readily renewable resources for fiber. Many common fibers already exist in nature, including cotton, wool and silk. There are also popular man-made fibers that come from renewable sources, such as rayon and lyocell, which are derivatives of wood pulp.
However, the markets for these fabrics are well established and some of the new fibers offer the attributes of petroleum-based synthetics, such as moisture management, but have the added benefit of using materials that are currently going to waste.
George, who picked up the habit of recycling from his parents in the Seventies, has experimented with extracting fibers from peanut shells and spinning yarns from the fibers of turkey feathers.
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