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Fiber’s Future Down on the Farm

The textile industry is looking beyond the oil fields to cornfields and chicken coops for the basic building blocks of synthetic fibers.

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.

The Agriculture Department has also developed a process to soften chopped-up poultry feathers, add heat and pressure, and extrude textile fibers that have properties similar to nylon.

As with other forms of recycling, producing fibers from something that is generally considered waste material also helps spare landfills.

“Most of the things you can make from petroleum you can make from an agricultural feedstock,” said Justin Barone, a research scientist at the USDA, who’s working on what might be called the feathers-to-fashion project.

“Poultry farming is a big industry [in the U.S.] and these guys have to get rid of about 2.5 billion pounds of feathers each year,” Barone said.

That’s enough feathers to pack a landfill 50 feet deep covering 1,000 acres.

Currently, some of the feathers go into landfills and the balance are cooked and used as poultry feed — a practice only employed in the U.S.

“What we’re trying to do is just simply offer the farmers an alternative,” Barone said. “The fact that we can make a textile out of it is kind of fortuitous. I’ll make anything out of it as long as someone’s interested in it.”

Fiber firms with a politically correct slant are also turning to the cornfields for their base materials.

Two years ago, Cargill Dow launched Ingeo, a corn-derived fiber. Natural sugars extracted from corn are fermented in a process similar to yogurt production, transformed into a polymer and then extruded into fibers.

Ingeo has been used by various brands, including Versace Sport and Diesel. Cargill Dow has the capacity to produce about 300 million pounds of Ingeo annually, though production is not up to full capacity.

Steve Davies, director of apparel market development, said Ingeo has performance features of synthetics, such as moisture management. Fibers from quickly renewable resources are an idea whose time seems to have come, said Davies.

“What we were after is getting a competitive fiber out there that would not let you give up [performance] to do something good,” he said. A pound of Ingeo polymer sells for 85 cents or under, making it less expensive than nylon.

The production of Ingeo releases less carbon dioxide than the production of polyester or nylon, said Davies. Carbon dioxide is naturally occurring and produced each time humans exhale, but it is also produced in great quantities by the burning of fossil fuels and contributes to global warming.

Beyond the beneficial environmental aspects of recycling and releasing fewer greenhouse gases, the economic benefits of using such materials are also a point in their favor.

“What’s driving a lot of this is the cost,” said Philadelphia University’s George. Poultry feathers can be had for 25 cents a pound, or 75 cents after processing, he said.

“A lot of this material is fairly cheap,”  said George. “Now, if you start marketing it, people would be more apt to look for it or demand it. Someone who shops at Wal-Mart is going to go for the cheaper thing, but if you market it to the right crowd you can probably make quite a bit of profit.”