NEW YORK — Fields of corn lend themselves more to thoughts of summertime suppers and crop circles than fashion statements.
Someday that might change, though, as a method has been developed to produce a fiber similar to linen out of corn husks.
The process, which employs simple chemicals and enzymes to isolate the useful cellulose fibers in the husks, was developed by Yiqi Yang, a professor of textiles, clothing and design at the University of Nebraska’s College of Engineering & Technology. Fibers in the corn’s husk — not the silk familiar to anyone who’s shucked an ear — are spun into yarn.
Yang said the fabric made from corn-husk yarn has properties somewhere between those of cotton and linen and can be used to do the job of common linen.
Already Yang has produced a sweatshirt using his method.
“We’re waiting for investors so that we can move forward and build the pilot,” he said in a phone interview. “If I have the money tomorrow, in a year you will see a pilot-scale plant.”
Less interested in profits than the process, Yang said he would approach investors when time permitted.
Still, the opportunities for fabrics derived from husks seem significant.
The U.S. produces about 20 million tons of corn husks annually, which could be made into 2 million tons of fiber, said Yang. It takes about three pounds of husks to produce the average T shirt.
“We have shrinking cultivated land in this world and this is ideal,” said Yang.
Fiber from husks could be an environmental windfall, he said, since the corn is already grown for food purposes. The fiber could stand in for cotton in some instances, reducing the need to devote as much land to cotton. Also, the fiber could replace some petroleum-based fibers, such as polyester.
Should corn husk fabrics take off, Yang noted, they would not only make use of a renewable and currently neglected resource, but would also create jobs in farm states.
Last year, Minnetonka, Minn.-based Cargill Dow LLC unveiled its new corn-based fiber Ingeo. The fiber has comparable performance characteristics to synthetic fibers. Other synthetic-fiber makers, including DuPont, have also experimented with corn-based fibers.