A completely new cellulose-based textile fibre so durable and cheap that it can reduce the textile industry’s carbon footprint. This is what TreeToTextile has succeeded in developing. RISE has been involved throughout the journey – from idea to demo facility.
Today’s textile production leaves a huge carbon footprint. The textile and fashion industry is one of the most resource-intensive and polluting industries in the world, and many of the materials used today are heavily criticised. Cotton accounts for about a quarter of the world’s textile fibres, but its production requires large amounts of water and pesticides. The rest of global production is mostly synthetic fibres, such as polyester, made from fossil fuel-derived raw materials, which also contribute to the release of microplastics. There is therefore considerable need and interest in sustainable alternatives to cotton.
“Not least because textile consumption will increase as the global middle class grows,” says Tobias Köhnke, Head of the Fibre Development unit at RISE. “To meet that need in a sustainable way, we need to find a solution to develop more bio-based materials.”
This particular challenge is the driving force behind the Swedish start-up TreeToTextile. They have developed a new process to produce a cellulose-based textile fibre that not only has a lower carbon footprint but is also cheaper than the methods used today.
“Our goal was to create an environmentally friendly fibre with the lowest possible CO2 footprint at the lowest possible cost,” says Åsa Östlund, Head of Research and Development at TreeToTextile.
Making textiles from cellulose is not in itself something new – viscose is a well-known example. But the processes currently used to dissolve the cellulose fibre and turn it into threads, which can then be turned into fabric, either require large amounts of hazardous chemicals or are very expensive.
“What is unique in this project is that we have found a solvent that is both safe to work with and cheap,” says Köhnke. “We have also developed a way to recycle and reuse the chemicals. This is huge, it’s something that has been researched all over the world for many years.”
The fibre developed by TreeToTextile fulfils and exceeds the original goal: it has a carbon footprint of 0.6 kg CO2 equivalents per kilogram of fibre – the most sustainable viscose has 1.8. For certain viscose types, the figure is as high as 8, which is more than ten times as high as TreeToTextile's fibre.
“Our technology process comes also at a much lower production cost,” says Östlund.
Essentially all research and development has taken place at RISE
The project started in 2009, when entrepreneur Lars Stigsson recognised the research potential in a new method for cellulose dissolution. Operators such as H&M Group, Inter IKEA Group, and later Stora Enso all joined the project. The start-up of a new demo facility is now underway to verify the process in a continuous system that will be fully scalable.
RISE has been involved from the beginning as a research and development partner.
“Essentially all research and development has taken place at RISE,” says Köhnke. “We have built-up infrastructure to be able to take on assignments like this. We have expertise and equipment on a pilot scale for the entire value chain, from the raw material to the evaluation of the finished product.”
Developing a research idea into full-scale production takes time and requires an array of skills, and according to Östlund, the partnership with RISE has been crucial:
“If we had done this ourselves, it would have taken even longer and we would have had to take greater risks; RISE has made an enormous difference. They have the expertise, so we don’t have to recruit and take on that kind of risk. For a smaller start-up company, there are great advantages to being flexible with regard to the resources you need to obtain, and bringing in specific skills where needed.”
And both in Sweden and internationally, there is considerable interest in finding new, sustainable textile fibres.
“We receive many requests from companies that want to do the same thing, not only with cellulose but also with different raw materials, such as proteins or substances from the marine environment. We have shown that we are an important innovation partner,” says Köhnke.
TreeToTextile is a Swedish start-up within the textile industry with a mission to deliver better fibers to all. Supported by strong owners; H&M Group, Inter IKEA Group, Stora Enso and LSCS Invest, they develop and commercialize a new innovative cellulose-based fibertechnology, to provide textile fibers with good sustainability performance at a low production cost.