Cotton to Cellulose

Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.

Some may see a pile of “gin trash” or a pile of low micronaire cotton.

But to Noureddine Abidi, the same pile has the potential to be the building material—the fabric—of our future.

Abidi is the managing director of the Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas. Recently he and his colleagues discovered a patent-pending technology to create 3D printer “ink” from raw cotton cellulose. This revolutionary method can take non-textile appropriate cotton fibers, gin byproducts, even recycled cotton, and dissolve them with solvents. This creates a gel of long and strong chains of glucose that can be molded or cast into forms or used as ink in 3D printers that have been adapted to resist the solvent used in the gel-making process.

 “I’m a chemist, and so I look at how can I take one product and chemically make something else,” Abidi explained. Cotton is just cellulose, he added, and organic chemistry tells us how we can dissolve cellulose to make a gel. 

“Cellulose is a lot of glucose units stuck together,” Abidi said. “The challenge is in how to separate them, but not break them.” Imagine, cellulose in cotton as many sheets of paper stacked. You’d want to separate each “sheet” so they would remain whole and strong. If you tear the “sheet” when trying to separate it from the stack, you reduce the strength of that cellulose chain. In this instance, the gel from the Texas Tech process, since it’s composed of whole chains, is strong enough to be used in 3D printing and casting.

“The idea is, once I have my solution or gel, I can then put it into the cartridge for a 3D printer, and then with the right software we can print things,” Abidi said.

If you think of this gel as a soup, Abidi explained, you can add more materials to the pot to help you create materials with specific useful properties. For example, if you want to use it in construction applications, you’d create a specific ratio of cotton cellulose gel to some other component to add more strength or electrical conductivity. From there, the applications are practically endless.

For example, in one proof-of-concept proposal to the National Institutes of Health, Abidi and his team want to research the application of a cotton cellulose-based transparent film in wound care and treatment.

“So, if we can make a film from cotton and it is biodegradable and biocompatible because it’s just glucose, we could add antibiotics to the film and put it on a wound and be able to see the wound healing,” Abidi said. The patient and his or her doctor could monitor the healing process better and the film could remain on the wound longer so that the patient wouldn’t have to undergo bandage changing as much.

That’s just one potential healthcare aspect of this technology. The healthcare industry today already uses 3D printing in dental applications, Abidi said. There’s future potential for 3D printing replacement organs tailor made to an individual’s DNA and printing artificial limbs that fit better and work better for amputees, among other uses.

Huge potential

Many are calling 3D printing the next Industrial Revolution for the effect it could have on businesses. The current global 3D printing market is pegged at $4.8 billion and is expected to be worth $20.5 billion by 2020, according to a report from the consulting firm Deloitte Poland. Major manufacturers in the automotive and aerospace industry use 3D technology to create components today. Some businesses are even looking into how 3D printing could help manage inventories of replacement parts or on-time delivery of consumer goods in the future. It potentially could change manufacturing, warehousing, delivery and retail industries.

The Harvard Business Review reported that 2014 sales of industrial-grade 3D printers in the United States were already one-third the volume of industrial automation and robotic sales and was expected to grow to 42 percent by 2020. Office Depot reported that technology of 3D printers is advancing both for commercial applications and consumer applications. In the future—in theory—it might be possible to purchase and use a code from a company to “print” an item on your home 3D printer or a nearby leased commercial-grade unit. The applications are potentially boundless.

And cotton could have a role in bringing 3D printing to the masses. One of the restraining factors to the industry’s growth potential right now is high material cost for 3D printing. But in theory, any place that has access to cotton could have access to a ready supply of 3D printer ink using this Texas Tech process.

From waste to value

Cotton Incorporated reports that globally, the cotton industry generates about 3 million tons of gin waste. One 480-pound bale can produce as much as 150 to 200 pounds of gin waste that’s comprised of burrs, stems, immature bolls, lint and leaves. Even better, it could give another revenue avenue to shorter staple cotton that isn’t appropriate for every textile application.

“The potential of Dr. Abidi’s research is definitely exciting,” said James Pruden, senior director, public relations, for Cotton Incorporated. “It could lead to new and unexpected uses of shorter staple cotton, which are not viable for every textile application, as well as for gin waste. While gin waste is already being used for a variety of applications from livestock feed to oil drilling, there is plenty of it available. At this point it would be difficult to project what the revenue opportunity for growers might be, but what Dr. Abidi is doing demonstrates the power of ingenuity and the possibilities cotton represents beyond jeans and T-shirts.”

This is just one of the many research projects coming out of the Biopolymer Research Group at the FBRI, which looks at cotton and other fibers to try to find new useful properties that can be valuable to industry and consumers. Texas Tech is currently in the patent process for this and other breakthroughs that can be licensed to business and industry.

High quality cotton will always find a market in the textile chain, Abidi said. But this application and others in the research pipeline will help add value to lower quality cotton and even add sustainability to the cotton use cycle by providing one more way to recycle cotton materials.

And now, in the not so distant future, cotton won’t just be the “fabric of our lives,” but also the building material for things that make life even better.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or jlatzke@hpj.com.

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