News | May 22, 2017

Illinois startup using Air Force research to ‘weld’ natural fibers like hemp

News Article Image of Illinois startup using Air Force research to ‘weld’ natural fibers like hemp

Dr. Luke Haverhals tests the strength of welded cotton. Photo courtesy of Natural Fiber Welding.

Nylon, polyester, and other synthetic textiles are made from petroleum, a non-renewable resource, and scientists are warning that synthetic microfibers are saying bon voyage from inside household washing machines and polluting the ocean.

Outdoor clothing companies are advising consumers to wash their clothes less. But Natural Fiber Welding, a startup company in Peoria, Illinois, just announced a second patent license for a textile manufacturing process that uses organic fibers like silk, linen, cotton, and hemp, which could offer a bigger, better solution.

“Nature has already solved the problem. Natural polymers like cellulose can be naturally degraded if they’re released into the environment, polyester generally doesn’t,” said Dr. Luke Haverhals, founder of Natural Fiber Welding.

For certain applications, synthetic fibers have important performance characteristics and are “not the enemy,” he said. “But we can use synthetics more thoughtfully. Natural Fiber Welding technologies offer high performance, eco-friendly alternatives at an affordable price.”

This year, the company is proving scaled production of diverse, sustainable materials that exhibit never before possible performance for a wide range of applications.

But development began in 2008, when Haverhals was conducting basic research for the Air Force that looked at natural fibers, and sought to blend silk with other natural fibers into liquids that could be processed and molded in ways more like synthetic materials can be processed.

 

The licensed technology allows natural fibers to bond without the use of glue. Instead, the fiber is swelled and mobilized with an ionic liquid. The polymers at the outer surface merge with neighboring fibers.

Removing and reclaiming the ionic liquid leaves behind a bonded material that is strong and can be functional in radical new ways. And the process maintains the chemical structure of the natural materials, which can be molded to take on new shapes.

Plus, natural materials can easily be recycled or simply composted at the end of product life. “Natural Fiber Welding allows people to partner with their environment,” Haverhals said.

Dr. Luke Haverhals of Natural Fiber Welding

The Air Force has twice licensed the patented fiber welding process to Dr. Luke Haverhals for commercial production.

The company previously licensed the Air Force’s patented technology for use in automotive applications, where nylon, polypropylene, and polyester are used for interiors. The company is also developing high-value, 3-dimensional materials from agricultural fiber including “upcycled” waste fibers.

“It’s small companies like this that convert research into jobs, so we were happy to help Dr. Haverhals complete a second license agreement.” said Abby Boggs, a technology transfer specialist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Now, the company is forging partnerships with interested producers and meeting with investors. It has also applied for new patents on related ideas, Haverhals said.

TechLink, a Department of Defense partner in Montana that specializes in transferring military technologies to small businesses, helped prepare the license agreements with the Air Force.

“Luke has brought in others that have real business acumen,” said Joan Wu-Singel, senior technology manager at TechLink. “It shows that this is a serious startup.”

Troy Carter can be reached at troy.carter@montana.edu or 406-994-7798.

Headshot Image of Joan Wu-Singel, CLP

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