Turning old cotton into new textiles


The team working on the grant will use a wet spinning technique for recycling the cotton waste, one of three techniques for making polyester and nylon.

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In a few years, an old cotton T-shirt from high school can be recycled into a new skirt.

WSU recently won a grant from the Wal-Mart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund for $365,000 to research turning cotton waste into recycled textile goods. Hang Liu and Ting Chi from the Apparel, Merchandising, Design, Textiles (AMDT) department, and Jinwen Zhang from the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering are working on the project.

The project at WSU focuses on recycling cotton waste using a wet spinning technique. Wet spinning is one of three commonly used fiber-spinning techniques for manmade fibers like polyester or nylon. The process involves dissolving cotton waste into a solvent, and then spinning it into fabric.

“We chose wet spinning because the technique is already well-established, so we only need to solve the initial part,” Liu said. “We can use already established equipment with maybe some modifications but not a whole lot. The commercialization process should be pretty quick. I think that is part of what the Wal-Mart Foundation was looking for.”

The grant application process was broken into two phases. First, applicants had to submit a letter of intent or mini proposal. Then, if they made it past the first round, they were invited to send the review committee the full proposal, Liu said.

“Only those (the Wal-Mart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund) found promising were invited to send in their full proposals,” Liu said. “We got into the second phase and submitted the proposal in early November. Luckily, we were funded.”

The project, which will take place over the next three years, is 100 percent funded by the earnings from this grant. The recycled cotton fibers will mainly be used in consumer goods at first, Liu said.

“We want to make fibers that have a good feel, elasticity and are strong enough to make into clothes or bedding, towels, these kind of products,” Liu said. “In the future, we are looking at technical textiles, such as fabrics … used in industry. There is big potential there.”

Liu wants to involve undergraduates in this project, too. As the AMDT 210 professor, several of her students are already interested in getting involved in undergraduate research.

“A portion of the fund is for undergraduate research assistants,” Liu said. “We want to involve undergraduate students. They want to learn about the research process, and they are curious about what we do every day in the lab.”

Liu and Zhang will work on the research project itself while Chi will work on the environmental side of things. Chi will conduct the Environmental Impact Summary (EIS) and work to make the process of recycling cotton more environmentally-friendly.

“In 2012, the fiber recovery rate, including reusing and recycling, for all cotton waste was five percent only,” Chi said. “Nowadays, most of the cotton waste ends up in landfills or incinerators, which not only is in contradiction with the efficient use of natural cellulose resource, but also severely harms the environment and human health.”

Rising world populations and living standards have caused a continuously upward trend of cotton demand. Supply is limited due to the decline of available land, so recycling cotton waste is a prominent challenge facing the textile industry, Chi said.

The Wal-Mart U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund is a collaboration between Wal-Mart and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to fund projects that show potential to create domestic jobs in manufacturing, lower the cost of consumer goods, and invigorate local economies.

In 2014, the Wal-Mart Foundation pledged $10 million to this fund, and this year is the last awarding cycle. Over 30 projects applied for the grant, and six were funded. Other universities that received funding include North Carolina State University, Clemson University, Oregon State University, Texas Tech University and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.