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Fibers and Clothing from Iowa-grown Plants

By Dan Eshelman, Council Bluffs Non Peril


The bounty from Iowa's fields has long been a source of sustenance for people throughout the world. Now the corn harvested each year by the state's farmers can become the basis for a variety of items that - instead of showing up on the dinner table - may be placed on hangers in a closet or folded neatly in a dresser drawer.

With the development of new technological processes, corn can be converted into fibers that are integral components of clothing ranging from sweaters to lingerie. "These fibers are completely bio-based, meaning they are created from renewable material," said Jill Euken, specialist with the Center for Industrial Research and Science at Iowa State University. "The raw ingredients can be grown right here."

Supplying corn that is eventually transformed into garments also expands the market options available to farmers in Iowa, Euken noted. "Whenever there is another demand for an agricultural product from this state, the overall economic situation for farmers is strengthened," she said. "The more places where grain can be sold, the better it will be for producers."

Fibers linked to corn are being made by two major manufactures, Cargill-Dow and DuPont.
"The fact that these well-known and established companies are involved demonstrates that this a viable commercial application of bio-based technology," Euken said. Ingeo(tm), the fiber made by Cargill-Dow, is naturally flame retardant and combines resilience with softness. It can be used in knit fabrics and also in wovens and blends such as denim. To produce the material, corn is processed to create plant sugars, which are then fermented in a way similar to that used in making yogurt. Then the results of the fermentation are changed into a high-performance polymer called polylactide.

The Ingeo(tm) fiber is extruded from the polymer and utilized for various kinds of fabric.
Euken said some of the polymer is currently being made at Cargill-Dow's plant in Blair, Neb.  "Farmers in western Iowa already sell a lot of corn to that facility," she said. "So the market should receive a boost from the manufacturing of this component of the fiber."

DuPont's product is called Sorona(tm), which is used in fibers and fabrics that feature softness, stretch recovery, chlorine, stain and ultraviolet light resistance, and rapid drying.
Fleece jackets, shirts, blouses, trousers, swimsuits and hosiery are among the clothing selections incorporating Sorona(tm) as a key ingredient. DuPont is implementing a new method to make propanediol, a key ingredient of the Sorona(tm) polymer, through a fermentation process based on corn sugar, so the material will continue to come from a renewable source. The polymer from the fermentation was produced by DuPont at a pilot plant located at a Decatur, Ill., facility operated by Tate & Lyle, a company with particular expertise in using corn to create numerous commercial items.

Euken said efforts are under way by Iowa officials to convince companies to build "bio-refineries" in the state in which the corn fermentation process and fiber manufacturing could be done.  "Our farmers could supply the grain needed, and the value-added processing operations could be carried out here as well," she said. "We could employ the technology close to home."  Along with functioning as the components for clothing, the corn-based fibers can be used to make material for drapes and upholstery.

In addition, if the material is manufactured in a nonwoven configuration, it can be used by diapers, wipes and related hygienic products that have enhanced wet strength and that transport moisture away from the skin. The products also offer a significant environmental benefit - they degrade rapidly into a non-polluting form that can be safely composted. "Since the material originates from a natural source, it returns to that natural state," Euken said.

She said many people are not aware of the multiple advantages associated with producing and using fibers created from corn. "It helps our farmers by opening new markets for their grain," she said. "And it allows us to implement advanced technological processes through which we may discover improved methods for making an essential product."