Spinning birch fibre into clothing – a historic, ground-breaking innovation

With the creation of textile fibre, FIBIC’s FuBio Cellulose programme has produced a breakthrough, achieved through the tight integration of science and practical skills. The Finnish Bioeconomy Cluster FIBIC brought the research partners together.

Ionic solvents play a key role in making textile fibre. The process has major advantages over the traditional ways in which dissolving pulp has been made.

“Part of the FuBio Cellulose programme was a pre-commercial research project for dissolving wood fibre. The goal was a new process for producing textile fibre from wood that would be ecological, safe and simple,” said Jari Räsänen, R&D manager at Stora Enso. “The success of the project has created new opportunities for future business operations.This new technology can also be used to replace the current methods for making textile fibers from dissolving pulp.”

Cost-effective, ecological process

”The big breakthrough came in 2013, when the researchers found an ionic liquid that would not only dissolve fibres but was also suitable for regeneration.”

The project started from the work on ionic solvents that had been done at the University of Helsinki. Skills in process development were provided by Aalto University School of Chemical Technology. Begun in 2010, the project studied ways of spinning dissolved wood fibre by extruding ionic liquid. The filaments are drawn as they travel briefly through the air, before passing through a water basin, where the fibres are reformed while the ionic solvent is removed. There are several more stages, where the fibres are washed, dried, carded and spun. The big breakthrough came in 2013, when the researchers found an ionic liquid that would not only dissolve fibres but was also suitable for regeneration, so that its chemicals could be recycled. Another milestone was the development of a process that could use domestic birch wood as its feedstock. Unlike certain specialist raw materials, birch is readily available. It will permit large-scale production, enough to satisfy the future needs of the textile industry. “Not only is this process for refining pulp very innovative. It also creates large-scale demand for a domestic feedstock,” says Kari Kovasin, Research Team manager at Metsä Fibre. A fashion show arranged by the renowned design house Marimekko in March 2014 presented a dress produced from birch fibre.

Soaring textile demand

Over the next 15 years, the demand for textile fibres is expected to rise by nearly 100 percent. At the same time, a shortage of water and suitable farmland will prevent an increase in cotton production. These conditions alone will stimulate the market for wood-based fibre that can be ecologically produced. Moreover, the textile fibre produced by this method is high in quality. Tests have shown that it has good tensile strength and resists abrasion. Textiles made from it shimmer and feel comfortable. Its fibres are stronger than those of cotton or viscose. “This is the start of something entirely new,” claims Jari Räsänen. “We are confident that ongoing development will be successful. So far tests have been in the laboratory but I believe that the process can be scaled up and will result in costeffective, sustainable industrial production.”

First in the world

The in-depth research that created this method for producing textile fibres – first in the world – was financed by FIBIC. “Thanks to FIBIC we are leaders in the field. Even on a global scale, this innovation is one of the most significant for a long time,” Jari Räsänen believes. “FIBIC is playing an important role in renewing the Finnish forest industry because it facilitates collaborative work. There is no problem with competition law because FIBIC projects are pre-commercial research. Within them, companies can work towards a common objective,” Kari Kovasin points out. Anna Suurnäkki of VTT Research Centre, who has managed the FuBio Cellulose programme, says that the development of textile fibres is a good example of what FIBIC does well. “By combining the skills of different organisations, it can transform a good idea into commercially exploitable results that open markets to Finnish industry,” she explains. “FIBIC programmes concentrate on combining the theoretical and the practical in search of the useful. When all the pieces click into place, we can produce revolutionary breakthroughs.“

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