Fast fashion is a serious global problem. One hundred million tons of clothing are produced annually, while only a tiny fraction of it is recycled. The use of fossil-based fibres, such as polyesters, is dominant in the industry. Cotton is not free of problems, either. Cultivation of cotton consumes a lot of water, pesticides, and arable land.
To date, no one has been able to solve these problems. But now, Ioncell, one of the most significant research projects at Aalto University, seeks to revolutionise the textile industry.
Ioncell turns pulp and post-consumer textiles into fibres without using harmful chemicals. The result is a high-quality fibre that can be used to make sustainable clothing and composites.
“In the process, everything circulates: the materials, process chemicals, and the end product.”
Still a pilot, Ioncell seeks to start commercial production of its fibre in 2025, at the earliest. However, the research group has already produced small patches for showcase purposes — one of them being the Independence Day gown worn by Jenni Haukio, the first lady of Finland, in 2018.
A cutting-edge circular economy innovation
Ioncell is circular economy in its purest form. “In the process, everything circulates: the materials, process chemicals, and the end product,” tells Jari Laine, the Senior Innovation Advisor at Aalto University. Laine leads the commercialisation of Ioncell.
One of the main features of the Ioncell technology is the ionic liquid it uses to dissolve cellulose. It is an environmentally friendly, non-toxic solvent that gets recirculated in the process. It is also worth noting, that the source material can be almost anything, as long as it contains enough cellulose.
“The technology is versatile in terms of material. For example, we have made an iPad case from paper and a scarf from old jeans,” says Laine.
However, processing heterogenic post-consumer material, such as recycled clothing, is more expensive and time-consuming than using pulp, for instance.
A fine and glossy material in its basic form, the researchers use different surface finishes to make Ioncell resemble other materials often used for making clothing. Like cotton or polyesters, for example, the fibre can also tolerate printing and dyeing. Thus, Ioncell can potentially replace cotton and polyesters in the future.
From wood industry crisis to a commercial yet sustainable product
The story of Ioncell goes back to 2009. Due to the economic downturn and digitalisation, the demand for paper had sharply declined. The Finnish pulp and paper industry needed help to survive, and the government turned to the universities for help.
As a result, Aalto University established a biotechnology department on its campus in Otaniemi, Espoo. Professor Herbert Sixta took the lead of the department and founded a research group that later developed Ioncell.
Since then, several researchers and universities have contributed to the Ioncell project. For example, researchers at the University of Helsinki developed the ionic liquid, a crucial part of the Ioncell production process.
"The technology is versatile in terms of material. For example, we have made an iPad case from paper and a scarf from old jeans."
Today, Ioncell is in its pilot production phase. The goal is to start commercial production between 2025 and 2028.
“There are lots of different stages, iteration, failures, some successes, and breakthroughs. It takes time,” Laine says.
Research-intensive projects like this are indeed long and demand capital. But they are also great examples of the unique investment opportunities that Espoo's innovation ecosystem offers.
The sustainable textile industry revolution is not ready yet in Espoo. But Aalto University is well on its way, carefully stitching sustainability into the fabric of the industry.
Hero image: Eeva Suorlahti / Aalto University
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