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Adrian Wilson

On the Floor

27th May 2014, UK

Some unlikely bedfellows....

What do Coca Cola, IBM, Kodak and Walt Disney have to do with the future of technical textiles?

Each of these corporations – building on their rich histories of amassing intellectual property estates over the past century – appears to be stumbling onto new developments which could turn out to be hugely influential in our industry.

IBM is coupling lab experimentation with high-performance computing to model new polymer forming reactions and this has led to the identification of several previously- undiscovered classes of polymers.  © IBM

I’ve written previously about the significance of Coca Cola’s Bio-PET 30 PlantBottle and why so-called ‘drop-in’ chemicals could re-shape the fibres industry. See Give Coke a Fracking Chance.

Computational chemistry

But IBM is doing something equally groundbreaking within the field of what it calls ‘computational chemistry’ – an off-shoot of its research into new ways of etching the silicon wafers employed in its semi-conductors.

The company is coupling lab experimentation with high-performance computing to model new polymer forming reactions and this has led to the identification of several previously- undiscovered classes of polymers. 

One initial result is a class of products called Ninja Polymers – new antifungal agents produced from waste PET bottles which are otherwise typically recycled by mechanical grounding and can be reused only in secondary products.

Ninja Polymers are produced by an organic catalytic process which turns the waste PET into entirely new molecules. These self-assemble through a hydrogen-bonding process, sticking to each other like molecular Velcro to form nanofibres.

The nanofibres carry a positive charge and can selectively target and attach only to negatively-charged fungal membranes, based on electrostatic interaction. © IBM

The nanofibres carry a positive charge and can selectively target and attach only to negatively-charged fungal membranes, based on electrostatic interaction. They then break through and destroy the fungal cell membrane walls, preventing them from developing resistance.

 “The ability of these molecules to self-assemble into nanofibres is important because unlike discrete molecules, fibres increase the local concentration of cationic charges and compound mass,” said Dr Yi Yan Yang, group leader at IBN. “This allows the specific targeting of the fungal membrane, enabling the fungi to be destroyed at low concentrations.”

 “As computational predictive methodologies continue to advance, we can begin to establish ground rules for self assembly to design complex therapeutics to fight infections as well as the effective encapsulation, transport and delivery of a wide variety of cargos to their targeted diseased sites,” added Dr James Hedrick, an advanced organic materials scientist at IBM Research in California.

A further development just announced by IBM is of polymers as the basis of composites which are said to be the first to demonstrate resistance to cracking, with strength higher than bone and the ability to reform back to their original shape – all while being completely recyclable back to the starting material.

PurThread’s process embeds Kodak’s antimicrobial agent into synthetic fibres before they are spun, ensuring the antimicrobial effects of the fabric are uniform and constant throughout the life of the product. © Kodak

“We’re at the discovery phase,” said Hedrick. “Every time you discover a new polymer-forming reaction it leads to all sorts of new materials. Applications are running like water and we don’t even know where to go with this yet.”

Silver

Kodak, meanwhile, has been looking for new ways of exploiting the approximately 10,000 patents it holds relating to silver chemistry, which reinforced its dominant position in photographic film for most of the 20th Century Kodak held a dominant.

Back in 1976 the company had an 89% market share of US photographic film sales. But it began to struggle financially in the late 90s as a result of the decline in sales of film and also its slowness in shifting to digital – despite having invented the core technology used in current digital cameras. In January 2012, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, emerging again in September 2013.

Now the company is forging new initiatives, one of which involves silver as an antimicrobial active ingredient.

Kodak has recently forged a partnership for anti-microbial filaments and textiles with PurThread Technologies.

Disney Research Pittsburgh has been working with researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University to create objects made from wool on a hybrid unit which combines needlefelting with 3D printing. © Walt Disney

PurThread’s process embeds Kodak’s antimicrobial agent into synthetic fibres before they are spun, ensuring the antimicrobial effects of the fabric are uniform and constant throughout the life of the product. Spunbond PET fabrics are produced with sheath/core bicomponents containing silver.

 “The antimicrobial technology sector is an exciting new venture for Kodak,” said Tom McHugh, the company’s director of materials technology. “Because of PurThread’s unique manufacturing process and expertise in the textile industry, we are delighted to be working with them to bring to market products using our propriety materials and technology.”

3D felting

And then there’s Walt Disney, which envisages new potential in 3D printed textiles.

Disney Research Pittsburgh has been working with researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University to create objects made from wool on a hybrid unit which combines needlefelting with 3D printing.

The printer doesn’t achieve the same dimensional accuracy as conventional 3D printers because the yarn is much thicker than the layers of plastic deposited in FDM printing. © Walt Disney

Like other 3D printers, it can make objects by working directly from computerised designs and be used for rapid prototyping.

In fact, its operation is similar to fused deposition modelling, or FDM, the most common process used in low-end 3D printers. In an FDM printer, melted plastic is extruded in a thin line into a layer and subsequent layers are added to achieve the object’s desired shape, with the layers adhering to each other as the plastic cools.

In the felting printer, however, the printer head feeds out yarn instead of lines of melted plastic. A barbed felting needle attached to the printer head then repeatedly forms a felt, dragging down individual yarns into the layers below, entangling them and bonding them together.

The felt is not as strong as typical fabric, so if the soft objects are to be attached to a hard object, a layer of nylon mesh fabric must be incorporated during the printing process. © Walt Disney

The printer doesn’t achieve the same dimensional accuracy as conventional 3D printers because the yarn is much thicker than the layers of plastic deposited in FDM printing. The felt is also not as strong as typical fabric, so if the soft objects are to be attached to a hard object, a layer of nylon mesh fabric must be incorporated during the printing process. This provides reinforcement to prevent the material from ripping away at the attachment point.

The aim now is to design a printer that could produce both fabric and plastic elements in a single step.

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