FinnFiberColor project took important steps towards a better overall understanding of the market potential of novel textile fibres

FinnFiberColor project took important steps towards a better overall understanding of the market potential of novel textile fibres

Projects 07.11.2023

The two-year Business Finland funded FinnFiberColor project started in February 2021, and came to its close in May 2023. The project envisioned to contribute towards developing solutions for the challenges that textile fiber technologies currently developed in Finland might face when they will be eventually integrated into the larger European and global textile value chains. The other key mission for the project was to further investigate two novel textile coloration technologies – spin dyeing and water-less salt-free reactive dyeing. The work carried out in the project helped to increase the overall understanding of the properties of novel textile fibres including their dyeability. Studying the consumer perception of these textile materials was also a fundamental aspect of the project.

Main photo: Selected samples from the FinnFiberColor project. Photo credit: Henna Salminen.

Key findings of FinnFiberColor in brief:

The presence of compression and opposite wood can negatively affect the fiber spinning process but likely not the final fibre properties.

Straw pulp showed good spinnability and resulted in fibres of high quality.

Waterless salt-free dyeing is promising for cellulosic fibres and generally increases color strength values with reactive dyes.

It is difficult for end users to distinguish between different cellulosic fibres. Associations linked to materials are often subjective perceptions or even opinions. Therefore, when developing and marketing new materials, the associative aspect as well as the power of transparent information should be emphasized.

To continue the ongoing series of articles dedicated to highlighting the work of finished ExpandFibre Ecosystem projects, the ExpandFibre team had an insightful conversation with people involved with the FinnFiberColor project – project coordinator Michael Hummel (Associate Professor at Aalto University), Annariikka Roselli (Development Manager at Metsä Spring), Päivi Rousu (Member of Fortum Bio2X) and Juha Piipponen (Head of Bio2X Technology at Fortum Power and Heat). The Aalto University coordinated project had in total ten industrial partners: Metsä Spring, Fortum, Stora Enso, UPM-Kymmene, Kemira, Andritz, Orneule, Sidoste, Tam-Silk and Jokipiin Pellava.

Background to the project

Michael Hummel kicked off the conversation by offering valuable insight into the building phase of the project. According to Michael, originally the idea was to shape the project for various fiber technologies currently emerging in Finland, acknowledging their varying degrees of technical and commercial readiness levels. As the project kicked off the scope was tailored to fit Metsä Spring’s venture to produce textile fibre from hemicellulose-rich pulp, as Metsä was the only potential fibre producer joining the project.

Annariikka Roselli continued that from Metsä Spring’s point of view the user study carried out during the project was very successful, which created good guidelines for novel fibre market testing. Pirjo Kääriäinen, Professor of Design and Materialities at Aalto University, coordinated the work for the consumer perception within FinnFiberColor.

Päivi Rousu described the project and its results from Fortum’s side. According to her it was very important to study the whole textile value chain from the point of view of Fortum’s sustainable straw-based pulp. Key questions for Fortum were firstly how straw-based cellulose behaves in textile materials, and secondly which downstream processes, such as dyeing, are optimal for straw-based cellulose raw materials. Also, comparison studies of Fortum’s raw material with different commercial and experimental substrates were very interesting according to Päivi. For instance, opposite and compression wood pulps for fibre spinning were prepared by the team of Tapani Vuorinen, Professor in Wood Chemistry at Aalto University. Päivi also highlighted the consumer perception study as very beneficial for Fortum and continued: “We really need to think as a company on how we want to use the gathered materials for marketing purposes, and who do we want to share this information with? We need to find the optimal communication routes with both industry partners and textile consumers.”

Annariikka elaborated on the importance of pulp operability in textile fibre processes: “How to operate with hemi-rich pulp or other challenging raw materials was a key question for Metsä Spring. We continued this work  with a master thesis work focusing on the behaviour of  hemicellulose-rich fibres in dyeing processes.”

Investigating the dyeability of novel textile materials

Dyeability investigations formed an integral part of the project. Michael described that the project offered great opportunities for teams at Aalto to study the phenomena related to dyeing of man-made cellulosic textile fibres. Originally the plan was to involve natural dyes also as part of the investigation, but that did not unfortunately materialize, as the principal fiber technology – Ioncell® – uses an ionic liquid as cellulose solvent, which is a challenging environment for natural dyes.

Ali Tehrani, Associate Professor at Aalto University, led the investigative work on a water-free dyeing system for textile materials. Michael added that at first sight it might not seem sustainable to replace water with an organic solvent in a textile dyeing process. But the currently used water-based dyeing processes use immense amounts of fresh water and creates large quantities of effluents polluting the environment. A process based on the efficient recycling of textile dyeing solvents could potentially help solve these issues impacting not only scarce water resources, but also the environment.

Päivi continued that indeed assessing the whole production chain was elementary, and taking into account the sustainability impacts of all the various unit processes was very important: ”You ruin the positive overall sustainability of an end product if one step along the chain is lacking in its sustainability performance. For example, Fortum is very confident that its straw-based pulp is very sustainable, but if it’s treated in an unfavourable way in downstream processes, it can lose many of its sustainability benefits. Colouring of garments is predominantly done in low-income countries, and it is very important that we talk openly about these issues with consumers including how textiles are produced and how they are treated. We need to try our best to make consumers understand better how the products they consume are produced – people should start asking more of these sorts of questions from the industry.”

Michael continued that the outcomes of the project – finished garment samples – have been successfully showcased in different events at Aalto University and beyond: “Even with small samples it is possible to give the public a good impression on how the material behaves and looks.”

Sustainability awareness of consumers for textile materials

The FinnFiberColor team was asked how they saw in general the awareness of consumers on sustainability related topics for textiles. Annariikka elaborated that the overall knowledge on the different technologies and fibre types, be it Lyocell or viscose, is on low level among typical consumers in Finland. Annariikka also pointed out that historically Finland has been very heavily “cotton-religious” with extra importance placed on cotton-based textiles, affecting the consuming habits.

All interviewees agreed that man-made cellulose fibres might seem alien to the consumers, and materials and technologies can potentially get mixed-up.

Annariikka mentioned that she had recently taken part in a student workshop at Science Centre Heureka on man-made cellulose fibres. It was not commonly known among the students that textiles can be made from wood or that  the common household item cellophane is made from wood also. Annariikka continued that in the workshop people could touch and feel garments made from different raw materials, and it became quite clear how difficult it is for a consumer to identify different materials, if they are not clearly marked.

Päivi wanted to highlight a somewhat poorly known advantage of man-made textile fibres: ”Something to really point out is the dyeing, as different fibres have very different properties for dyeing. Cotton is a poorly performing material in that respect, as man-made fibres generally offer better colour durability, resulting in a reduced need to replace clothes due to lost colour in garments. It is not widely known that for example Lyocell fibers have better properties for longer lasting colour than cotton.”

Michael offered his views on the topic of sustainability: “The reality is that consumers are foremost concerned about things that impact themselves directly, and sustainability of textiles as a concept is still somewhat far away, as the negative effects like pollution happen somewhere else, whereas the quality of the purchased clothes is something that affects us directly. As a university our aim is to be entirely unbiased, and it is very important to make consumers and legislators more aware of the current situation when it comes to textiles. Basic research is very much needed as it creates knowledge and arguments that can be used by decision makers and governmental institutions to lead us all towards a more sustainable society.”

Look at the Finnish textile ecosystem

In recent years there has been unprecedented activity around different textile technologies in Finland – major companies like Metsä Spring and Fortum have been very active in addition to completely new startups showcasing their fibre-based innovations.

Annariikka pointed out that many technologies are currently in piloting stage – highlighting the fact that development is happening on many fronts. However, she also mentioned that Finland is geographically quite far away from the major global markets, which is a disadvantage, if the raw material stock needs to be collected and imported, which is often the case with recycled raw materials.

Päivi stressed that ideally a sound biorefining concept requires the end product to be manufactured where raw materials are readily available in required quantities. Extra logistics always require resources and cause emissions.

Michael also mentioned the importance of creating local solutions, which can create jobs and economic stability locally: “Having a role model is important and we also need to be idealistic – who says Finland could not do the same with textiles as what Nokia did with mobile phones a few decades ago?”

Päivi and Juha reminded on the need to think about how to recycle our products efficiently so that they are not ending up as waste. Players from different fields are needed, and consortia projects like FinnFiberColor are very much needed to activate companies to give their inputs towards problem solving in this area, and to share new ideas together.

Annariikka mentioned that she is asked quite often that what is the current competition of Metsä Spring  textile fibres. In her answers, she wishes that in Finland at least 2-3 textile fibre processes would get to the commercial phase: ”Sustainable processes are always needed, and together there is more possibility to make this happen, as we need specified education programs in order to get more professionals and we need more services and infrastructure for the textile sector. "

Next steps & looking ahead

To finalize the discussion Michael wanted to sum up the achievements of the project: “FinnFiberColor opened up new avenues for us at Aalto University and enabled the continuation of many studies on textile materials. Fruitful discussions were carried out with multiple companies over the two years, which just flew by very quickly!”

Annariikka offered her views on the projects results: “This was a short and fruitful project, and the only reason this was possible was due to the existence of an established research platform. It can be considered as “a low hanging fruit” for the industry, when established methods such as those used in FinnFiberColor were so readily available.”

Päivi continued on the topic: “Fortum is much more focused on continuing the testing of straw-based pulp, and tackling practical challenges will be key for us in the future. It is important for us to be involved in these sort of consortium projects.”

Juha elaborated that Fortum’s focus will be in making their own product more drop-in, as well as making their production better and more profitable overall. Juha added: “We need to understand the value chain of textiles better, even though we are only producing raw materials. We need to know better what the key arguments are to support the marketing for our type of straw-based product. We have taken some steps forward in this project, but also gained some information how our product behaves in further processing – dyeing methods might become a key topic to improve the commercial status of our product."

Päivi added that the drop-in assessment is indeed key, as having a product that fits into an existing process is a fundamental requirement for many industries.

Michael offered his final words in the form of lessons learnt: “Although I enjoyed the project and consider it overall as a success, we did not succeed in getting the consortium members closer together as originally intended. The COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions it brought upon us had its negative effects, as meeting in person was very difficult. For future projects, more emphasis has to be put on active interaction from the very beginning, making sure that people are sitting in the same room,” Michael noted.

More information:
FinnFiberColor spun cellulose fibres and sustainably colored textiles (15.3.2023 Aalto University)
Read the first article in this series.