Creating sustainable synthetics
HONG KONG INSTITUTE IS CELEBRATED FOR ITS INNOVATIONS INCLUDING ECO-FRIENDLY MAN-MADE TEXTILES
Two locally developed sustainable technologies that push the boundaries of textile manufacturing have claimed gold medals at an international exhibition, showcasing just how innovative Hong Kong’s environmental engineers can be.
The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) claimed the prestigious gold medals — as well as three silvers — after competing for the first time ever as a research institution at the International Exhibition of Inventions Geneva, an event it has participated in since 2010.
The institute’s winning technologies make use of waste material from other industrial processes to create low-cost, degradable additives used to produce polyester.
The production of these low-cost degradable polyester fibers involves waste materials such as scrap metal residues and soap, helping ease Hong Kong’s waste management burden and reduce the negative environmental impact of non-biodegradable synthetic fibers.
The final additive is mixed with polyester resin to create degradable fibers that can be used in products such as hairnets and face masks.
The second gold medal was awarded to a project called Functional Treatment on Knitwear by Plasma Technology.
This technique is used to minimize pilling in wool and cashmere knitwear. The technology is designed for use on an industrial scale and will be used to treat whole garments at the final stage in the production cycle.
HKRITA Chief Executive Officer Edwin Keh says the recognition accorded to their innovations is encouraging, given the institute participated as a research institution at the Geneva event for the first time this year.
“The role of Hong Kong is changing in the textiles industry and it is shifting to focus more on technology and innovation,” he says. “The whole point of going to Geneva was to use it as a proving ground and to be judged against other innovations on a global scale. Winning the gold medals at Geneva adds a degree of credibility to what we’re doing.”
HKRITA specializes in applied research, with a focus on sustainability. It also adopts a collaborative approach to developing new intellectual property, and in this case, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC).
Dr Sam Mo, a senior consultant to the Materials and Manufacturing Technology Division of the council, says commonly used anti-pilling treatments can be effective but tend to affect fabric properties such as product texture and appearance.
“We recognized plasma technology as it is regarded as an environmentally friendly process with no usage of water and chemicals,” he says.
The technique sees argon gas plasma interacting with the delicate surface fibers of the textiles, reducing the friction between the fibers and cutting back on pilling by about half.
There is nothing delicate about the potential scope of the invention, however. The system can treat 20 items at a time, and Mo says a coating might also be added to the treatment to better preserve the fabric or create new textiles.
“By picking the right chemical, a polymeric coating capable of improving pilling resistance can be formed and this treatment is, in principle, applicable to natural and synthetic fibers or blended fibers in knitted, woven or non-woven form,” he says. “With this technique, functional coatings such as hydrophilic, hydrophobic, UV-protection, anti-static and anti-bacterial can be deposited.”
Licensed and marketed effectively, these new functional fabrics could attract significant financial gains.
Taking greater care of the environment is at the heart of both of these winning pieces of intellectual property.
CC Lam is the principal consultant to the Food, Polymer and Jewellery Application, Materials and Manufacturing Technology Division of HKPC. His scientists researching biodegradable polyesters drew their inspiration from being able to find a better way to handle items that can no longer be used.
“In 2013, the synthetic fibers produced by the textile industry reached 54.4 million metric tons, with polyester accounting for 82 percent of the total man-made synthetic fibers produced,” he says.
“The disposal of synthetic fibers is a serious problem we must address, especially for polyester products.”
After two years of experimentation and more than 150 tests and trials, researchers feel they have distilled the most useful formula. There were challenges along the way, as you might expect in a field where currently available oxidants are suitable for breaking down only the most basic of polymers.
“One of the most challenging problems is some synthetic polymers are quite difficult to degrade,” Lam says.
“The chemical bonds of these kinds of polymers are too strong to break, and correspondingly much more energy is required for the degradation process. We found that synergetic effects between more than two transition metals can largely accelerate production rates of free radicals, generating enough energy to break down polymers.”
With a gold medal-winning performance behind them, the development team is moving to develop a commercial-grade product and have begun another series of trials involving industry partners.
“Disposable nonwoven (textile) producers are very excited about this technology. They can create green and environment-friendly products with minimal investment,” Lam says.
The treatment process involves no additional capital expenditure from manufacturers, and Lam says the only estimated additional cost is that of the degradable additive, which he anticipates would increase the cost of the product by 3 to 5 percent.
With the proper disposal of waste at the forefront of the community conscience, the potential for biodegradable plastics is unlimited. “I do believe that the uptake will be great as more and more degradable products go into the market,” he says.
“The United Arab Emirates has brought forward its policy to ban all disposable plastic products, except those made by oxo-biodegradable plastics.”
Getting a better plastic product to market is therefore vital and vehicles such as the Asia IP Exchange (AsiaIPEX) will play an important role, Lam notes.
“AsiaIPEX has successfully formed alliances with more than 20 strategic partners from around the globe as well as local R&D centers and technology transfer units of local universities, and featured over 25,000 tradable IP listings.”
Developed and managed by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, AsiaIPEX is the region’s largest free IP trading platform and database. With members and partners worldwide, AsiaIPEX helps facilitate international IP trade, working with technologies both at home and abroad.
“We hope local and overseas plastic manufacturers can be contacted and informed of our technology. We hope we can help manufacturers in Hong Kong, Chinese mainland and overseas produce low-cost disposable and degradable plastic products to create a better environment for future generations,” Lam says.
HKRITA’s research partners at the International Exhibition of Inventions Geneva: (from left) Dr Jimmy Lee, Dr Sam Mo, Edwin Keh, Agnes Mak, Dr CC Lam, K K Kee and Dr Winnie Wu. The institute won two gold medals and three silver at the event.
The anti-pilling plasma treatment system for knitwear created by HKRITA will be used to treat garments at the final stage of production.