Why did you come up with this innovation?
"More than 100 million tonnes of textiles fibre are produced in the world every year. Only a few percent of this amount can be recycled in a sensible way, so we are looking at a significant environmental problem.
The production of cotton is not very sustainable in itself. The cultivation capacity of cotton has more or less reached its limits. At Ioncell, we are looking for alternatives to cotton and artificial fibres based on crude oil, such as polyester, which do not decompose or take a very long time to decompose.
We came up with a solvent at the University of Helsinki which makes it possible to fabricate fibre for instance from birch, as was seen in the evening gown worn by First Lady Jenni Haukio at the President's Independence Day reception. Our technology has made it possible to also use recycled clothing as raw material for fibres."
How did you execute your idea?
"Ioncell is a joint initiative of Aalto University and the University of Helsinki. It can be divided into two parts. At the University of Helsinki, we are developing solvents that make it possible to make textile fibre from any source of cellulose, such as wood or old newspapers.
At Aalto University, Professor Herbert Sixtan heads the development and production of fibre. Aalto also has a small production line for making thread. There are spinning machines as well as different equipment for knitting and weaving. We need to understand the whole chain from the solvent up until the finished textile. Aalto University students also design clothing when needed, so our whole end production takes place on the Aalto campus."
Innovations in chemistry and physics are very different from the field of ICT. When a gaming company comes up with an innovative coding solution, it can be multiplied at a low cost for even millions of users. The turnover curve can shoot upwards immediately. The cycles in basic research in the field of chemistry can take years or even decades. This requires plenty of patience from both funders and researchers.
What is the significance of this innovation?
"Ioncell is a solution to several problems. The recyclability of textiles is getting better and it is easier to replace non-decomposable materials with biodegradable fibres.
The textile industry is also linked to the problems of the agricultural industry and factors in the third world. Cotton often grows in regions where the land area is needed more for cultivating food crops instead of producing t-shirts for us. We can make materials similar to cotton using birch, spruce, pine, eucalyptus or any material that has a sufficient grade of cellulose, such as newspapers, cardboard boxes or old cotton jeans.
Our solvent has also other uses. It can be used to make, for instance, mobile phone covers, air filters, or cellulose packing for food."
Ioncell is a technology that enables the production of textile fibres in an environmentally friendly way, for example from recycled materials and wood. Ioncell is a joint initiative of Aalto University and the University of Helsinki.