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Sheep dreams are made of this

Posted: 04 April 2017
Could some smart science make the New Zealand textile industry great again? Kirsten Edgar and Damian Carder find out.

When visiting the textile industry in New Zealand, the common lament is for the decline of the industry and what it once was.  The number of companies operating at each point in the value chain (spinners, yarn makers, dyers, weavers) has declined such that there may now be only one operator at each stage. 

The companies still doing well in traditional manufacturing are either luxury niche - such as high-end rugs - or are leveraging a competitive materials advantage, like superfine merino.  Even so companies such as Icebreaker manufacture offshore.

However, in the non-traditional textile space, New Zealand is now host to some very innovative companies that are achieving success through strong applied science.  Examples include Texus Fibre, who produce world-leading filters from an ‘active’ wool fibre matrix; and Revolution Fibres, who use a unique processing method to create nanoscale fibre mats for applications ranging from filtration to strengthening agents.

What if we could revitalise other players in the NZ textile industry through the convergence of smart science with a globally recognised technology trend?
A talk at a recent conference, AMN8, got me thinking about how we could apply a much-hyped (maybe over-hyped!) new material to the NZ textile industry.  It was a presentation on an industrially-based processing technique to attach a thin layer of graphene to the outside of a non-woven textile.  

sheep wondering what graphene is
So...what's graphene?

 

Graphene has been getting a lot of press over the last several years as the next wonder material along with a fair degree of scepticism about its commercial potential right now.  Products marketed as ‘graphene’ are on the market already, for example some sporting products, however many, if not all, will likely incorporate a limited quantity of graphene.

A limited amount is all you need sometimes though.  The work of Gordon Wallace and colleagues at the University of Wollongong has shown that through a relatively simple dip-coating method, they can produce fabrics that are more conductive than equivalent conducting polymer-coated fabrics, using the addition of just 4-6% by weight of graphene to the textile.  Furthermore, their coated material maintained good conductivity after both bending and abrasion tests.

Although their work was with polyester, could it be applied to wool?  And if so, what could you do with a conductive wool fibre?  
There are all sorts of possible applications, but the convergence of I was thinking about was whether they would make good smart textiles for the wearables sector.  This is an exciting area where there is a future opportunity for a forward-facing New Zealand textile industry, and also an area that Callaghan Innovation will explore through 2017’s edition of the C-Prize
Graphene may not be the answer here – there are still a lot of concerns about safety and manufacturability – but a switch into smart textiles might just be the shot in the arm that the traditional New Zealand textile industry needs.

 

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