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New NSF Center Will Advance Textile Industry ‘Greening’

The NC State Belltower at dusk and night. Photo by Marc Hall

North Carolina State University will serve as a core partner on a regional research effort to advance U.S. capacity for textile innovation that ensures environmental sustainability by recycling waste materials into fibers for new textiles, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced today. The effort will receive up to $15 million for two years and up to $160 million over 10 years.

The North Carolina Textile Innovation and Sustainability Engine aims to disrupt and revolutionize the $96 billion textile industry, driving advances in smart textiles, wearable technology, medical textiles and protective textiles. It will be led by The Industrial Commons, a non-profit organization with a strong reputation within the textile sector for being a hub of regional, rural innovation with deep local, national and sectoral knowledge and relationships. The Engine’s region of service encompasses the textile supply chain covering central and western North Carolina, and stretches into the Appalachian regions of upstate South Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southern Virginia.

The region boasts the largest concentration of textile workers in the United States with more than 27,000 workers and an additional 30,000 employees in adjacent industries, spanning almost 2,000 companies.

At NC State, the Zeis Textiles Extension unit, the Textile Protection and Comfort Center, and research labs within NC State’s Wilson College of Textiles will provide development, fabrication, testing and training services to the region to help “green” the textile industry.

That means capitalizing on the circular economy, or the process by which waste becomes a raw material input, extending the life cycle of products through improved design and durability, and ensuring systems that facilitate their reuse.

It also means working to reinvigorate regional textile sectors, leverage decades of industrial expertise, restructure existing supply chains and commercialize innovations.

“Thanks to our traditional strengths in technology transfer, NC State is well positioned to lead the Engine’s innovations in research and development,” said NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson. “The Engine also includes partnerships across community colleges, manufacturers, brands, economic development and state government, among others. The team will have the infrastructure and ties to rapidly develop, revitalize and scale a cutting edge and environmentally sustainable textile industry that can be competitive in the global economy. That can lead to new jobs, new opportunities, and economic prosperity for our citizens.”

“The inaugural NSF Engines awards demonstrate our enduring commitment to create opportunity everywhere and enable innovation anywhere,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “Through these NSF Engines, NSF aims to expand the frontiers of technology and innovation and spur economic growth across the nation through unprecedented investments in people and partners. NSF Engines hold significant promise to elevate and transform entire geographic regions into world-leading hubs of innovation.”

According to Andre West, director of NC State’s Zeis Textiles Extension and co-principal investigator on the grant, potential key outcomes of the Engine include a decrease in the negative environmental effects of the textile sector, including a reduction in the sector’s carbon footprint; increased U.S. production of textile products; growth in the number of textile jobs; a reduction in the amount of textiles put into the landfill; and the development of new product lines that use circular materials.

“The Engine will look for ways to capture and process post-consumer waste at scale, and then process that waste into the building blocks that can become fibers for new textiles,” West said. “It will also take a broad approach that focuses on all aspects of the sustainability ecosystem.”

This includes an emphasis on increasing product durability, expanding repair capabilities to keep products in use and developing better systems and processes for textile reclamation. The Engine will also focus on increased reuse of materials including additional material from the landfill and toward downcycling options such as production of nonwovens. The Engine will research and advance additive chemistries (including PFAS), new materials, manufacturing and operations, and chemical and mechanical recycling. The Engine will also be forward looking with textile application in, for example, fiber-based materials used in wind turbine blades or health monitoring of roadways; bridges and structural components; nanofibers used in battery components such as the separators, anodes and cathodes to improve storage performance; and geotextiles used in hardscape and landscape applications to prevent pests from accessing crops without compromising water and light penetration.

“The Engine also holds promise to have broader impacts such as reduced unemployment, increased median household income and increased weekly wages for the region of service, and can also be a model for other rural communities seeking to transform their traditional manufacturing sectors by capitalizing on modern consumer and corporate demand for new systems of production that are both environmentally sustainable and equitable,” said Melissa Sharp, assistant director of Zeis Textiles Extension and a member of the Engine’s core leadership team.

“NC State University’s Wilson College of Textiles and our incredible community college, non-profit and industry partners have been collaborating to advance the competitiveness and resilience of the U.S. textile industry for many years,” said David Hinks, dean of the Wilson College of Textiles. “The North Carolina Textile Innovation and Sustainability Engine grant will bring the critical investment piece that will enable us to translate our research and development into new, more sustainable products, processes and businesses. I am proud that we will be focusing our work on lifting up rural communities as well as advancing an industry that is essential not only to our country’s advanced manufacturing base, but also our homeland security. The grant will catalyze even greater entrepreneurship and ultimately economic prosperity for our region and ultimately throughout the United States.”
Other core partner institutions include Manufacturing Solutions Center, which is affiliated with Catawba Valley Community College; Gaston College’s Textile Technology Center; Western Piedmont Community College; Bear Fiber; and RTI International.

NC State currently leads an NSF Science and Technology Center called STEPS, which seeks to reduce both dependence on mined phosphates and the amount of phosphorus that leaches into soil and water. NC State also leads an NSF Engineering Research Center called ASSIST, which develops self-powered health monitoring sensors and devices. FREEDM Systems Center, a smart grid NSF Engineering Research Center formed in 2008, is also headquartered at NC State.


This post was originally published in NC State News.