Corn may soon join the ranks of cotton and wool in the natural fiber world: A team at the University of Nebraska's Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design is busy at work developing textiles from corn husks. On a recent segment of QUEST, a multimedia series with a new focus on exploring the science of sustainability, the team explains the process as separating lignocellulose fibers (complex and woody biopolymers) from the husk and spinning it into yarn.
“If you look at history, textiles are agriculture. And Nebraska is the place we have lots of corn,” says Yiqi Yang, a biochemical engineer at the University.
Textiles were indeed primarily agriculture-based until the 1960s with natural fibers such as cotton, linen and wool dominating 80 percent of the market. Since then, there has been a shift towards oil-based synthetics such as polyester, spandex and nylon, which are cheaper to manufacture and now occupy 60 percent of market share. But that equation may soon be tilted again as oil shortages and increasing prices make synthetics dearer. According to the QUEST report, the world’s annual demand for textile fibers is currently 85 million tons — roughly double that of 15 years ago.
Not only can corn help fill two massive market needs, Yang says the husks have much better stretchability than any other cellulose fibers, making it easily blendable with other fibers such as polyester.
“Consumption will double again in the next 10-15 years,” Yang says. “So everyone in the fiber industry worries — how we can get that much fiber for the unlimited demands of humankind?” Yang says. “If we use cultivated land to grow fibers, we have less land to grow food. We don’t have the land to do both, so the best choice is to grow one plant for both uses.”
The 400 million tons of annual waste from corn farms could help, but there are a number of barriers: A corn yarn industry will require enormous amounts of husks; Yang's team says only the husk is viable — the fibers in the stalks and leaves are too coarse to be used — and at least 1,000 pounds are needed to run a large-scale viability test (a barrelful was required to create enough yarn for one sweater). Usually, husks are left behind after harvest to nourish the soil for the next season or sold as cattle feed — handpicking is impractical, and harvest machines generally shell the corn grain but do not separate other parts of the plant.
“Right now, it’s a challenge because there’s not a market for husks,” Yang says.
But potential solutions are in development: The team found that seed corn and sweet corn manufacturers harvest cobs with husks; A&K Development Company in Eugene, Oregon manufactures automated corn-husking assemblies that shred the husks off before shelling the kernels; the agricultural engineers at FarmMax are working on a re-designed harvester that will separate kernels and cobs, ejecting the husks out the back and collected in a bobcat. They have also re-engineered a farm-waste recovery device that attaches onto existing commercial combines, allowing farmers to collect kernels, cobs, and husks in one pass — saving time and fuel while enabling farmers to create additional revenue from corn byproducts.
“If harvesting husks brings in a similar price to cotton, farmers would really think about the value of those husks,” says FarmMax’s Ty Stukenholz.
The clothing industry seems ready to find yarn wherever it can: Levi’s and Thread are creating fabric from plastic bottle waste; and adidas and G-Star recently announced partnerships with Pharrell Williams’ Bionic Yarn, which produces fabric made from marine plastic. But Yang feels strongly that natural fiber waste can also become a viable, beneficial alternative to traditional fabrics.
“We have a strong agricultural industry. We’re using ag wastes. It’s a perfect fit here in Nebraska, and there’s no reason we cannot develop a fiber industry right here at home,” he says.