Sweet by Design

A revolutionary biobased textile uses sugarcane as its raw material.

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Courtesy Carnegie  

At NeoCon in June, Carnegie released a new product with an old name. Xorel, the pioneering PVC-free textile developed in 1981, now had a twenty-first-century compatriot: Biobased Xorel, the first high-performance interior textile derived from a majority of plant-based content. The product of seven years of research and development, Biobased Xorel represents a big step forward in eco-friendliness, and a significant wager on Carnegie’s part that sustainability and materials transparency (a public declaration of exactly what’s in your product) will be key drivers for commercial success in the future: Three of the six Xorel patterns launched this spring are the company’s best-selling designs, and they’re available only in the sustainable material; within five to seven years, Carnegie wants to source its entire Xorel line from plants.

Biobased textiles are not new. Chemists have been experimenting with them for more than a century—turning soft woods into cellulose, and bamboo into rayon viscose—and the apparel, agriculture, and construction industries utilize them regularly. Surgeons use biobased plastics because of the material’s ability be easily reabsorbed into the body. But, with Biobased Xorel, the 63-year-old, family-owned company accomplished two breakthroughs. Carnegie pushed the plant-based content of the line, depending on the pattern, to between 60 and 85 percent—very high numbers, considering the U.S. government requires only 25 percent for the official biobased label. More importantly, the company figured out how to use sugarcane as the raw material, significantly reducing the product’s environmental footprint.

Carnegie’s new Biobased Xorel has a four-part manufacturing process. Brazilian sugarcane (top left) is crushed, fermented and distilled into ethanol, which is then transformed into polyethylene pellets (top right), extruded
into yarn (bottom left), and then woven (bottom right). Depending on the pattern, the new fabric contains between 60 and 85 percent sugarcane, sigificantly reducing the textile’s environmental impact.

Courtesy Carnegie  

Why sugarcane? The answer involves a brief look at the chemistry of polyethylene (PE), a plastic usually derived from petrochemicals. PE may be the most ubiquitous material in the world, used for everything from grocery bags and computers to automobiles and (yes) high-performance interior textiles. It’s made from ethanol, which can be distilled from a number of sources: oil, natural gas, corn, and sugarcane, among others. For the original Xorel, Carnegie reduced the product’s impact by using natural-gas-derived ethanol and powering its manufacturing facilities with renewable energy. Despite these impressive efforts—Xorel achieved a Cradle to Cradle Silver Level Certification and is part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection—the product remained fossil-fuel based.

 

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