Nature Fiber Welding Inc. is commercializing a closed-loop chemistry process developed through Department of Defense funding.
TW Special Report
When the Department of Defense (DoD) began funding scientific research into how naturally occurring materials function, creating a keystone piece of a new circular economy was not necessarily on its radar. However, after more than 10 years of research, Natural Fiber Welding Inc. — a tangible outcome from several DoD research initiatives — is poised to become a platform technology that enables better living using abundant, natural materials.
Armed with a passion to upend the status quo, Dr. Luke Haverhals was directed to learn from and leverage nature during his research, which led him down a path to develop new manufacturing technologies that utilize widely available natural materials like silk and hemp instead of non-biodegradable man-made plastics. In providing alternatives to these plastics, the Natural Fiber Welding® platform has expanded the limits of biology, chemistry; and, with its induction into the 2019 Fashion for Good Scaling Programme, the limits of fashion.
Founded in 2015 by Haverhals, Natural Fiber Welding is a startup with more than 20 full-time personnel. Located in Peoria, Ill., the team is steeped in engineering and manufacturing competencies. Several team members, including Haverhals, have deep roots and knowledge of sustainable agriculture. This is a key differentiator for the corporate culture, setting Natural Fiber Welding squarely in the tech space, but with a rugged get it done mentality that values aptitude and action. It’s that mentality that brought Haverhals, COO Steve Zika, CTO Aaron Amstutz and Chad Stamper, director of marketing and commercialization, together to build out a revolutionary manufacturing platform in the heart of Illinois.
“Peoria is an under-the-radar innovation hub for the Midwest,” Stamper said. “With its deep manufacturing roots, the city is supportive of startups; especially those tackling issues having global impact. It is the perfect environment to support the vision and growth of Natural Fiber Welding.” Stamper’s entrepreneurial and commercialization background has helped the company find its place among new material innovators.
Natural Fiber Welding has developed a scalable fabrication platform that can offset the global dependence on petroleum-based man-made materials. It does so by manufacturing high-performance materials using low cost plant fibers and other natural materials. Helmed by Haverhals, Zika, Stamper and Amstutz the company benefits from a different mix of chemistry, material science, engineering, business, and intellectual property transfer experience. Their vision and mission are aligned: to reduce dependence on petroleum-based synthetics by creating revolutionary performance materials, sustainably made, from cost-effective natural materials. This mission has become tangible with the development of fiber welding processes and machine automation patented by Haverhals and the Natural Fiber Welding team.
“Natural materials have long been known for their sustainability, but their utility and manufacturability have previously had limitations,” explained Dr Haverhals. “We have patented scalable processes that tune natural materials in ways not possible with any other technology. This is providing increased utility to use billions of pounds of renewables, in ways previously unattainable. That is true sustainability — when what we produce is naturally derived and meets, even exceeds, the properties of petroleum-based synthetics at meaningful scale.”
Innovation With Enormous Potential
Using his Ph.D. in Chemistry, Haverhals took the objective to partner with nature down to its core. According to the company, the technologies devised are elegant and efficient while getting the most out of complex materials like cotton and wool. This is done without the necessity to either break or to remake what nature does so well at large scale. The company is focused on making “impossible” products from the hundreds of billions of pounds of available virgin and recycled cotton fiber.
Natural Fiber Welding is a proprietary, closed-loop chemistry process, that imparts physical changes to fibers. Intrinsically safe chemistries are used to open fibers at the molecular level and fuse them together. Throughout the process, all chemistries are continuously reclaimed and reused, making this closed-loop process extremely efficient. The net effect is to “glue” fibers together without actually using any glues or resins. This means complex composite materials can be assembled quickly and efficiently. Connecting natural fiber in this way creates structures with properties previously only possible with plastics; going beyond what biology, or even biosynthetic biology, can achieve. Natural Fiber Welding’s process can be tuned — performance characteristics and functionalities of cotton fabrics can be precisely controlled in new ways. By replacing man-mades with performance fabrics made from recycled cotton, the platform can solve problems associated with plastic microfiber pollution. Fabricating with materials that remain natural allows the safe degradation of the fibers at the end of their useful lifetimes.
The technology can create a wide spectrum of capabilities at scale. Whereas some new technologies have difficulties scaling because of unfavorable unit economics, Natural Fiber Welding has a mantra to enable new products that span premium to commodity markets. The company is now beginning to partner with companies in the textile industry to take Natural Fiber Welding fabrication to the masses at the same time as creating new luxury categories that were previous unattainable.
As companies around the world work to eliminate textiles from landfills and incinerators, they are met with the challenge of recycled fibers lacking length and strength; the two necessary qualities to truly make recycling material a viable production channel. This challenge has been particularly acute for natural fibers — until now. Toad & Co. materials manager Ciara Cates, an early adopter of the technology, put it this way:
“Natural Fiber Welding Inc. is providing a quality recycled natural fiber yarn option in a market that traditionally has few options and many limitations. This technology provides an opportunity for a whole new category of quality recycled yarns that have not existed before. Taking advantage of their innovation will help Toad & Co continue to push to be a leader in our industry for sustainable quality apparel. They are providing innovation in a sector where apparel struggles the most. No sacrifices needed.”
The Natural Fiber Welding platform is applicable to fibers already being collected and available within the textile supply chain. Through collaborative partnerships, the fiber welding team is radically improving the performance of materials collected by recycling companies. This approach makes their efforts and end products truly viable solutions for a sustainable and scalable circular economy.
Sustainable, Scalable and Circular Products
In addition to making performance fabrics, the company is also able to divert textile waste directly into building products for furniture and even materials that perform like leather. Unlike many other vegan leather-like materials on the market today, Natural Fiber Welding is able to achieve high performance luxury materials without using synthetics like polyurethane.
“We think vegan should mean plants, not plastic,” said Dr. Haverhals. “Unfortunately, many new vegan and faux leather products are really just natural fibers coated with polyurethane and other non-biodegradable plastics.”
The vegan materials created by Natural Fiber Welding are fully natural and extremely tunable, allowing application specific properties and performance to be dialed-in for different applications. “Leather is a remarkable material, but Natural Fiber Welding can go beyond leather to access entirely new properties and performance,” added Haverhals.
According CTO Amstutz, the new leather-like materials are applicable far beyond categories traditionally dominated by leather. “We are creating entirely new classes of plant-based materials to be used in place of faux and vegan leather,” Amstutz said. “These materials are formulated for durability, suppleness, and luxury, and greatly expand a designer’s options. Not only do our products avoid tanning, which saves costs, we can even avoid harsh chemical dyes by instead using structural colorants that are safe and do not fade.”
Natural Fiber Welding is producing materials to specification for multiple high-demand clients with a quickly expanding pilot manufacturing facility. Simultaneously, the company has built a patent portfolio for future sales and licensing for high-growth opportunities. With significant industry traction, Natural Fiber Welding is now earning support from organizations like Fashion For Good.
Last fall, the company was selected for Fashion For Good’s Scaling Programme which will bring funding, connections, and direct guidance from the industry segments. These partnerships are devoted to building the sustainable models and technologies that will displace unsustainable incumbents. The team also has been awarded almost $2 million in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR)/Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) funding to develop new processes and materials, notably electronic textiles. Jimmie Grow, advisor to Natural Fiber Welding Inc. and retired director of product development at Cary, N.C.-based Cotton Incorporated, summed up the potential: “This is the most exciting innovation in textiles that I have seen in my 40-plus-year career in the textile industry.”
Formerly heading his own venture firm, Zika jumped into the COO role early on. “When you hear the passion of the team, the practicality of the process and the scope of the problem they are able to address, this idea of solving with nature becomes a reality,” Zika said. “It is a reality that is not years away from producing sustainable high-performance materials at large scale. We are ready today and we are entering the market with a platform that is performance driven, with the agility to scale truly sustainable materials for the maturing circular economy.”
For the last several years, Natural Fiber Welding has been flying below the radar, but the team is poised for a breakout year. The company has three distinct, proven material offerings headed to global textile markets in 2019. Events and partnerships will take Nature Fiber Welding innovations around the world in 2019, ensuring that the company is making circular happen.