Lyocell, a semi-synthetic fibre, is a common material used to produce textiles for a myriad of applications, particularly clothing. The fibre is a type of regenerated cellulose produced by dissolving pulp using a process known as dry jet-wet spinning. This method varies from traditional viscose processes used to manufacture rayon because it doesn’t utilize exceedingly harmful carbon disulfide, ensuring a safer workspace and a less hazardous environmental impact.
Originating in 1982 under the trademark Tencel, Lyocell has evolved into a universal term indicative of the specific process employed to generate cellulose fibres. Seen through the eyes of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Lyocell is characterized as a fibre formed of cellulose precipitated from an organic solution devoid of substitutions of hydroxy groups or the formation of chemical intermediates. It falls under the broader umbrella of rayon as per the categorization framework used by the commission.
Various Brands and Trademarks of Lyocell Fibers
Lyocell fibers also go by various trademarked names, such as Lenzing Lyocell by Lenzing, Newcell by Akzo Nobel, and Seacell by Zimmer AG. It is also sold under the brand name Excel by the company Birla.
Lyocell is a common term used for this textile, and it’s often found on clothing labels. The “cel” in its name comes from the cellulosic nature of the fibre. Tencel, the brand of lyocell manufactured by Lenzing AG, originates from Britain’s Courtauld textile company; the “ten” in the name represents tenacity. Introduced as an early variation of the fibre, the sophisticated Newcell and the uniquely named Excel, created by Birla, are some other versions of lyocell.
Development and Growth of Lyocell Production in the Context of Environmental Sustainability
Driven by environmental consciousness, the creation of Tencel began as an eco-friendlier alternative to manufacturing rayon using the harmful viscose method. Early developments of this process originated in the now-dissolved American Enka fibres facility in North Carolina around 1972. Lyocell research was recognized by the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC), which presented Neal E. Franks with the Henry E. Millson Award for Lyocell invention in 2003. However, attempts to commercialize the process from 1969 to 1979 by American Enka proved fruitless.
The practice of dissolving cellulose in NMMO initially appeared in a 1981 patent submitted by Mcorsley for Akzona Incorporated. The patent was then licensed to Courtaulds and Lenzing during the 1980s. Subsequently, the fibre was cultivated, branded as ‘Tencel‘, and developed by Courtaulds Fibres.
Production of Tencel began in the UK during the 1980s, starting with a pilot plant in Coventry, UK, in 1982, with a tenfold increase in production levels happening just two years later. By 1988, a semi-commercial production line was established at the pilot plant in Grimsby, UK.
In the 1990s, the process was officially commercialized in Mobile, Alabama and Grimsby, with the Mobile Tencel plant reaching a full production capacity of 20,000 tons annually by 1993. Courtaulds had invested £100 million and a decade into Tencel’s development and expected 1993 revenues to circle £50 million. Production quadrupled to 80,000 tons by 2004.
Lenzing commenced pilot plant operations in 1990 and transitioned into commercial production by 1997, manufacturing 12 metric tonnes/year in their Austria-based plant. Despite an explosion in 2003, the plant was producing 20,000 tonnes/year by then and was poised to increase capacity. By 2004, Lenzing produced 40,000 tons. In 1998, Lenzing and Courtaulds resolved a patent dispute.
Eventually, in 1998, Courtaulds was procured by competitor Akzo Nobel, who then amalgamated the Tencel division with other fibre divisions under the Accordis banner. These divisions were eventually sold to CVC Partners, a private equity firm, who then sold the Tencel division to Lenzing AG in 2000. Lenzing AG blended it with their “Lenzing Lyocell” business but retained the Tencel brand name. By 2015, having taken over the plants in Mobile and Grimsby, Lenzing AG became the leading Lyocell producer, with a yield of 130,000 tonnes/year.
Overview of its Versatile Uses, Properties, and Manufacturing Process
Lyocell is a versatile material used in various everyday fabrics and has established a significant presence in the textile industry. Its application ranges from clothing comprising denim, chino, casual wear, underwear, towels, conveyor belts, speciality papers, and medical dressings. This broad range of uses can be attributed to the ability of Lyocell to blend effortlessly with other fibres such as silk, cotton, rayon, polyester, linen, nylon, and wool.
This fibre shares numerous properties with other fibres like cotton, linen, silk, ramie, hemp, and viscose rayon. Remarkably, Lyocell bears higher absorption capacity, up to 50% more than cotton and superior wicking distance compared to modal fabrics with a similar weave.
Lyocell fabrics are often acclaimed for their soft and airy feel, attributed to their superior moisture-wicking ability. While industry claims of higher wrinkle resistance are still unverified, the fabric’s attributes include excellent draping characteristics, the adaptability of machine washing or dry cleaning, and efficient dye absorption needing lesser dye than cotton for the same depth of colour.
Lyocell’s fundamental texture is soft and non-clinging, with varied textures possible as well. Its hypoallergenic nature, coupled with superior absorption, makes it an excellent choice for activewear. The fabric’s skin-friendly nature, moisture management, and softness are distinct advantages over other alternatives, as stated by Robert van de Kerkhof, chief commercial officer of Lenzing AG, a leading producer of Lyocell worldwide.
Given its distinctive properties, Lyocell is a favoured choice across multiple industries and products, replacing silk and cotton in bedding, towels, and fashion items. It also finds application in industrial uses like conveyor belts and speciality paper.
Lyocell’s attributes of elasticity, moisture absorption—up to 50% more than cotton—breathability, and reduced odour propensity make it a prime choice for activewear for various sports and exercises. Outdoor activity practitioners will find Lyocell an apt fabric choice considering its thermal regulation properties, making it suited for summer and winter.
Travellers will find Lyocell an excellent fabric choice given its readiness to dry, freshness, and lightweight attributes, besides being soft, reducing the risks of skin irritation.
Lyocell’s durability and strength make it industrially viable, best seen in its use for conveyor belts and medical dressing. This versatile material continues to surprise with its wide applicability and potential, making way for the discovery of newer applications.
Understanding the “Eco-Friendly” Fiber Production Process
The production of Lyocell fibre utilizes a direct solvent method instead of an indirect dissolution method like the xanthation-regeneration used in viscose processing. The material primarily comes from dissolving pulp, largely comprised of pure cellulose with minor hemicellulose and negligible lignin content. Hardwood logs, including types like oak and birch, are chipped into small square-shaped portions comparable in size to postage stamps. A chemical digestion, involving either the prehydrolysis-kraft process or the sulfite process, is performed to eradicate lignin and hemicellulose present in the wood chips. Following digestion, the pulp undergoes bleaching for any remaining lignin traces before being dried, rolled into continuous sheets, and spooled. The resultant pulp resembles thick posterboard paper and generally comes in 500 lb (230 kg) rolls.
In a Lyocell mill, these pulp rolls are fragmented into one-inch squares before dissolving them into N-methyl morpholine N-oxide (NMMO), yielding a solution known as “dope”. After filtration, this cellulose solution is transferred through spinnerets, a common tool used with synthetic fibres. Acting as a shower head, spinnerets jet out continuous filament strands from the solution. To heighten the Lyocell fibre’s inherent strength, the fibres are straightened in the air to align their cellulose molecules correctly. Afterwards, the fibres are dipped in a water bath wherein the cellulose desolvates, setting the fibre strands. This bath holds a stable concentration of diluted amine oxide. The fibres then undergo rinsing with demineralized water before moving to a drying area to evaporate any residual water.
The fibres follow a similar finishing process to that of other fibres like viscose, where a detangling lubricant is applied based on the eventual use of the fibre. Post this stage, the fibres – now in a ‘tow’ form (continuous lengths of undistorted filament) – are sent to a crimper to impart texture and volume. Subsequently, mechanical carders comb out the fibre to sort and separate the strands. After carding, the strands are cut and baled for dispatch to fabric mills. The full production cycle, from raw cellulose roll to baled fibre, takes approximately two hours. Once manufactured, Lyocell can undergo further processing, like blending with other fibres (cotton or wool), to be woven or knitted into different types of fabric with variable finishes.
The manufacturing process uses amine oxide, which dissolves the cellulose and sets it post-spinning. This NMMO solvent is highly recyclable, with around 99 per cent being reclaimed, while its biodegradation does not generate harmful compounds. As a result, the production process proves to be relatively eco-friendly, despite being energy-consuming, due to the minimal waste it produces.
Sustainability: An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Cotton
The root of Lyocell’s production traces back to eucalyptus trees, which exhibit rapid growth on unfarmed land—requiring neither irrigation nor pesticides. The lyocell production technique abstains from the usage of toxic chemicals, and an impressive 99.5% of the dissolving agent can be reused. When juxtaposed against cotton, Lyocell is potentially less water-intensive, requiring less than half of cotton’s water needs. Further, the breathability of its fabric contributes to the ecological cause, as it doesn’t trap odours swiftly and reduces the frequency of washing, promoting water conservation.
However, while the material has excellent potential, the energy consumption and climate effect during production are major factors to consider. Hence, if producers resort to using fossil fuels or coal in countries that rely on them, the environmental cost becomes unacceptable. Hence, it’s crucial to consider the entire system and not merely the material. On purchasing lyocell, it’s advisable to verify if its source can be invariably traced, she suggests.
It’s well-known that Lyocell is a popular alternative amidst the sustainable fashion landscape. However, to truly appreciate its ecological connotations, one must delve into the detailed workings of its production. Lyocell’s biodegradability and capacity for composting are indeed exemplary, but the real sustainability factor lies within its construction process.
Employing a “closed loop” manufacturing technique, Lyocell production doesn’t generate damaging by-products. The dissolving agents used are described as non-toxic and can be continually reused, thereby minimizing environmental pollution. The process uses an innocuous solvent called Amine oxide that is recyclable.
The fabrication of Lyocell is also characterized by its comparatively short and simple methodology against other synthetic fibres. To approximate, the complete chain – from deforestation to carding, can be accomplished in roughly two and a half hours.
In terms of raw material sourcing, Lyocell leans on eucalyptus trees, which can adaptively grow in even unfertile soils. The trees require less land as compared to cotton and are adept at fast growth sans irrigation or pesticides. The cellulose used to produce Lyocell is sourced from responsibly managed forests, marking it as a renewable fibre source.
Lyocell’s brilliance extends to its wearability as well. Its breathability prevents swift odour absorption in garments, thus reducing washing frequency—saving water and energy.
In conclusion, when evaluated against other cellulose manufacturing processes, Lyocell presents a less toxic and wasteful alternative.
Comparing the Sustainability and Performance of Lyocell with Cotton, Polyester, and Viscose
Comparing Lyocell and Cotton: Sustainability, Cost, and Performance
While traditional cotton may fall short of Lyocell’s more sustainable nature, the comparison levels out when considering organic cotton. Lyocell, though a plant-based material made through a closed-loop manufacturing process using natural resources, competes with cotton, which is equally a natural fibre. Cotton remains the more affordable option, preserving its leading preference to this day.
However, albeit pricier, Lyocell’s creation process is also more efficient than cotton’s. It consumes fewer pesticides and less than half the water during growth and cultivation. Thus, Lyocell draws less from the environment than cotton or other traditional fibres.
When considering durability, Lyocell triumphs. Its sheets, more resilient and less wrinkle-prone than cotton ones, require less maintenance. This means less effort in washing and ironing, making the cost difference hard to measure.
In terms of performance, Lyocell excels as a better absorbent and is significantly softer. Its sleek surface is ideal for sensitive skin prone to irritation, providing a sensation of lightness and softness. This is a departure from cotton’s propensity to scratch.
Composed of tiny hydrophilic fibres with high water affinity, Lyocell can absorb all the moisture from your skin. This remarkable absorption renders Lyocell fresher and more hygienic than cotton, explaining its superior dye performance. This material helps maintain a low body temperature during sleep, keeping you refreshed.
However, cotton remains a breathable, hypoallergenic, and soft alternative. If your current cotton clothing and sheets are providing you with comfort, there may not be a need to switch to Lyocell.
Comparing Lyocell and Polyester: Sustainability and Performance in Outdoor Fabric
Lyocell is frequently viewed as an environmentally friendlier substitute for synthetic fibres such as polyester. Polyester may currently be more affordable and widely used than Lyocell, but it does not match the latter in terms of eco-friendliness.
Derived from polymers, particularly recycled plastics and petroleum byproducts, polyester is a purely synthetic fibre. Its composition makes it significantly less biodegradable than Lyocell, which originates from wood cellulose. Beyond the ecological aspect, Lyocell outperforms polyester in breathability and moisture absorption.
Moreover, Lyocell is finer than polyester, implying that garments or products made from it require specific care, such as washing only in cold water. In contrast, polyester is more stretchy and does not have any specific care requirements.
Comparing the Sustainability and Comfort of Lyocell and Viscose
Lyocell and viscose, both derived from plants, serve similar purposes in fabric production. However, their distinct characteristics manifest in their manufacturing processes and functional properties. Viscose production involves toxic chemicals such as sodium hydroxide solvent, unlike lyocell. Furthermore, lyocell surpasses viscose in terms of breathability and absorbency.