This company has a way to replace plastic clothes

Luke Haverhals wants To change the way yoga pants are made. Most of the performance fabrics used in sportswear, such as spandex, are made of synthetic fibers – plastics, primarily. These plastics pose a problem to humans and the environment. Haverhals’ company, Natural Fiber Welding, offers an alternative to synthetic fabrics.

NFW makes a high-performance cotton fabric called Clarus that can be used for clothing. The fabric is made of cotton that has been treated to partially break down the organic matter and make it stronger and denser. The result is cotton threads that behave like synthetic fibres.

When asked if his company is a technology company or a textile company, Haverhals answered without hesitation. “We are a technology company…but our first focus is textiles.”

Haverhalls earned his Ph.D. in chemistry and began his teaching career at the Naval Academy in 2008. While there, he worked with a team of chemists and materials scientists researching ionic liquids, which are essentially dissolved salts. These salts usually remain liquid at room temperature and can be used as solvents to break down biomass, such as cotton and cellulose. In 2009, with funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the team made major advances in strengthening natural fibers using ionic liquids.

The team wondered what would happen if they partially broke apart the natural fibers and then soldered or fused them together. The result is a kind of single-threaded cotton. While the original fibers may be only a few centimeters long, the partially fused and fused fibers can be made for much longer. This results in stronger yarns that mimic the performance characteristics of synthetic fibres.

In 2016, Haverhals left the Naval Academy and founded NFW with a Department of Defense grant and Air Force license to produce yarn and textiles using the process that became known as “fiber welding.” The company has obtained eight patents globally, 90 pending.

Haverhals and NFW have won praise from plastics critics — and marketing campaigns that claim to eliminate them. There is a growing concern about synthetic microfiber plastic materials such as polyester sheds with every roll of the washer. “I think he (Luke) is the real deal, and I think there are very few people out there who are the real deal,” says Sian Sutherland, founder of A Plastic Planet, a nonprofit that aims to eliminate plastic use. “This is not only about eliminating fossil fuels from the textile industry, but on top of that, it’s also about toxins.”

NFW has attracted a few big-name investors, including Ralph Lauren, BMW’s iVentures, and Allbirds. In July, the company said it had raised $15 million from private investors, bringing its total to $45 million. Some of that money went to expand its plant in Peoria, Illinois, where it is now working to increase production to hundreds of thousands of square feet of Clarus per month. In September, NFW announced a partnership with Patagonia to bring Clarus fibers into some of the brand’s new products. Haverhals says hundreds of brands are aligned to buy the company’s textiles for their own products. He says NFW will provide standardized products to manufacturers and will work with brands in hopes of developing specialty textiles.

Mirum, NFW’s other product line, is a vegan alternative to skin care. It’s made from things like coconut husk, natural rubber, or cork and processed or improved for durability using patented chemistry with no petrochemical additives. This is what sets Mirum apart from other synthetics that rely on harsh chemical treatments to achieve the desired consistency or feel. The company promotes it as an alternative to leather in products such as car interiors and footwear. Allbirds plans to start selling Mirum shoes soon.

Kasper Sage, managing partner at iVentures, the venture capital arm of BMW, says NFW is promising because its products are high-quality and sustainable, and the technology is scalable, which is important for automakers. “This is the only company we’ve found… that’s trying to address this problem, which has the potential to really make it into serious auto production,” says Sage.

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