Responding to increasing emphasis on sustainable consumption and production practices, The Lycra Company is pioneering the world’s first large-scale commercial production of bio-derived spandex.
The base material used to make spandex is polyurethane. The stretchy ingredient called PTMEG makes up 70 percent of the total fiber content. MDI, 15 to 20 percent, gives spandex its recovery power. Additives and finishes account for roughly 10 percent of the fiber. Traditionally, both PTMEG and MDI have been derived from fossil-based materials, including oil, coal, and natural gas — which are finite and require extraction and refinement.
This trend is predicted to continue despite the decarbonization strategies of brands, retailers, and suppliers. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urges companies to achieve net zero by 2050. Limiting global warming to well below two °C – ideally 1.5°C – above pre-industrial levels to avoid its worst effects is necessary.
Switching spandex’s ingredients from petroleum-based to bio-derived is part of the apparel industry’s responsibility to dismiss plastic and address climate change. Research by The Lycra Company highlights that consumers find garments made from renewable or bio-derived fibers particularly compelling when contemplating sustainable clothing purchases.
The Lycra Company and Qore partnered to utilize Qore’s naturally sourced ingredient, QIRA, as the foundation for bio-derived Lycra fiber. QIRA is made from annually renewable field corn, a naturally sourced ingredient. The new fiber’s look, feel, and performance are identical to traditional Lycra. The price will be slightly higher as feedstock costs are higher than fossil-based feedstocks. Replacing fossil-based ingredients with dent corn can reduce carbon emissions by up to 44 percent versus traditional Lycra fiber.
Corn-based QIRA is a biomaterial consisting of fibers partially or entirely derived from living matter or biomass. Agricultural commodities are the most common feedstocks. For biomaterials, most impacts are concentrated at the beginning phase of the life cycle, so responsible sourcing is critical to benefiting from their renewable nature and dismissing plastic once and for all.
This component goes through a patented fermentation process, converting it into glucose and then into a chemical known as BDO. This BDO converts into PTMEG, which makes up 70 percent of the bio-derived Lycra fiber content. «This is renewable content because it is derived from an annually renewable source, dent corn,» explains Hegedus.
QIRA is the next generation of 1,4-butanediol (BDO), a bio-based BDO made from renewable feedstocks that vastly reduces CO2 emissions. It has the same molecular structure as its fossil-based variant.
Corn is the naturally sourced ingredient found in QIRA. Corn can serve as food and raw material for industrial purposes – the former comprises less than 1 percent of the total corn produced in the U.S. QIRA is made from another type called ‘dent’ or ‘field’ corn. This has grown much more significantly.
Economies of scale have significantly brought down the cost. The new Lycra has a future when producing naturally sourced ingredients becomes continuous. Qore’s new production facility will produce QIRA non-stop and much larger scale. This improves the cost position, making bio-derived Lycra fiber a more affordable option for brands and retailers than ten years ago.
Starting in 2024, The Lycra Company will distribute sample quantities of bio-derived Lycra fiber to select customers for testing – to pave the way for larger-scale adoptions once the Qore plant is up and running. When fully operational, the site will have a capacity of about 65,000 metric tons (65 kilotons) per year.
Following the pioneering research of chemists like Otto Bayer and Paul Schlack, DuPont introduced nylon in the nineteen thirties as the first man-made or synthetic fiber. The garment industry benefitted from the novel material. Until the 1950s, rubber made women’s underwear and hosiery elastic. After a decade of R&D, elastane or spandex, an anagram for expansion, came to market with better properties. Lycra, a computer generator with a random trade name and DuPont spinoff, produces most of the material today.