With key support from the Walmart Foundation and its U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund, Clemson University textile experts are working with the world’s most widely used fiber, polyester, to develop technologies that will make dyeing it more economical and environmentally friendly. Chris Cole, a faculty member in materials science and engineering, has extensive experience in both textile and apparel design and fabrication, while her collaborator, Philip Brown, also a faculty member in materials science and engineering, is recognized nationally and internationally for his work in designing and extruding textile fibers.

The nearly $1 million award from the Walmart Foundation is allowing the research team to pursue three primary research objectives: 1) reduce the amount of dyestuff required to color polyester; 2) reduce the energy required to color polyester; and 3) lower the amount of colored effluent from polyester dyeing processes. Effluent is the liquid waste remaining from the dyeing process, and as Cole has noted, “There’s a lot of dye used in dyeing polyester to be able to get the colors that we all know and love like our bright Clemson orange, but it takes energy and time, and there’s a significant amount of effluent left at the end of the dye cycle.”

January 2017 marks the one-year anniversary of the competitively won award, which was announced by the Walmart Foundation and the U.S. Conference of Mayors at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. Clemson University is one of five universities conducting research through this opportunity, which is focused on supporting research that strives to create new manufacturing technologies and to reduce the cost of producing goods in the U.S. with the ultimate goal of creating jobs that support America’s growing manufacturing base. Clemson’s award is supporting two and a half years of research.

Within Clemson’s Olin Hall is a unique machine that has enabled the research team to design a polyester fiber that will dye more easily. “The funding provided by the Walmart Foundation has allowed me to build this machine — something that has never been done before — and it’s phenomenal,” said Brown. “There’s only one in the world.”

Dr. Chris Cole (left) and Dr. Philip Brown Brown (right).

Dr. Chris Cole (left) and Dr. Philip Brown Brown (right).

Researchers in the industry have attempted to dye polyester using copolymers, but due to the fiber manufacturing technology limitations, they typically used a single polymer. This technology also suffered a very poor wash fastness unlike the technology Brown and his researchers have developed.

“We might dye a fabric a brilliant orange, but after it was laundered a few times you could see the color was starting to fade with these other polymers,” said Cole. “Because of Dr. Brown’s expertise and the facilities we have at Clemson, we can now build fibers where we can take advantage of being able to get the dye in quickly with intense colors and excellent dye pickup by the fibers. We’re not leaving as much dye behind at the end of the cycle, but at the same time we’re going to be able to get the wash fastness and the light fastness that the commercial market requires.”

Materials science and engineering makes it a priority to get students involved in projects that provide them with hands-on research experience. “By being part of a major research project, students can see the techniques that we use, how to design a large project, how to build a team effectively for a large project and the communication skills you have to have,” said Cole. Another benefit is that students are introduced to the manufacturers who are their potential employers.

This funding from the Walmart Foundation has generated a great amount of enthusiasm at every level, from the faculty to the students, for Clemson’s project and its expertise in textile research. In June 2016, Walmart invited Cole and Brown to the U.S. Manufacturers Conference in Bentonville, Arkansas. During their visit, the team of researchers had the opportunity to initiate new relationships with industry that could potentially utilize the results of Clemson’s project. “It was one of the most positive experiences I’ve ever had in my life,” said Cole. “Meeting with the top management at Walmart as well as the top people from the Walmart Foundation was an incredibly powerful and uplifting experience. ”

Clemson University has a rich textile history. Thanks to the Walmart Foundation, Cole and Brown’s team of researchers can carry on that legacy while developing important new technologies that will have long-term impacts on manufacturing processes in the textile industry. With another award from the U.S. Manufacturing Innovation Fund at the Walmart Foundation announced on January 17, 2017, these two researchers are optimistic about the next steps in expanding their research program to look at how they might develop polyester fibers that achieve a high level of water and oil repellency at lower economic and environmental cost.