U-M Professor of Materials Science and Engineering Max Stein and Brian Iezzi, post-doctoral researcher at U-M's Materials Science and Engineering Department, analyze fabric with photonic fibers woven into it. Marcin Szczepanski
New high-tech fibers developed by a University of Michigan (U-M) team could lead to huge improvements in the ability to recycle old clothing.
Max Shtein, a U-M professor of materials science and engineering, and postdoctoral researcher Brian Iezzi have published a study in the journal "Advanced Materials Technologies" about photonic fibers that can be woven directly into garments and other textiles.
The photonic fibers create a label that is "similar to how a barcode can be read," says Iezzi, the lead author of the study. That label allows information to be embedded in a given fabric, such as what materials that fabric has been made from.
There are multiple options for how that information might be accessed. Manufacturers could make the labels visible to interested consumers. Or the labels can be made such that they are only visible under infrared lights, "where you can’t see it with the naked eye," according to Shtein.
"Your clothes would basically look and feel like they normally would," he adds.
According to the study, not even 15% of the 92 million tons of clothing and other textiles that are thrown out each year can be recycled. That’s largely because of how difficult it is to sort those textiles according to the materials they’re made from.
"I rip the tags off of clothes right away," Shtein says. "As soon as I get an item tried on, it fits, [and] I like it — okay, great: off comes the label. And so all that information … is just not usable."
The photonic fiber labels would be difficult to remove, difficult to counterfeit, and relatively simple to produce on a large scale.
"We think [the technology] has potential in a few different areas," Shtein says. "So that’s a big thing."
Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.
Photo by Marcin Szczepanski.