Recently, The LYCRA Company announced an exciting new collaboration with Qore®, a joint venture between Cargill, an expert in agricultural fermentation, and HELM, a German chemical company, to enable the world’s first large-scale commercial production of bio-derived LYCRA® fiber.
Currently, a key ingredient in LYCRA® fiber is BDO (1,4-Butanediol), which is produced from fossil-based resources. QIRA® is the next generation BDO — made from annually renewable field corn instead of petroleum-based products.
The QIRA® ingredient will account for 70 percent of the LYCRA® fiber content and is derived from a special type of corn called field or dent corn from Iowa, and provides several important benefits: generally, the corn does not require irrigation. In addition, the Qore® production facility will run on wind power. As a result, LYCRA® fiber made with QIRA® has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions up to 44 percent* versus spandex made with traditional raw materials.
Corn as a renewable feedstock for bio-derived materials
When it comes to corn, most people think of the sweet corn that is harvested and enjoyed in late summer. However, sweet corn makes up less than 1 percent of the total corn produced in the U.S. (Source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture).
Overwhelmingly, corn is grown with the intentional purpose of being used for animal feed, ethanol, and other industrial purposes. This type of corn, known as field or dent corn, can be used as feedstock in the replacement of some of the fossil-based resources used in the apparel and personal care industries.
A common question that arises is whether the production of bio-derived materials competes with food production. On the surface, it may appear to be so; but a closer look reveals that food and materials production can be mutually beneficial. In fact, when we look at field corn, the current technology allows for the full use of a corn kernel by separating it into distinct parts – protein, starch and oil – with each being used in a multitude of end uses for both food/feed and materials applications. In effect, field corn reframes the question of food vs. fiber to the concept of food and fiber.
“At present, the world is mainly short of protein and not of carbohydrates such as sugar and starch. This means that there is no real competition with food uses since the valuable parts of the food crops still flow into food and feed uses.”
- Nova Institute (Sugar as Feedstock for the Chemical Industry)
This is important because bio-derived materials represent a tremendous opportunity to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels and the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. When sourced responsibly, the production of bio-derived materials also supports farmers and ecosystems. Since most impacts are concentrated at the beginning phase of the life cycle, responsible farming and sourcing are critical to realizing the benefits of these renewable materials.
“Agriculture is the backbone of QIRA® and is how we can offer a more sustainable alternative to traditional BDO that is derived from finite resources,” said Jon Veldhouse, CEO of Qore®. “The facility to produce QIRA® is being built in central Iowa and will benefit from working closely with our raw material supplier Cargill who promotes continuous improvement in the sustainability of field corn production, including more regenerative farming practices.”
“As part of our Planet Agenda framework and sustainability goals, we are committed to delivering products that help our apparel and personal care customers reduce their footprint,” said Steven Stewart, Chief Brand and Innovation Officer at The LYCRA Company. “We are especially pleased to collaborate with Qore®, a company that shares our vision for innovative, sustainable solutions. Their expertise in operating fermentation processes and understanding of the chemical value chains makes them the ideal partner to help develop a bio-derived LYCRA® fiber at commercial scale.”
*Estimate from Cradle-to-Gate Screening LCA for a representative LYCRA® fiber manufacturing facility, June 2022, prepared by Ramboll US Consulting, Inc.