Success Stories

Creating sustainable synthetics


Two locally developed sustainable technologies that push the boundaries of textile manufacturing have claimed gold medals at an international exhibition, showcasing just how innovative Hong Kong’s environmental engineers can be.

The Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel (HKRITA) claimed the prestigious gold medals — as well as three silvers — after competing for the first time ever as a research institution at the International Exhibition of Inventions Geneva, an event it has participated in since 2010.

The institute’s winning technologies make use of waste material from other industrial processes to create low-cost, degradable additives used to produce polyester. The production of these low-cost degradable polyester fibers involves waste materials such as scrap metal residues and soap, helping ease Hong Kong’s waste management burden and reduce the negative environmental impact of non-biodegradable synthetic fibers.

The final additive is mixed with polyester resin to create degradable fibers that can be used in products such as hairnets and face masks.

The second gold medal was awarded to a project called Functional Treatment on Knitwear by Plasma Technology.

This technique is used to minimize pilling in wool and cashmere knitwear. The technology is designed for use on an industrial scale and will be used to treat whole garments at the final stage in the production cycle.

HKRITA Chief Executive Officer Edwin Keh says the recognition accorded to their innovations is encouraging, given the institute participated as a research institution at the Geneva event for the first time this year.

“The role of Hong Kong is changing in the textiles industry and it is shifting to focus more on technology and innovation,” he says. “The whole point of going to Geneva was to use it as a proving ground and to be judged against other innovations on a global scale. Winning the gold medals at Geneva adds a degree of credibility to what we’re doing.”

HKRITA specializes in applied research, with a focus on sustainability. It also adopts a collaborative approach to developing new intellectual property, and in this case, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC).

Dr Sam Mo, a senior consultant to the Materials and Manufacturing Technology Division of the council, says commonly used anti-pilling treatments can be effective but tend to affect fabric properties such as product texture and appearance.

“We recognized plasma technology as it is regarded as an environmentally friendly process with no usage of water and chemicals,” he says.

The technique sees argon gas plasma interacting with the delicate surface fibers of the textiles, reducing the friction between the fibers and cutting back on pilling by about half.

There is nothing delicate about the potential scope of the invention, however. The system can treat 20 items at a time, and Mo says a coating might also be added to the treatment to better preserve the fabric or create new textiles.

“By picking the right chemical, a polymeric coating capable of improving pilling resistance can be formed and this treatment is, in principle, applicable to natural and synthetic fibers or blended fibers in knitted, woven or non-woven form,” he says. “With this technique, functional coatings such as hydrophilic, hydrophobic, UV-protection, anti-static and anti-bacterial can be deposited.”

Licensed and marketed effectively, these new functional fabrics could attract significant financial gains.

Taking greater care of the environment is at the heart of both of these winning pieces of intellectual property.

HKRITA’s research partners at the International Exhibition of Inventions Geneva: (from left) Dr Jimmy Lee, Dr Sam Mo, Edwin Keh, Agnes Mak, Dr CC Lam, K K Kee and Dr Winnie Wu. The institute won two gold medals and three silver at the event.

The anti-pilling plasma treatment system for knitwear created by HKRITA will be used to treat garments at the final stage of production.

Biodegradable fiber face masks made with low-cost degradable polyester fibers, which can also be used to produce hairnets.