Magazine article New Internationalist

Whatever Happened to Cotton?

Magazine article New Internationalist

Whatever Happened to Cotton?

Article excerpt

It was at her wedding in 2035 that Asha first began wondering about cloth. Her grandmother had given her an old-fashioned cotton sari and so they fell into conversation while fingering its brittle texture. Asha declared that she found the sari 'beautiful in a retro sort of way' but was struck by its impracticality: how easily it stained and how fragile it was. If it snagged on a nail it could tear as quickly as that other outdated material - paper. Her grandmother countered that cotton was the material of choice when she was a child and that the wealth of India was built on fabric like this - 'and much of its poverty too', she added ruefully. Somehow in the intervening generation cotton had just disappeared. The conversation passed to other topics, but when Asha later took out the wedding gift again she found herself asking the question: 'Whatever happened to cotton?'

As an historian by training Asha knew that the disappearance of cotton had something to do with technology. She guessed, rightly, that it fell out of favour in the global commodity chaos that followed the introduction of nanotechnology in the first decade of the century. Nanotechnology, a set of techniques that rearrange matter on the tiniest scale of atoms and molecules, became one of the main drivers of the economy somewhere around 2010. By 2015 the trillion-dollar nano-industry was busy producing everything from computers to armaments and foodstuff- and also cloth: textiles were among the early stars of the nano-revolution.

Novel properties

By harnessing quantum physics and shuffling the atoms of the periodic table into new arrangements, nanotechnologists had made existing elements exhibit entirely novel properties. It seemed almost like alchemy. For example, they could design a gold nanoparticle (a particle only a few billionths of a metre in size) in such a way that it would turn purple, green or bright red, depending on the number of atoms used. This was more than a neat party trick. Once such nanogold entered mass production it quickly found uses in the paint, dyes and pigment industry and as a catalyst, pushing the already buoyant price of gold to record levels. Other commodities, however, lost out: nanosized fibres of carbon known as 'carbon nanotubes' could be produced that were 100 times stronger than steel, six times lighter and carried electricity more efficiently than copper wire. As Mitsubishi and IBM began to churn out cheap nanotubes by the ton, steelworkers and copper miners found themselves forced into early retirement.

Something similar had happened to around a billion workers in the global cotton industry. Digging into the archives from Internet 1.0, Asha learned that cotton was so common at the turn of the century that even the early nanofabrics were based on it. In 2002 a Texas company called Nano-tex began selling simple nano-coatings that would make cotton fibres 'spill resistant' - you could pour coffee on a pair of nano-treated jeans and it would bead up like mercury and roll off as if by magic. Nanotex was quickly joined by DuPont, who created a similar no-spill effect using 'nanoteflon'. These new nanofibres were licensed to several of the largest textile mills in Asia to make trousers and jeans for Lee, Dockers, Gap and Eddie Bauer, to name just a few. Nanotech quickly became the hottest topic in textiles - just as nylon, rayon and polyester had been half a century earlier. This spelled trouble ahead for cotton.

When seen at the nano-scale, cotton lint is simply a hollow tube of cellulose. It wasn't long before nanotechnologists starting mimicking that structure with artificial alternatives. In 2002 Nano-tex launched a new way of wrapping cellulose around polyester fibres. This made them feel like cotton even though the fibres were synthetic. Meanwhile a German nanofibre company, Lenzing, introduced Tencel - a soft fabric whose nanofibres were made out of engineered cellulose. Tencel claimed to be as soft as silk, strong as polyester, cool as linen, warm as wool and absorbent as cotton. …

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