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A project to revive the wool industry

Scientists at the CSIC are involved in a European Life project aimed at developing a dry wool scouring cycle, eco-efficient and with no waste. This cycle will totally recover the by-products that are commercially valuable. Washing wool in a factory.In the wool production, the washing stage has serious disadvantages such as the big amount of water needed and the production of a waste effluent whose treatment is sophisticated and economically expensive. For every kilogram of washed wool, 17 litres of waste water are approximately produced with a high pollutant load (organic matter, detergents and a variable amount of micro-contaminants).

“The high water consumption and the regulations which are environmentally very strict, have made many wool European companies move to other countries”, explains Maria Luisa Coderch, research professor at the CSIC’s Instituto de Química Avanzada de Catalunya (IQAC). “The aqueous washing of wool, which is now the only technology available, produces waste water with a high level of pollutants. The few European companies of washing wool cannot compete in a global market because of the high cost that the treatment of this waste water supposes”.     

Aimed at finding a more efficient and competitive process that could revive the wool industrial sector, scientists at the CSIC’s Instituto de Química Avanzada de Catalunya and at the technological centre LEITAT, working together with two companies (RMT and Peinaje del Rio Llobregat), are cooperating to develop a pilot plan that enables an affordable dry wool scouring that doesn’t produce waste water.  

The project, Eco-Efficient Dry Wool Scouring with Total By-Products Recovery or WDS (for Wool Dry Scouring), is an initiative of the company RMT. Coordinated by the technological centre LEITAT, it has a budget of 3 million Euros, which are partially funded by the Life European program.

Closed and with no waste

The process to be developed in this project is a closed dry cleaning cycle, based on the use of solvents; therefore the use of water would be reduced up to 90%. The project is focused on maximizing the recovery of the wool products (wool but also wool grease-lanoline and dust and vegetal fiber), in order to obtain valuable by-products such as lanoline and wool dust.

Maria Luisa Coderch, points out that “lanoline has a high added value in the market and wool dust is well known as a slow-release fertilizer and rich in potassium. The wool grease (lanoline) and the wool dust will be recovered preventing them polluting the effluents. Therefore the sophisticated and expensive treatment of waste water will be avoided”.  

The scientists estimate an overall cost reduction of 40%

Besides, the wool dry scouring allows the improvement of the quality of the wool, which is more white, with a low grease content (lanoline is almost totally removed) and with its fibres more open, which gives it a smooth and fluffier appearance.      
 
This is not the first time that the use of solvents has been proposed for the wool industry, although this has never succeeded because the solvents are in fact a source of pollutants. The novelty of this project is the closed cycle scientists propose: solvents will be reused and will never be thrown with the waste.

The scientists estimate an overall cost reduction of 40% in regard to the current aqueous system. The estimation includes the savings in water and energy, savings in waste water treatment and land disposal, and the possible income from the sale of by-products.