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New Flax Production Process Eyed / March 30, 2000 / News from the USDA Agricultural Research Service

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New Flax Production Process Eyed

By Sharon Durham
March 30, 2000

A new process that could revolutionize linen fabric production in the United States will be evaluated under a research agreement between the Agricultural Research Service and the Center for American Flax Fiber (CAFF).

ARS and CAFF will evaluate a procedure called enzymatic retting, developed by ARS scientists and collaborators. It uses a chemical to break down calcium bonds in the flax plant. This, in turn, allows an enzyme to more easily loosen the flax fiber so it can be extracted from the plant and processed into linen for industrial uses.

Under the agreement, researchers will also establish quality standards for flax fiber strength, length, fineness, non-fiber content, and color.

Linen, a fabric made from the flax plant, is probably the oldest man-made fabric, dating back 10,000 years. North America is the largest producer of flaxseed and related products that result in millions of tons of residual fiber, but only a small portion of it is used for industrial purposes. The ability to produce flax fiber for industrial use would allow the U.S. to enter the flax fiber industry.

To this end, ARS scientist Danny Akin and agency colleagues began looking for more efficient ways to extract fiber from flax. In the past, harvesting of flax in the U.S. was accomplished by an inefficient method called dew-retting, which requires the flax plant to remain in the field where indigenous microorganisms--with appropriate temperatures and natural moisture--loosen the fiber. This process, however, confines flax production to limited geographic regions and produces inconsistent fiber properties because of natural variations.

Scientists hope enzymatic retting will help establish a U.S. flax fiber industry. The U.S. now imports about $150 million of flax fiber, flax-containing yarn, and flax fabric annually. This has an estimated value of $500 million in finished products. The ability to efficiently extract fiber from flax plants would put these dollars into the U.S. fiber industry.

Scientific contact: Danny E. Akin, Richard B. Russell Research Center, Athens, GA, phone (706) 546-3482, fax (706) 546-3607, deakin@qaru.ars.usda.gov.

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