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Research on improving cotton receives historical recognition

American Chemical Society

The research that helped make cotton the so-called "fabric of our lives" will receive special recognition this month in New Orleans. The evolution of durable press and flame retardant cotton will be designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark during ceremonies in the "Crescent City" on May 14. Research on cotton conducted at the Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans helped revive the popularity of this natural fabric. The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, sponsors the landmarks program.

William F. Carroll, Jr., Ph.D., president-elect of the Society, will present the plaque to John Patrick Jordan, Ph.D., director of the Southern Regional Research Center. The center is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agriculture Research Service. The American Chemical Society established the chemical landmarks program in 1993 to recognize seminal achievements in chemistry and increase public awareness of the contributions of chemistry to society.

Chemists and other scientists at the Southern Regional Research Center began to chemically modify cotton in the 1950s, just as nylon and other synthetics were cutting into cotton's share of the textile market. SRRC researchers first created cotton garments that could be washed and dried and needed no ironing -- popularly known as "wash and wear." Then SRRC scientists developed durable press, which added permanent creases to wash-and-wear cotton garments.

These advances were done through the chemical modification of the cotton by a process known as crosslinking. The white fluffy part of the cotton plant is mainly cellulose. By crosslinking the cellulose -- connecting long chains of molecules with shorter chains, similar to the rungs on a ladder -- it becomes more rigid, which makes it less susceptible to wrinkling.

At the same time, SRRC scientists worked to make cotton fabrics safer for consumers. They developed two flame retardant treatments -- THPC and THPOH -- that prevented flare-up and was not affected by repeating washing. That research ultimately resulted in flame retardant fabrics used by the U.S. military, fire departments and by NASA in early space flights.

SRRC's research has been economically important. It helped make cotton competitive with synthetics and helped cotton reclaim its market share. In 2000, cotton represented a 61 percent share of the retail market for clothing and home furnishings, excluding carpet, nearly double the fabric's market share of thirty years earlier.


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