It is rare to encounter a technology that is so disruptive that it has the potential to generate a paradigm shift, and I had that opportunity last month when I interviewed Suzanne DeVall, founder and president of PBO, Inc. Her patented technology for utilizing the byproduct from tobacco plants to create a new textile fiber and natural dyes could generate a paradigm shift in the textile and leather industries.
I first met DeVall over four years ago when I was a managing member of a small business incubator for startup companies in the "clean technology" field. She was too early stage for our program, as she was going through a lengthy R&D stage, but I kept in touch with her to keep informed of her progress because I thought her technology had great promise.
In my recent interview at her office in Palm Springs, I asked how and when she got the idea of utilizing tobacco plants. She said, "I've been involved with the textile industry for over 30 years and have been a champion for organic materials. From 2007 to 2009, I was part of a small team who traveled to growing areas in Europe and the Middle East to set controls for certified organic textiles. In Turkey and Syria, I saw organic tobacco fields near cotton fields. Tons of plant material was going to waste since they only harvested the leaves for tobacco products, and I thought it would be interesting to see if a textile fabric and natural dye could be produced out of the tobacco plant byproduct. I began working with scientists in the Carolina Research Triangle along with key scientists in the tobacco agricultural and harvesting industry to verify that there was a large amount of raw material resources to support a large scale industrial project."
I told her that I had written about the devastation of the southern textile industry in my book due to mills closing after transferring textile manufacturing to China, India and other Asian countries. The textile industry lost 57% of it jobs from 2000 – 2010. North Carolina had a large number of textile companies, so it was the state most impacted by job losses in that industry. It was no wonder that North Carolina scientists were interested in a new textile fabric and dyes made from one of the state's major crops.
DeVall continued, "With the assistance of leading scientists, we began converting the tobacco plant byproduct into a viable textile dye. After thousands of trials, our work led to the AvaniTM Color System to be sold under our wholly owned subsidiary, Dimora Colours, Inc., and I was issued a patent on April 8, 2014. We convert our extracted liquid base to a one-step and two-step powder process that is water-soluble. Our research also resulted in a "spinable" fiber that could be woven into fabric, but you can't patent a fiber any more than you can patent fabrics made out of cotton, silk, flax, hemp or wool."
I asked why organic dyes are important, and she said, "The apparel industry is a $7 trillion a year industry that uses an astounding 8,000 synthetic chemicals, so it has a big pollution problem. The World Bank estimates that 17 – 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile coloration and treatment. They have identified 72 toxic chemicals in our water solely from textile dyeing, 30 of which are permanent. This is a serious environmental issue for the industry. The U. S. EPA and other national and international agencies have placed increasingly strict regulations on the manufacture and use of synthetic colorants. The pigment and dye industry has had to develop the technology necessary to analyze and remediate pollutants in wastewater."
She added, "Consumers have the mistaken illusion that synthetic fibers and dyes in clothing are safe. Your skin is the largest organ of elimination and absorption—what goes on the skin goes in the body. When toxins are absorbed through your skin, they are taken-up by the lymphatic system, then into the blood stream and eventually the liver to remove the toxins from your body. Your skin also keeps you healthy by actually eliminating about one pound of toxins daily.
“Our process doesn't need the pre-treatment, washing, soaping and adding of enzymes, so it only takes three hours compared to the 8 to 10 hours of the traditional dyeing process. With our organic materials, we do not require harmful chemicals for processing the fibers and dyes. Our one-step and two-step powder process is a key development for saving energy, water, labor time and shipping costs. Our dyeing process saves about 60% of labor, energy and water."
I asked how she came up with that figure. She said, "We have been in clinical trials with major dye houses in the United States, Japan and Europe over the past 18 months with great success. We ran dyeing trials using our dyes at three companies, and these companies told her that it saved them about 60% of labor, energy and water. They don't have to heat water for so many different batches to do the pre-treatment, dyeing cycle, soaping, washing, and enzyme treatment.
She added that they use a water filtration system prior to delivering the colorant to the fibers in the final stages. "The water required for our closed loop system does not have to be of a high quality as our process purifies the water. The remaining water is then reused for the next batch. Our water system utilizes the content of the discharge and neutralizes it to a PH of 7.0; which is alkaline, not acidic. As this discharge is neutralized during our process, the water is not only safe, it is also drinkable. This is a very attractive and cost-effective major benefit to third world countries where water is a scarce resource."
DeVall then showed me many different samples of fabric, household textiles and leather that had been dyed using her proprietary dyeing process. She showed me samples of cotton, hemp, silk, cashmere and her tobacco fiber in addition to combinations of all of these fibers. The colors were so rich and vibrant that I wanted something made out of every different fabric. The colors ranged from a soft butter yellow to a rich dark purple. The leather was so soft that I thought it was deerskin, but she said it was just normal cowhide. The natural properties of her tobacco plant based dyes have a softening effect on leather that reduces the amount of tanning required.
I next inquired about the industries that could benefit from the AvaniTM Color System. DeVall responded, "In addition to the apparel industry, our dyes could obviously be used by companies producing household linens and textiles. But there are several other industries that could benefit from using our dyes, such as the leather goods industry, furniture manufacturers for fabric and leather upholstery, paper and packaging, and cosmetics. Our dye powders could also be added to PET material that comes in a powder to make colored bottles and containers without any added chemicals." This made me think of the company I visited on my plant tour in Toledo, Ohio Plastic Technologies, Inc. because they make clear and colored bottles and containers out of PET material.
This led me to ask how they plan to market their products. DeVall replied, "We plan to obtain licensing agreements with companies in different industries and regions of the world. We have discussed a license agreement with several dye manufacturers to process all our major orders. We would provide the technology and they would provide the processing facility and produce the dyes on a royalty arrangement. We have secured our first license agreement with a company in Japan to sell in Japan, Korea and Taiwan."
On my drive back home to San Diego, I felt as if I had been given a rare gift of an encounter with a visionary whose knowledge, experience and tenacity had given birth to a new technology that could indeed generate a paradigm shift in more than one industry and make our global environment better in so many ways. I look forward to writing a future article about PBO's success.