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About a decade ago, during a business trip to China, British engineer Alan Hudd had a shock. At the end of a visit at a major textile dyeing factory, his customer took him behind the buildings to show a horrific scene: A blood-red river—wastewater from the dye baths leaching into the soil and entering the rivers. “You must find a solution for this!”
It is no coincidence that the customer turned to Hudd. He used to be a rocket scientist for the British Ministry of Defense. He had contributed to the invention of Shell mineral oil, which is still being used in our cars. He had created Xennia Technology as well, whose inkjet technologies revolutionized other highly polluting processes, such as the surface treatment for ceramic tiles. So, the engineer was well- placed to pick up the challenge without a moment’s hesitation: He spent a decade developing an inkjet solution specifically for textiles and even created a new dedicated start-up.
Founded in 2013, Alchemie Technology plans to roll out its technology at scale this year, with a clear and ambitious message: Alchemie’s digital dying technology will change the world.
Meanwhile, the environmental damage discovered by Hudd 10 years ago has become even worse. Unsurprisingly: apart from some occasional optimizations (less chemicals, better waste recycling), processes haven’t changed. Miles of fabrics are immersed in gigantic “washing machines” full of dye and water. Then excess dye is rinsed in a whole series of high-temperature baths. For finishing treatments (anti-perspirant, crease-protection, waterproofing, etc.) a new series of chemical baths and high energy treatment is used.
Alchemie’s machines dye cotton using 95 percent less water and 70 percent less energy. They dye polyester using 95 percent less water and 85 percent less energy. The reduction in quantities of dye and finishing products is also drastic.
There is a massive waste, alerts Alchemie Technology: About 30 tons of water is used to dye a single ton of fabric.
The textile industry innovator mentions other horrendous figures during its presentations to investors and potential customers. The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of carbon emissions, textile dyeing alone for 3 percent. If nothing changes, the dyeing industry will continue producing 2.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050. Dyeing also generates 20 percent of industrial water pollution (the second main cause on a global level).
Without changing anything, the industry itself will be in danger: increasing water shortage may jeopardize its activities and the energy cost explosions further erode its low profit margins. Indeed, many companies disappear—the dyeing industry is, well, dying.
Considering the scope and the long-standing history of the issue, it is quite surprising that no fundamental solutions have been found so far. Alchemie Technology suggests several reasons. For too long, we have turned a blind eye on the massive pollution generated. It has only been for the last few years that pressure can no longer be ignored. There is also the usual resistance to change (resulting costs, giving up processes established for decades, etc.), in addition to uncertainties about the benefits.
Incremental improvements had no chance to trigger real change. An enormous leap forward was necessary, a radical solution. And this is precisely where Alchemie Technology enters with Endeavour and Novara.
Alchemie Technology’s Endeavour, a machine that prints on the fabric, instead of immersing it into baths. Alchemie Technology
A “digital dyeing” machine
Endeavor is similar to a digital printing machine used for producing publications such as CONNECTED. A fabric roll is fed in, whereupon a bar equipped with more than 1400 individually controlled nozzles jets drops of dye at high speed. This “printing” is rather intense, since the drops are much larger than those of a paper printer and there are 1.2 billion drops per linear meter. On the other side of the fabric, vacuum is created to ensure the dye penetrates the entire length of the fabric fibers, without creating any excess dye. Finetuning the process was what took longest for Alchemie.
Unsurprisingly, Alchemie could not possibly test every dye on every fabric. It started with woven cotton and polyester. For the latter, being hydrophobic, the dye is jetting on both sides of the fabric and fixed by infrared light. Using Alchemie’s technology, cotton needs only to be jetted on one side of the fabric for complete penetration and even dyeing on both sides – this was a Eureka discovery for Alchemie.
Novara, the second machine, carries out the finishing treatments. The process is similar: chemicals are jetted on the surface of the fabric.
The quality of the final result is the equivalent of that obtained through classic processes, says Alchemie. As for the efficiency of the process, it has absolutely no equivalent.
As a matter of fact, Alchemie’s liquid application technology circum- vents the central issue of classic dyeing, the immersion into multiple baths. It is a non-contact method of jetting dye onto the surface of fabrics while achieving the same results as traditional methods. Alchemie Technology’s machines have been specifically designed to reduce the water, dyes, chemicals, and energy used to a strict minimum.
Saving water and energy
The results reported by the start-up are spectacular. These machines dye cotton using 95 percent less water and 70 percent less energy. They dye polyester using 95 percent less water and 85 percent less energy. The reduction in quantities of dye and finishing products is also drastic.
It doesn’t take an expert to guess the environmental impact that such a solution could have on a large scale. With climate protection, we have become used to minute progress, at the best. Here we have a revolution.
The solution also benefits the industry. The specter of water short- age and energy costs would no longer be daunting. Operating costs would decrease, increasing margins.
According to Alchemie, purchasing one or several Endeavours (they will cost about a million pounds — about U.S. $1,24 million — each) would pay off very quickly. The machines would also contribute to improving working environment (modern printers rather than “giant Turkish baths”). Much better for attracting new generations of employees.
Dyers are the main customers of Alchemie, but it has also been working on convincing the sector’s decision-makers — major clothing brands. They could put pressure on their suppliers to embark in this revolution. Due to environmental awareness. Or because they want innovative products. Or for their brand image. Or all of this at the same time.
Alchemie Technology also has joint development projects with several major brands (names not available due to NDA) whose suppliers test the quality, performance, and savings of this new way of dyeing textiles.
However, Alchemie is full of trust, given the massive interest in its solutions. The big fashion brands have set their 2030 objectives for sustainable development, in particular for water and energy consumption as well as carbon emissions. Endeavour and Novara have arrived just in time.
If everything goes well, meeting the demand would be Alchemie’s only concern.
The company plans to deliver about 15 machines this year, about 50 in 2024, 500 in 2025 and to continue its exponential growth. The potential is not unlimited, but there it is: Alchemie estimates its market at about 30,000 machines.
In case of a huge success, its U.K. production capacity will not be sufficient. The start-up is planning to rely on external partners for manufacturing basic elements. R&D and core technology (namely the printing bars) should stay in the U.K.
Alchemie Technology will also open demo centers in the major regions of textile dyeing. The first one in Taiwan (global capital of finishing treatments). Then in Portugal, Turkey, but mainly in Asia: Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh...
Will digital dyeing technology change the world? You will soon find out at a fashion boutique close to you.