Luke Haverhals likes to carefully calibrate his aim at problems – avoiding the distractions of little problems and keeping his focus on the big ones. Those, he contends, are petroleum and plastic.
“Agriculture at its worst is still better than petroleum at its best,” said Haverhals, founder and CEO of Natural Fiber Welding in Peoria.
The new start-up company is bringing research and innovation conducted at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis to a research and manufacturing facility in Peoria that could create an economic boon rippling across farm fields and rural America and into the manufacturing and retail sectors nationwide and even globally.
Haverhals says the technology has the potential to enhance the lives of people worldwide. The technology also promises to relieve stresses on the environment by displacing petroleum-based plastics.
The genesis of this technology dates back to observing nature growing up on a family farm in Iowa. Ideas evolved during graduate school, a Ph.D. in chemistry, teaching and research at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Haverhals was a professor at the academy, teaching and conducting research with natural materials. When he and his wife began their family, a move closer to their home base in Iowa became a goal. That landed Haverhals a teaching position at Bradley University.
He left Bradley in 2016 to begin his company, Natural Fiber Welding, 6533 N. Galena Road.
“Peoria is the only place on the planet where this technology is happening and being scaled,” he said.
Natural Fiber Welding has a prototype mill that manufactures cotton from recycled cotton. As industrial hemp becomes more established as an alternative crop in Central Illinois, Haverhals expects to process the hemp fiber into fabric and building materials.
Hemp can be grown with fewer pesticides than are required for genetically-modified corn and soybeans and hemp actually cleans soil. Central Illinois farmers will likely be able to plant industrial hemp as an alternative crop in the spring of 2020, but their success selling the hemp fiber hinges on having a nearby processing facility. It is not economically viable to ship hemp fiber more than about 50 miles from farm to processing facility.
That’s what Natural Fiber Welding can provide –– a nearby economically viable processing facility.
But Haverhals points to another environmental benefit. Unlike other processes for recycling cotton, hemp or bamboo, his unique process is a closed loop. No toxins are released as waste. All materials used in the production process are recycled and reused.
“Take care of the garden,” he said, explaining his environmental perspective.
“Any good citizen of Earth who grew up on a farm and knows every acre of land and drinks the water from the well” understands that petroleum is a limited resource that ultimately will be depleted. Plastic made with petroleum not only pollutes the environment during production but continues to pollute after it is discarded.
Haverhals said every washing machine load of laundry with synthetic fabric releases thousands of tiny micro-particles of plastic that end up in the oceans.
His focus is not on recycling plastic but on limiting plastic use in the first place by developing alternatives based on natural materials.
“The best way to avoid plastic pollution is not to produce so much plastic,” he said. “Our technology has the ability to use natural fiber welding.”
That includes not only “welded cotton” but “vegan leather.”
The regular leather industry is about $100 billion a year while “vegan leather” potentially could be $120 billion a year, he said. One problem with other sources of plant-based leather is that plastic is used in the manufacturing process. Plastic is also used with durable synthetic fabrics.
“We’re not going after cows. We’re going after plastic,” Haverhals said. “Meat eaters and vegans can be aligned over the most important thing to do, and that is eliminate plastic.”
His process can take 100 percent pure cotton yarn and manufacture it in a different shape, and it can outperform polyester fabrics made with plastic.
The company’s first sale was made in February to a textile company. Clothing made with the fabric will likely show up on store shelves in 2020.
Another value Haverhals speaks about is mission. While the petroleum industry created vast wealth (ExxonMobil, PetroChina, Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell), natural fiber welding can equalize revenues from farm field to manufacturing to production and retail.
Companies and individuals who own the sources of petroleum, control the revenue, but with Natural Fiber Welding, the sources of the materials are farm fields.
“Petroleum is not sustainable. Farming can be sustainable,” Haverhals said, noting that money spent on agricultural products from local farms recycles through local economies.
Currently recycled cotton is used in products with low value like insulation. Once the technical issues are resolved, recycled cotton can be used with natural fiber welding to produce high value products like clothing made of high-performance fabrics.
“We’re turning trash to treasure,” Haverhals said. “If the world only operated based on who makes the most money, we are doomed. If we’re only utopia, we’re doomed. We need balance and regulation.”
His personal philosophy blends with that of his company.
“The best philanthropy is not to make billions of dollars to start with but to create a system that fairly distributes earnings,” he said. “If too much is in the hands of too few, that’s a system ripe for tyranny.”
And, in fact, countries like Saudi Arabia with rich petroleum resources have been unfriendly to democracy.
Natural Fiber Welding is rapidly expanding local employment. Currently, about 23 people work at the company, and that’s expected to grow to 40 by the end of 2019 and possibly number in the hundreds by 2020 and a thousand by 2022. The work force, at least initially, is primarily chemists, engineers and technicians.
Haverhals said growth has been rapid because of a number of key local investors in the company. He hopes more investors step forward to enable faster development of the mill operation.
Farmers throughout central Illinois are closely watching developments in the hemp industry. Because fiber from hemp plants can’t economically be transported beyond about 50 miles, Natural Fiber Welding is the best accessible market.
About 230 farmers and scientists attended an industrial hemp forum in January organized by Tory Dahlhoff, Greater Peoria Economic Development Council.
“The initial excitement about this was the CBD (medicinal) market that currently exists but that’s going to be a bubble. That market is flooded,” Dahlhoff said. “The long term market will be the fiber-based industry.”
He has been told by scientists in the industry that the potential for industrial hemp fiber as an alternative crop for farmers is an opportunity not duplicated in the past half century.
“This is a rare opportunity for central Illinois. Our land and climate are ideally suited,” he said. “We want to create a more transparent market that is economically beneficial for all actors in the supply chain and does not disadvantage farmers.”
Dahlhoff testified in Springfield during hearings to formulate regulations for industrial hemp. He is lobbying for less restrictive guidelines.
“Industrial hemp could be a potential crop to help start a farm operation,” he said. “We want this to be an inclusive industry for workforce development.”
State regulations may be released in June, too late for planting during this year. He expects to see more widespread plantings throughout central Illinois in 2020.
Dave Bishop, an organic farmer south of Bloomington, said he plans to expand his vegetable production and has no immediate plans to grow industrial hemp. However, he’d like to see conventional farmers adopt hemp as a step toward more regenerative agriculture and as a way to deal with low corn and soybean prices.
“Ideally, this could replace one-third of the current corn and soybean acres with a crop that could be processed locally and consumed domestically, offering economic growth in rural America and less reliance on export markets,” he said. “It represents a potentially large step forward in developing local food and fiber systems.”
Bishop said people generally think of hemp in terms of CBD medicinal uses, however that is a relatively small, niche market compared with the larger fiber market with uses in fabric, building materials, paper, packaging (especially to replace plastic packaging), livestock protein and bio-fuels. Just some of the benefits that come with industrial hemp include more diversity, focus on soil health and local economies, local production, value-added products and a tool for combating climate change.