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It could be wool's last hurrah, it could be the start of a whole new ball game.

The government's recent decision to invest $17.25 million in a wool research consortium will allow the exploration of possible new products and applications for the fibre and its raw constituent, keratin.

AgResearch is keen on the new funding. It reckons that many opportunities have not been followed up in recent years because of a lack of funding. Farmers' increasing disenchantment with the product that 60 years ago provided over 80% of their income is somewhat understandable.

Wool is now lucky to cover the cost of getting it off a ewe's back for some farmers, so it is not surprising that last year's vote by cockies was to essentially forget about the fibre.

Using counter-intuitive logic, now's probably a good time to explore new uses and opportunities.

After all, wool's back story is pretty difficult to beat - there's not many products that can claim to be created by sunshine, soil and fresh air (only a slight exaggeration!).

Compared to the hydrocarbon-derived alternatives, there's a whole romance that can be laid alongside its physical properties - which are sure to be re-examined closely by more than 20 fulltime scientists at AgResearch's Lincoln campus.

The CRI's pretty confident (as you would be having just secured investment!) it has some woolly answers, namely:

• Addressing historical obstacles to wool's use and performance. It can produce woollen fabrics which perform as well as, if not better than synthetics in many respects.
• Finding new added value uses that exploit positive intrinsic characteristics

Let's hope AgResearch is right. Wool in total makes up less than 2% of the total fibre globally produced.

AgResearch's Wool Research Organisation Inc (WRInc) will work alongside universities and other research organisations it says. Collaboration's the big new, brave new concept in New Zealand research - from the top down. It will be interesting to see how it pans out in reality.

Because the processes involved in taking the raw wool off a sheep's back and turning that into a yarn which in turn is used in carpets or clothing is long and relatively expensive.

The majority of the wool New Zealand produces is coarser than the fine merino fabrics enthusiastically worn by urban-trampers. Our sensitive 21st century skins aren't keen on the prickle factor inherent in coarse wool blends.

Finding a way to utilise these types of wools, in ways other than carpet, is the challenge in the first instance.

Finding a way to get consumers to either happily pay more for a wool product (with presumably better characteristics than a cheaper, synthetic product) and getting some of that profit back down the value chain to the farmer's going to be a another major challenge.

But, as a renewable, raw resource, we owe it to ourselves, our forebears and our farmers to give wool research one last crack.

Any later and the scientists capable to passing on their wool knowledge to their younger colleagues, will be gone.

Any later and there will be no one left in the country who remembers the fibre at all.

AgResearch has a pretty good public relations team, well-versed at promoting good news.

One of wool's advantages is that it will lend itself to picture-worthy stories of the 'look what we've discovered' variety. It isn't something buried down a microscope, all big-picture environmental, or gene-manipulation, 20 years down the track type of story.

There will be some interesting new products pumped out by the big dollop of cash being thrown at discovery and refinement.

Producing these new products will be the easy part though. Convincing others to tool up and help take the products to market will be the real trick.

Disclaimer: in a former life, sticK attempted to commercialise a felted wool ball (based on simple technology perfected by the old WRONZ (Wool Research Organisation of NZ). The ball is pretty round, bounces and is a great colourful indoor ball, perfect for office games of cricket. It accepts a permanent logo too.

sticK couldn't get it into a form or product that tourists were prepared to purchase however. Any person who thinks they might have a market for such a ball, give me a yell!

Where's there's a wool there's a way - $17.25m kickstart for renewed research

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