June 17, 2019

The Environment's New Clothes

“Many of today’s garments are woven from plastic-based acrylic, nylon or polyester threads, and cut and sewn in factories. All such materials are chemically produced and nonbiodegradable. But these researchers think some of tomorrow’s apparel could potentially be bioengineered—that is, made from living bacteria, algae, yeast, animal cells or fungi—which would break down into nontoxic substances when eventually thrown away. Such methods could reduce waste and pollution, says Theanne Schiros, assistant professor in the math and science department at Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.) in New York City. Besides being biodegradable, another major benefit, she says, is that many of the organisms involved can be grown to fit molds—producing the precise amount of textile needed to create an article of clothing without generating excess material to discard. “In materials science we are now finding more inspiration in nature,” she says. “You look to nature for rapidly generating organisms that are abundant.”

Schiros’s organism of choice is algae. With it, she and a team of F.I.T. students and faculty have created a yarnlike fiber that can be dyed with nonchemical pigments such as crushed insect shells and knitted into apparel. There are three steps in making alga-based yarn, Schiros says: First, a sugar called alginate is derived from kelp—a multicellular algal seaweed—and powdered. Next the alginate powder is turned into a water-based gel, to which plant-based color (such as carrot juice) is added. Finally, the gel is extruded into long strands of fiber that can be woven into a fabric.

Schiros says her experiments show alga-based fabric holds considerable promise as a marketable bioengineered clothing material because it is strong and flexible, two properties essential for mass-market apparel. Materials scientists in China have noted that alga-based fibers are naturally fire-resistant, potentially reducing the need for adding toxic flame retardants to clothing. Also, alga biodegrades faster than cotton—the most common natural clothing fiber—and growing it does not require pesticides or large areas of land. Schiros has used her fiber to knit items including a tank top she wore while delivering a TED Talk on sustainable fashion this year. After winning the 2016 BioDesign Challenge for her work with alga-based textiles with her F.I.T. colleague Asta Skocir, Schiros co-founded a company called Algiknit, which aims to one day produce alga-based apparel on a commercial scale.”

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