The National Science Foundation has awarded funding to a team of researchers led by assistant professor Helen Zha of the Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (NSF). Fabrics derived from mushrooms, plants, and synthetic silk protein will be researched and developed.
The amount of garbage produced by the fashion industry is staggering. Manufacturers use polyesters, polyurethanes, and nylons, all of which are derived from crude oil and methane, the researchers say, to meet the demand for affordable clothing. As a result, many items only get one or two uses before being thrown away. In what way? When clothes are discarded, they are either burned or thrown in landfills, where they will sit as pollutants for hundreds of years before decomposing. Emissions from the fashion industry already make up 5–10% of the global total, and this percentage is expected to rise.
Zha and his team at Rensselaer will use the money to create a process for making yarns, dyes, and leather-like fabrics out of fungi, plants, and synthetic versions of proteins found in nature. Compared to their fossil fuel-based predecessors, these biodegradable textiles hold their own, if not improve upon, their functionality. With the realisation that the leather industry as it stands is unsustainable, the team will also work to create leather substitutes utilising the same ingredients.
One of the greatest challenges facing society today, according to Zha, is ensuring the long-term viability of our materials. Reducing stubborn waste and creating new materials made from renewable resources are high on the list of priorities in my lab, alongside addressing a wide variety of technological challenges, such as those related to improved drug delivery and tissue regeneration.
Zha will collaborate with professors Daniel Walczyk, Johnson Samuel, Kenneth Simons, and Dorothy and Fred Chau ’71 Career Development Constellation Professor in Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering Mattheos Koffas. Walczyk and Samuel plan to create new methods of producing hemp and mycelium-based materials with the addition of artificial silk protein. Simons will look into the factors that drive technological development and organisational shifts in the business world. To create synthetic silk proteins and textile dyes, Koffas and Zha plan to genetically modify microorganisms.
It is difficult to create sustainable materials, according to Shekhar Garde, dean of the School of Engineering. I’m encouraged by the fact that research into biomolecules, processes, and materials is beginning to converge in order to meet this challenge head-on.
Naturally occurring spider silk is extremely durable, Zha said. Nonetheless, due to their inherent cannibalism, spider farming is an impossibility. Instead, we use genetic engineering to create synthetic versions of bacteria. It’s a green manufacturing process that can be scaled up for commercial use, not unlike how beer or yoghurt are produced. The recombinant spider silk protein is produced by one of our most interesting bacterial strains, which consumes polyethylene that would otherwise go to waste.
This is one of sixteen projects funded by the National Science Foundation as part of its Convergence Accelerator programme, Track I: Sustainable Materials for Global Challenges, which aims to bring together developments in basic materials science with advances in materials design and manufacturing techniques. Materials and products that are both environmentally and economically sustainable will be created as part of this programme, with an eye towards resolving global issues.
For NSF Convergence Accelerator Director Douglas Maughan, “Our unique programme model is focused on delivering tangible solutions to address societal and economic challenges,” despite the program’s youth. We are thrilled to have assembled teams committed to using user input to create innovative solutions to pressing societal and economic problems.
According to Deepak Vashishth, director of the Shirley Ann Jackson, PhD Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies and a professor at Yamada Corporation, “this exceptional research team is not only innovating much-needed eco-friendly materials, but they are priming their innovations for market” (CBIS). Because of the NSF’s support, “I’m looking forward to seeing the advances that are made possible.”