Space & Innovation

8 Strange Textiles for Tomorrow

From mushrooms to milks, materials scientists are finding innovative solutions to reducing pollution, waste and carbon emissions.

Take a tour through the manufacturing industry of tomorrow and see what materials could usher in a more responsible future.

In an effort to tackle humanity's toughest sustainability challenges, NASA, NIKE, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of State formed LAUNCH, a global initiative that identifies and supports innovative work poised to accelerate solutions to pollution, waste and carbon emissions.

A hefty contributor to those three factors is material manufacturing. Materials extraction, processing and manufacturing of products accounts for over one-third of mankind's carbon emission, said Alan Hurd, Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State. That's why LAUNCH intends to focus on the materials system through 2020.

"At LAUNCH, we recognize the need for disruptive, systemic innovations, not incremental changes," Hurd told Discovery News.

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For their 2013 Systems Challenge, LAUNCH selected 10 innovators with the potential to solve key challenges in the areas of materials and manufacturing, with a focus on sustainable fabrics.

Eight of those innovators created groundbreaking materials altogether, while Marke Brown's Benign by Design and Candice Reffe's Blue Flower Initiative sought to refine the system from within.

The textile industry has a bad reputation for being irresponsible when it comes to water and energy consumption, as well as for notorious abuse of cheap labor in developing nations. BARKTEX believes it's found a solution by growing textiles on trees.

The company produces a contemporary take on one of the oldest textiles known to man, traditional bark cloth. It's the foundation for a wide range of textiles that can be used in clothing, furniture and interior design. The cloth is cultivated from a species of fig tree called Mutuba that's grown on eco-certified farms in Uganda. After the bark is stripped from the tree, new bark grows in its place. The 100-percent organic cloth can be rendered to maintain a variety of textures, from fleece to leather-like -- even wood.

Boasting a carbon footprint less than zero, BARTEX's textiles and composites are manufactured with low water and energy consumption in culturally aligned, socio-economically and ecologically suitable conditions.

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Cotton may be the "fabric of our lives" and the most widely used natural fiber in world, but cultivating it poses a fair share of environmental threats. Toxic pesticides, constant irrigation, high-energy use and greenhouse gases all come along with harvesting and manufacturing cotton.

Flax, another natural fiber, can be grown with far fewer pesticides, water, emissions and land use than cotton, but it's never been able to match the performance and cost-effectiveness of cotton.

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Thanks to advances in chemistry and manufacturing, CRAiLAR has developed a method to create flax that is competitive with cotton in both cost and performance. Producing a kilo of the company's flax is said to require 99 percent less water than what's required for a kilo of cotton.

Besides increasing the scale of their main manufacturing facility in Pamplico, S.C., CRAiLAR aims to explore policy and advocacy to raise the profile of flax and provide rural U.S. communities with a low-impact rotational crop that could provide a new source of income.

"We are currently working with conventional farms to grow and harvest our crops as a rotation, primarily in winter months when the land would typically be fallow," said CRAiLAR CMO Jay Nalbach. "The agronomic practices require no irrigation, minimal pesticides and herbicides, and deliver an average of 2.5 times the fiber yield per acre over conventional cotton."

A recent study by the University of Edinburgh said 360,000 tons of milk is wasted in the U.K. each year, creating greenhouse gases equivalent to emissions of 20,000 cars. Considering Germany throws away 1.9 tons, well, there's a lot to cry over.

German company Qmilk seeks to clean up the mess by manufacturing an antimicrobial, flame-resistant, non-allergenic fiber made from casein, a milk protein. Created from natural and renewable resources, the fiber is 100 percent biodegradable and can be made into clothing and home textiles. To produce one kilo of the fiber takes just five minutes and requires only two liters of water while recycling the casein. From production to composting, Qmilk is waste-free.

Founder and CEO Anke Domaske says "Qmilk takes a highly innovative approach to repurposing a waste stream that is seen in every country in the world." Two years ago, she started the company in a kitchen with less than $270 and now says she struggles to keep up with demand. Her team is currently looking for partners to help grow the operation so that, besides clothing and textiles, Qmilk can become more standard in the automotive, paper and medical industries.

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Most people are unaware that bees produce silk, but they do. Unlike the sheet-like molecular structure of silk produced by moths, worms and spiders, the structure of bee silk consists of coils where multiple helices are wound around each other. This produces a tough, lightweight silk that is highly flexible.

Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has done extensive research on nature-inspired smart materials and found that the unique structure of honey bee silk makes it ideal for use in sponges, transparent films, biomimetic fibers and nanofibers. These materials are particular intriguing to the medical and textile industries as they potentially represent key elements in a new generation of bio-sensing devices and materials that can "think on their own."

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"We had already identified the honeybee silk genes," Tara Sutherland, Principle Research Scientist for CSIRO Division of Ecosystem Sciences, said in a news release. "Now we have identified and sequenced the silk genes of bumblebees, bulldog ants and weaver ants, and compared these to honeybee silk genes. This let us identify the essential design elements for the assembly and function of coiled silks."

Since researchers can generate the recombinant silk proteins at high quality and quantity specifications, they suggest the proteins are suitable scaffolds for regenerative medicine and have potential applications for encapsulating and stabilizing vaccines.

Geckskin is a fabric-based adhesive device inspired by the gecko foot, which utilizes a skin-tendon-bone connection to give the lizard a superb ability to adhere to almost any surface.

Like many adhesive products such as Velcro, glue and tape, Geckskin is composed of commercial materials such as nylon and polyurethane, among others. However, unlike those disposable products, the reusable Geckskin does not leave any sticky residue.

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Developed at the University of Massachusetts, Geckskin is based on a theory referred to as "draping adhesion," which replicates gecko-like properties on a large scale and gives the device an impressive load capacity. Dangling from a support frame, a four-by-four square inch piece of the material held 300 pounds suspended from a piece of glass that was adhered to the Geckskin. Stick that same swath on a wall and its surface area can support 700 pounds.

Geckskin has four components, all of which are tune-able to customer's needs: an elastic adhesive pad, a draping fabric-based skin, an integrated tendon and a distributed connection to a load-bearing skeleton.

"We have been able to create 100 percent renewable forms of Geckskin, and Geckskin is designed to be reused thousands of times," said Rana Gupta, CEO if Felsuma, the company that commercializes Geckskin. "For these reasons, our innovation is a step forward towards a more environmentally friendly approach."

BioCouture is a design consultancy striving to bring living and bio-based materials to fashion, sportswear and luxury brands. The London-based firm wants to use microorganisms like bacteria, fungi and algae to cellulose, the chitin found in a crab's exoskeleton and protein fibers such as silk to create a wide range of biodegradable housewares and fashion accessories. The company also wants to create open source recipes for their products to facilitate a global movement of material "hackers."

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Microbial cellulose is the company's flagship material. By introducing a mother culture of bacteria and yeast to a green tea solution, the ensuing fermentation causes the bacteria to produce a sheet of cellulose on the surface of the liquid. Sheets like this have been used to create shirts, jackets and kimonos. Unlike cotton garments, BioCouture's textiles can be grown in a bucket without pesticides. However, clothing is just a fraction of what the company envision.

"Microbial cellulose is a fascinating material. From one hugely efficient, single production method, at least three direct products can be obtained: a health drink, a foodstuff and potentially a 'vegetable' material," said BioCouture's founder, Suzanne Lee. "In a process that takes about ten days, the material can be harvested by simply lifting it off the liquid."

Ecovative seeks to replace the plastics, foams and other packaging material that are harmful to the environment with eco-friendly Mushroom Materials. The company combines agricultural byproducts with mycelium, the vegetative growth stage of fungi, to create customizable packing insulation that is sustainable, biodegradable and cost-competitive.

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Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre developed the material in 2007 while studying at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. What started out as a mechanical engineering project soon snowballed into an award-winning alternative to polystyrene and other plastic foam packaging. Today Ecovative continues to sell their Mushroom Materials to Fortune 500 companies such as Dell and Crate and Barrel.

"For Ecovative, the recycling and upcycling of nutrients is the gold standard for material systems," said company representative Sam Harrington. "Ecovative's long-term goal is to become the first bio-industrial-age company with a net positive impact on the planet's ecosystem."

Recycling is so drilled into the contemporary conscience that most people casually ignore the fact that recycling technologies epitomize inefficiency, especially when it comes to plastic, since not all forms can be recycled.

Ambercycle wants to make recycling profitable and sustainable by using synthetic biology to engineer custom-tailored microbes that can break down plastics into their chemical components. Grown in a bioreactor environment, the microbes degrade the polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic commonly used in soda bottles so that purified terephathalic acid (PTA) can be separated from other byproducts. As a high-value product, PTA can be resold to make polyester.

Ambercycle co-founder Akshay Sethi says his organic process lowers the cost of recycling PET plastics with no carbon footprint and can be retrofitted onto existing infrastructure. The process aims to redirect waste away from landfills and produce cost-effective, eco-friendly fibers for the rapidly growing polyester market.

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