How are Researchers Using Silk to Create Large Scale Biotechnology Solutions?

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silk-minWhen we think about silk, we only really think of its use in the textile industry, but the natural protein fibre can also be a valuable contribution to science and engineering. The hairline threads are often overshadowed by synthetic man-made fibres despite the the outstanding properties silk has. Insect spun silk is stronger than steel, lightweight and flexible.

Researchers in Germany have taken inspiration from the lacewing – an insect which lays its eggs on stalks made of silk with a high tensile strength. Now the University of Bayreuth has constructed a special gene sequence which enables bacteria to produce the silk protein. They are working on ways to produce the protein in large quantities by using biotechnology. Their aim is to use the material in the future as a high-grade rigid fiber, for example, in lightweight plastics in transportation technology. It can also be used in medical technology as a biocompatible silk coating on implants.

Lacewings are insects which are already being used by farmers to combat aphids. To protect their offspring, lacewings lay their eggs on very fine but extremely resilient silk stalks. It then creates a thread which hardens in the air within a few seconds securing the egg under the leaf. In order to produce these impressive fibers, the green lacewing excretes a protein secretion onto the leaf. The threads are finer than human hair, but they are strong enough to support the weight of the egg even when the leaf is turned over.

The Fraunhofer IAP which is heading the project researches and develops polymer applications. It supports companies and partners in the customised development and optimisation of: innovative and sustainable materials, processing aids and processes. In addition to characterising polymers, the institute also produces and processes polymers in an environmental-friendly and cost-effective way on a laboratory and pilot plant scale.

A team led by Professor Thomas Scheibel from the Chair of Biomaterials at the University of Bayreuth conducted the preliminary molecular-biological work. They constructed a special gene sequence which enables bacteria to produce the silk protein. Martin Schmidt is now optimising the manufacturing process at the Fraunhofer IAP so that the silk protein can be produced inexpensively on an industrial scale. After this step it will be possible to develop the material.

“Unlike most other types of silk, the green lacewing’s egg stalk has a special structure with fascinating mechanical properties… We would like to transfer these special properties to fibres made from this silk. However, until now it has not been possible to produce this type of silk protein in sufficient quantities and purities,” explains Martin Schmidt, biotechnologist at the Fraunhofer IAP in Potsdam-Golm.

“This special property makes it interesting for medical technology and as a reinforcement fiber in lightweight engineering, for example in cars, airplanes or ships. We are pleased to be working in partnership with the Fraunhofer IAP, which is able to lend its expertise to this project in every area – from the development of the silk material to the finished fibre,“ explains Dr. Lin Römer, scientific director of AMSilk. The project is being funded by the Agency for Renewable Resources (FNR), a project management organisation of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

For 25 years the Fraunhofer IAP has specialised in the development and characterisation of fibers and fiber-reinforced composites for lightweight engineering and in the development of biobased polymers. At the institute’s own spinning plant, technical fibers can be manufactured on an industrial scale either from a solution or a melt. “Combining biotechnology and polymer research under one roof creates ideal conditions to produce fibers made from green lacewing silk. This is an enormous advantage for the development of innovative fields of application,“ says Schmidt.

*This story first appeared on Bio-Based World News

How could Skin Pigments be used to Strengthen Clothing and Fabrics in our Homes?

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An adult has 60,000 melanin pigmTests showed that melanin from a cuttlefish made polyurethane a lot stronger.ents living in each square inch of our skin. It is a natural substance found in an animals’ skin, hair and the iris of the eye. Melanin determines our hair and skin colour as well as protecting it from ultra violet damage. It does this by absorbing the light which then causes the skin to darken and tan. But it probably hasn’t occured to you that this very skin pigment could enhance the polyurethane manufacturing process to help strengthen many of the materials that are used in our households every day. Scientists from China’s Jiangnan University have made the recent discovery that adding melanin to polyurethane plastic will make fabrics and foams in substances like cushions and clothing more durable. This breakthrough could start to feature around our homes very soon.

Polyurethane is a synthetic material. Since its invention in the 1940s it can be used for a broad range of items from children’s toys to aeroplane wings. Broadly speaking, in manufacturing industries it can be used to make products such as foam seating, wheels, tires and synthetic fibres like Spandex and carpet underlay. Over three quarters of the global consumption of polyurethane products are foam based and the furniture industry is the third biggest user of the material following the building and transport industries. It is a polymer which is both flexible and durable commonly found in the home. Its flexible properties also extend to mouldings like door frames.

memory-foamHowever, its biggest drawback is the fact that it is prone to damage and breakage, so research has been conducted by the Chinese university to improve the longevity of the widely used material. In the past, scientists have tried to improve its qualities by adding fillers, including silica, carbon nanotubes and graphene oxide. While these enhance tensile strength they do not address the issue of toughness. The testings found that some of the substances created improvements but this counteracted the important properties of the material. However, melanin has successfully been able to deliver the enhancements to strengthen this widely used polymer.

In laboratory tests led by Mingqing Chen and Weifu Dong, new findings have unveiled that even polyurethane that contains only 2% of melanin will still improve the strength and toughness of a material. The experiment was carried out using melanin from the ink sacs of cuttlefish. Results reveal that the polymer’s properties were enhanced by 27.4 megajoules per cubic metre which allow the polyurethane to stretch itself up to 1,880% before breaking unlike previous figures which were 770%. According to the Chinese scientists, this increase was due to the melanin nanoparticle’s tendency to link with the polymer chain that make up the polyurethane.

For further information the full research has now been published in the journal Biomacromolecules titled “Superior Performance of Polyurethane Based on Natural Melanin Nanoparticles.”

*This story first appeared on Bio-Based World News


5 minutes… Fanny Liao, Senior Vice President of Far Eastern New Century.

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fanny-liao“Many potential customers find the industry confusing because they have doubts about the bio-polyester manufacturing process.” 

Polyester is the main polymer used in the textile industry but it is highly unsustainable. 40 million tons of the material are produced worldwide every year which makes it one of the largest and fastest growing synthetic fibres in the world. A crucial raw material in its production is paraxlene which is made from crude oil. Taiwanese Far Eastern New Century is a leading textile company which produces synthetic fibres and other materials. They recently collaborated with Virent, a bio-based company converting plant sugars to replace chemicals and fuels. This partnership has seen the production of the first 100% plant based polyester fabric. But this is not all the Taiwanese firm have been working on. In 2014-15 they were behind the demonstrations for Coca Cola’s 100% plant based plastic bottles which could be commercially available by 2020. Far Eastern New Century (FENC) is the parent company of Far Eastern Group, one of the largest conglomerates in Taiwan which specialises in ten industries including petrochemical, retail and transportation but its main activity is the production of textiles. The company was first established in 1949 and after 66 years it has become the most integrated polyester textile company in the world. This week Emily O’Dowd shared five minutes with Fanny Liao, Senior Vice President of Far Eastern New Century, Research and Development Centre.

Emily O’Dowd (EOD): What has led you to this role?

Fanny Liao (FL): I have always had an interest in the bio-based industry. I completed a PhD at the State University of New York – Stony Brook University in Bioorganic Chemistry. Since then I have been worked at Far Eastern New Century (FENC) for 18 years  To begin with I was employed by the sister company Oriental Union Chemical Corporation (OUCC) which produces one of key raw materials of polyester. I am the president of Oriental Resources Development Ltd, the joint venture of FENC and OUCC to produce recycled polyester flakes from post-consumer bottles. Now at FNEC my current role is Senior Vice President for the research and development centre for renewable chemicals and plastics such as cellulosic ethanol and bioplastics including PLA, bio-PET and other bio-polyesters. I still enjoy my job as much as I did 18 years ago! We are committed to commercialising the first 100% bio-polyester shirt.

EOD: What do you enjoy most about your role?

FL: An important part of the role I love is working behind the scenes with the innovative technology. I work with top collaborators around the world to promote new technology and bio-based fibres which are available in the industry. Another aspect that I enjoy is being able to educate people about the importance of bio-based polyesters and helping to make that small difference in a world that has to look towards change.

EOD: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in the industry?

FL: One of the biggest issues that we are facing is the price of oil at the moment. The costs are too low, so this means that the recycled polyester materials are more expensive than the original petrol based polyesters that are marketed on a mass scale.There is still a lot of competition for our business. As a result, we are finding it difficult to encourage our consumers to make sustainable choices especially when incurring these higher costs. Additionally, many potential customers find the industry confusing because they have doubts about the bio-polyester manufacturing process. This has meant that I now work on a lot of conferences with Textile Exchange organisations that try to educate consumers about bio-based and recycled materials which are crucial for sustainability.

EOD: What advice would you give for someone starting work in the sustainable industry?

FL: I think people need to start having a greater awareness about recycled polyester and see it as a buying option. It’s all about how the consumer can see the potential in bio-polyester. It can also be recycled so you can use it again to reduce your carbon footprint.

EOD: What single change would help develop the sustainable industry further?

FL: It would be very beneficial if the government were able to launch a campaign about the innovative bio-based products and services which have made their way into global markets. Additionally, there needs to be more funding for companies and non-profit organisations especially at a time when oil prices are so low. We need to encourage more people to enter this industry as well as encouraging responsible buying habits. For example, some people in the textile industry refuse to put ‘recycled’ on their labels because consumers might get confused and believe that it is second-hand or that it might be bio-degradable! The government needs to help change these perceptions.

EOD: Where would you like to see your company in 5 years’ time?

FL: We hope we can bring more recycled and bio-based alternatives to a wider range of customers and then in turn more consumers can accept these kind of products. My research and development team have been working on the production of bio-based chemicals as well as cellulosic ethanol production. So far we have looked to reduce our dependence on crude oil and produce environmental friendly polyester products. We are focusing on synthesising bio-based monomers which will be able to partly or wholly replace the petrol-based ones. Our next 5-year goal is to commercialise these two developing products from current 30% bio-based commercialisation to a 100% bio-based one.

EOD: Thank you for sharing your experiences with us today, we wish you every success in the commercialisation of your bio-based polyester fabrics.

*This story first appeared on Bio-Based World News

5 Minutes with… Sophie Mather, Material Futurist at Biov8tion

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sophie-mather“Some people say that some challenges are too hard, especially a lot of the emerging sustainability based issues, but for me, I see these challenges as innovation opportunities.  It may be that I need to look outside of the traditional textile industry to find the answers that we need.”

When it comes to the textiles industry, the manufacturing aspect is usually kept hidden from consumers. Many of its processes and practices have changed little, particularly when it comes to sustainability. A quick look into the footprint of the fashion industry and some startling facts begin to appear.

Did you know it can take 2,700 liters of water to make just one shirt and three quarters of all garments will end up either sent to landfill sites or being incinerated?

In response to some of these challenges, Sophie Mather, Material Futurist at Biov8tion set up her company in 2010 and has since worked independently on finding sustainable solutions, many of which have been focused on synthetics like polyester and nylon. Her career has expanded to Hong Kong where sustainable manufacturing and disposal is still a huge problem with a staggering 1,400 t-shirts being disposed of every minute.

Sophie’s role allows her to work collaboratively with key industry sectors and figureheads to connect the people essential to drive projects forward. Biov8tion mediates with many areas of the industry from suppliers to non-governmental organisations, brands and academia. Sophie explains to Bio-Based World News’ Emily O’Dowd why sustainability is so important in the textile industry and what can be done to improve consumer awareness. This interview provides a real insight into the ways the industry currently operates and advice to overcome the barriers to entry for sustainable businesses.

Emily O’Dowd (EOD): Thanks for the time today, so what has led you to this role?

Sophie Mather (SM): No problem Emily. I’ve been in the industry for over 20 years with a background in both design and the technical side of textiles. Early on in my career I moved to Hong Kong where I started to realise that there was a huge issue around textile manufacturing and sustainability. I became acutely aware of this as a runner, when I got to a stage where I had to stop running outside because the industry pollution was getting worse and worse. I’ve seen the first-hand the effects of our industry and it’s this which makes me really fired up and continue what I’m doing.

At the time I was working for Nike so it made me think if I couldn’t make a change there then there was no hope. This led me to start my sustainable journey at Nike when at the time I was leading the Innovation for Nike Asia. It was in this role that I started to understand the importance of bio-based resources because the industry is still heavily petroleum based. It has made me look at bio-based polymers not just from a renewable perspective but also at their performance, because I want to make sustainability at the heart of what I am doing. And this is why I started Biov8tion (@Biov8tion). The company allows me to work alongside the supply chain so I can find the right partners to work with. For example, I might need a machine supplier, a designer, or someone in the academic field and now I have a lot of strong relationships with these groups. Now my work at Biov8tion means that I am the concrete between them.

EOD: What do you enjoy most about your role?

SM: This one is really easy for me to answer because I really love the challenges especially in innovation. It is important to identify the main issues and then change your perspective to look at the opportunities that come out of the challenges. If you limit yourself by working in only one area of the sustainable industry then you might miss other opportunities that come up. This is the way that my life and work tend to go. I really enjoy it when I have solved a problem and then another challenge crops up. For me, it means that I can look at the industry in a different way and start to get results.

EOD: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in the industry?

SM: When we talk about innovation today it has become a buzz word to replace what it really means. Starting out on my sustainable journey there was a huge amount of resistance to sustainable practices from a range of supply chain and industry partners. This is because either things might be too expensive and difficult or because there was no guaranteed result. People prefer to avoid risk. However, I quickly managed to change these opinions by making people see the opportunities in the sustainable industry. I was always being told – “it’s easier for us to remain as we are today” or “we don’t quite know what it is going to mean for us.” It was important for me to try and change that mind-set and get people excited about this new innovation journey.

EOD: What advice would you give for someone starting work in the sustainable/bio-based industry?

SM: I would say don’t give up. I know it’s a difficult industry to enter so businesses should follow their ideas through without worrying that they might be wrong. I’ve been in sustainability and innovation for a long time and if I had not gone down a lot of the routes that I took because they were too risky, then I wouldn’t be where I am today. Throughout my career wrong courses have sometimes been taken but each time the industry has learnt from these and moved on. So yes, my message is – don’t give up!

EOD: What single change would help develop the bio-based/sustainable industry further?

SM: At the moment, I think that as an industry we are burying our heads in the ground by not engaging enough with the consumer. We are not giving them all the information that they need to be able to make informed decisions. I think the textile industry should take a multi-faceted approach and the food industry as a good example of this. Whilst there is still more to be done, we are so much further behind in clothing.

Maybe one part of the solution could be to work with younger consumers? I set up a competition with school-aged children to make them think about clothing. It was really interesting to get their ideas about it. Or there could be more consumer transparency about where the products come from with marketing campaigns. There are all sorts of different ways that this can be achieved and it has to be done.

EOD: Where would you like to see your company in 5 years’ time?

SM: My aim for Biov8tion is to work on the intersection between the academic sector and global mega trends in the industry. These partnership can achieve collaborative results in bringing bio-based textiles and other sustainable innovation to the industry. As it stands, the textile industry operates an archaic process which has been used for over a century now. I want Biov8tion to be at the centre of making this change.

EOD: What is your favourite bio-based/sustainable product aside from your own product range?

SM: Although not in the fibres I work with normally, I recently bought an organic mattress called Snowdonia which is handmade and sourced in the UK. It is made from natural and organic bio-based fibres. I think it is important to bring sustainability as close to you as possible.

EOD: Thank you for your time today Sophie and sharing your experiences about the textile industry with. Sophie also co-wrote an article for Bio-Based World News which can be read here.

*This story first appeared on Bio-Based World News

5 minutes with… Bert van Son, CEO, Mud Jeans

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“I felt like I had to do something… I used the network and experience I had to make a sustainable way for doing things.”

103bcf7You may be shocked to hear that the fashion industry is the second most polluting industry. In order to produce one pair of jeans it uses around 7000 litres of water. Now, entrepreneurs, businesses and fashion designers are looking to alternate ways to produce the latest fashion without harming the environment.

Producing one pair of jeans takes 7,000 litres of water and what is worst it that it takes even more energy to transport these items in landfill sites. However, over 90% of textile waste in landfills are recyclable. Alongside his own personal business ventures, this is what has driven Bert van Son, ( @BertvanSon ) CEO of Mud Jeans ( @mudjeansNL ) to pursue a vision which will take jeans into the sustainable market. With over 30 years in the industry, Bert alongside his team of five has learnt a lot along the way and he has ambitious plans for the next few years. In his very busy schedule, Bert finds the time to speak to Bio-Based World News’ reporter Emily O’Dowd to discuss his role and the challenges that he has faced along the way.

Emily O’Dowd (EOD): What has led you to this role?

Bert van Son (BvS): I have been in the textile industry for 30 years. When I was 23 I moved to China where I was able to see everything that was going wrong in the textile industry. From this experience I then started up my own company and formed a licencing textile company in France ten years ago when I saw a gap in the market. There was a lot of pressure in the business but I learnt a lot about brand image and how customers will be willing to pay more for things. I then sold my shares in the company in 2008. Later on in 2008 I decided to take a few years off to travel the world and think. By 2012 I felt like I had to do something to do. I brought my own experiences and networking together to create a fashion brand that could be produced in a sustainable way. I wanted to use the right raw materials and be different. Mud Jeans is registered under the ‘B Corporation’ alongside the likes of Ben & Jerry’s which will help me use business as a force for good getting the right balance between making profit and being sustainable.

EOD: What do you enjoy most about your role?

BvS: A combination of things. Because the textile industry is the second most polluted industry in the world I wanted to make a difference. I like the principles of the circular economy and wanted to contribute towards a sustainable society by using original bio-based materials.

EOD: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in the industry?

BvS: Finance. I’ve found that financing a sustainable business is nearly impossible, with other competitors like Primark being able to produce the jeans so cheaply. Also it is difficult to make people choose the sustainable option. It’s a difficult story. We didn’t make any profit in the first two years and so far I have had to finance the business independently but I’m now looking for partners to help support me. This year we have managed to double our turnover even though I’ve had to manage the business myself but I’m looking to double it again next year.

Women's Mud Jeans

EOD: What advice would you give for someone starting work in the sustainable/bio-based industry?

BvS: Don’t do it… Ha ha. I would suggest that it would be best to make a very solid business plan, talk to financial people and make sure you choose your budgets. By doing this you can decide your turnover, divide this by two, increase costs by two and then see if this is viable.

EOD: What single change would help develop bio-based/sustainable industry further?

BvS: Well from my own experience it would have to be financial support. It is important to have investors and money to get the turnover going, as well as generating a good volume of products. So far we have had a lot of help and interest from universities in particular so the demand is there we just need that financial push.

EOD: Where would you like to see your company in 5 years’ time?

BvS: I would like to be able to sell one million jeans as well as recycling them to be able to really make an impact.

EOD: What is your favourite bio-based/sustainable product aside from your own product range?

BvS: There are some great examples from Holland of course! I think Waka Waka ( @WakaWakeLight ) is great. I also like Dopper a lot too which is a sustainably produced plastic bottle. Tony’s Chocalonely (@TonyChocalonely) is another because the company produces slave-free chocolate.

EOD: Thank you for your time today Bert and good luck with the success for Mud Jeans.

*This story first appeared on Bio Based World News