Biomaterials are an exciting area of biotech with impact on sustainability across multiple sectors. The convergence of accessible science tools and the climate crisis demands innovative solutions to both create garments using greener technologies, and to design an environmentally-friendly end to a garment’s life.
IndieBio gathered industry experts and company founders for a a conversation about the life cycle of biomaterials. Read our summary of the conversation below or rewatch the event.
The question of building a better biomaterial depends on its definition: better can be hard to define simply when discussing a complex issue like biomaterials. “Better isn’t just about pollution,” said Amy Congdon, Head of Design Intelligence at Biofabricate, a biomaterials-focused consultant group that recently co-released a report on biomaterials with the group Fashion For Good. “Better is about the energy that’s used, the lifespan of the material, whether you can recycle it to close the loop, whether it can biodegrade and if it can, in what conditions; it’s incredibly complex across all aspects of a material life span.”
Even natural materials can come at a great environmental cost. Materials like wool and silk may seem eco-friendly because of their natural production and biodegradative properties, but when scaled and produced industrially, these materials require a lot of resources and produce a lot of waste.
With silk production, the processing after harvesting from the worms is especially energy-intensive, as certain proteins must be removed from the silk to create the final, usable product. Alex Greenhalgh, CEO and cofounder of the biomaterial startup Spintex, harnessed both his biodesign and molecular biology experience to ask: What if we could remove the protein that has a high energy requirement during processing?
“We are using a nature-inspired way to produce our fibers,” Greenhalgh said. “We took inspiration from what is probably the most energy efficient way to make a textile that is protein-based, the spider.” Instead of spider silk protein, the bioengineered proteins from Spintex will form fibers that require less processing but maintain the characteristics of silk.
Algiknit is another biomaterial company taking inspiration from nature. The textile fiber it produces comes from kelp, one of the fastest growing organisms on earth. The co-founding team of designers and scientists wanted to make a material that “no matter where it ends up, it’s okay,” said CEO and co-founder Aaron Nesser. The Algiknit co-founders were motivated to create biodegradable fibers in part by the contribution of plastic fibers from clothing to microplastic pollution in the oceans.
Designing biomaterials with the end in sight
Though designers and scientists are creating new iterations, biomaterials—and their molecular building blocks—have lots of data to support their ability to biodegrade naturally. “We’re creating something new, but the material, the molecules, have been around for a long long time,” said Nesser. “We know that there are organisms in the ocean, in the soil, in the compost pile, an anaerobic microbe, that can break down the materials and even some of the chemical derivatives.” The existing body of scientific literature bears this out.
Those creating biomaterials using new building blocks, like the bioengineered proteins from Spintex, must also consider end-of-life properties of the garments they will be used to produce. Greenhalgh anticipates Spintex creating a material with a lifetime similar to silk, which can be broken down in the right environment. However, end-of-life for Spintex biomaterials may be as inspired by nature as the material’s inception.
“Spiders quite often will recycle their own webs,” said Greenhalgh. “They’ll consume it and metabolize those proteins to create new webs. We therefore know there is an enzymatic route to break a fiber into a soup.” Inspired by spiders, Spintex is exploring ways to convert the fibers they create into a liquid similar to their starting material, which can be transformed into new fibers. This would facilitate recycling of the materials they create, creating a closed loop in which material building blocks are reused, rather than discarded.
One garment, many materials
The importance of many designers, scientists, and entrepreneurs creating more sustainable materials is clear when looking at any piece of clothing in your closet: garments use multiple types of materials, each with a different purpose or function. “We’re going to need lots of different materials that together will start to solve sustainability issues,” said Greenhalgh.
“We are asking a whole lot of these new materials,” said Congdon. “We’re asking them to perform in the same way, to be more sustainable, to be the same price—or cheaper—and to ideally outperform what materials are already on the market. Where are the areas we might be able to compromise in the first generation of materials?”
Nesser believes this is why the fashion space is a great target for first-generation biomaterials. “When you think about some of the characteristics of materials we wear, such as the tensile strength of nylon or polyester, it’s way beyond what we need.” In other words, the performance needs to suit the material function, rather than compete with existing synthetic materials. Matching function and lifespan is the challenge for companies looking to revolutionize the future of biomaterials.
For more insights into designing the lifecycle of biomaterials, revisit our roundtable discussion.