Using Biodesign, Students Invent Sustainable Textiles

What if our world’s most pressing environmental crises could be solved by looking to nature? The Biodesign Challenge, now in its fourth year, was founded to encourage undergraduate research into biologically inspired fibers and other materials. A team from FIT won the first Biodesign Challenge, in 2016; that team, now a company called AlgiKnit, recently finalized a round of venture capital funding totaling $2.2 million.

On June 20 and 21 in New York, student teams from 34 colleges and universities around the world, including Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, presented concepts and research that could pave the way to a more sustainable future.

Two teams from FIT presented their work. Team EcoLastane, which is developing a biodegradable alternative to spandex, was a finalist for the top prize and a competitor for the ORTA Prize for Bioinspired Textile Processes. Team Flora Fur, which is designing a petroleum-free vegan fur from milkweed fluff and other natural materials, won the Stella McCartney Prize for Sustainable Fashion.

Team EcoLastane—Fashion Design students Mitchell Henderson, Daniella Koller, and Monica Palucci—came up with the idea for a spandex alternative in an interdisciplinary course called Designing with Emerging Materials. The course, team-taught by Susanne Goetz, associate professor of Textile/Surface Design, and Theanne Schiros, assistant professor of Science and Math, teaches students materials science and encourages them to undertake original research to develop new materials. When Palucci learned that spandex woven into fabric makes it impossible to recycle and that it’s present in 80 percent of clothing, she and her team members looked to nature for an alternative.

“I’m doing a minor in Ethics and Sustainability, and some of the classes are really depressing,” Palucci said. The Designing with Emerging Materials class “is really hopeful—there are so many possibilities.”

Elastin is a protein that allows for stretch and recovery in skin, connective tissue, and blood vessels. It’s also present in high concentration in the adductor muscles of oysters—an inedible component of the oyster. Restaurants throughout New York were already collecting oyster shells for the Billion Oyster Project, which uses them to create oyster reefs in New York Harbor: Each shell becomes a home for 10 to 20 oyster larvae. Team EcoLastane borrowed shells to harvest the adductor muscles, then ground up those muscles to isolate the elastin. Using a common enzyme, they created strands of elastin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very strong. Next, they purified the elastin using sodium hydroxide and were able to isolate a small amount, which they will use to create a durable spandex-like fiber.

Team Flora Fur—Isabella Bruski, Advertising and Marketing Communications, and Noah Silva, Fashion Business Management—was troubled by the environmental costs of faux fur, which is generally made from petroleum products and is therefore not biodegradable. They experimented with using the fluff from milkweed seeds, combined with flax fibers, to create a sustainable fur-like textile. As an added benefit, planting milkweed to produce this fiber would provide food for monarch butterflies, which feed on it as caterpillars.

“FIT sits at the center of fashion innovation in New York City,” said Daniel Grushkin, founder and executive director of the Biodesign Challenge. “I would expect nothing less than major innovations in biomaterials coming from the school.”

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