Humans are continuously changing the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate with each step forward in human technological advancement. These changes are fueled by the use of petrochemicals and by the creation of greenhouse gases that yield disastrous consequences including ozone depletion, rapid biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, and nitrogen runoff. There currently exists an increasing demand for an ethical, socio-economic means to stop pushing our planet’s limitations in the form of renewable resources.
Although oil extraction is often scrutinized under environmentalists’ magnifying glasses as the world’s most polluting industry, the fashion industry comes in as a close, overlooked second. It is said that locals near textile factories in China can always tell the color of the new fashion season by looking at the color of the river water from the factory’s toxic run-off. Unfortunately, synthetic dyes, tanning agents, pesticides, and fertilizers are infused in every step of the clothing production process, which often employs and promotes fast, cheap child labor around the globe. This is an industry powered entirely by consumer culture as we blindly follow the routine of: Buy. Wear. Toss out. Repeat. Without considering the repercussions.
But what if you could grow your own clothes and shoes?
Algi Knit, a New York-based biomaterials research group at the Fashion Institute of Technology, led by Professors Theanne Schiros and Asta Skocir, has found the answer. The group originally stems from Bioesters, the winners of the 2016 International BioDesign Challenge, a competition that bridges the gap between the art/design and STEM fields. Algi Knit strives to close the fashion product life cycle from the current “Cradle to Grave” format to something as continuous and natural to our planet as the water cycle. Beginning in 2016, a team comprised of 3 Fashion Institute of Technology knitwear students, Tessa Callaghan, Aleksandra Gosiewski, and Gian Cui, and Pratt industrial design student Aaron Nesser came up with kelp as the basis of their research. Their idea, combined with Professors Schiros and Skocir’s extensive backgrounds in physics, chemistry, sustainability and fashion design, allowed the project to take off.
Of all the materials available on earth, why kelp? Kelp and algae are some of the most abundant and rapidly regenerating organisms in the world; they can not only pull carbon from the atmosphere but also simultaneously flourish in the presence of nitrogen from fertilizer runoff. The group found that alginate, a biopolymer derived from kelp algae, can be made and shaped into biodegradable filaments that are both petrol and synthetic chemical free. They can also be infused with other materials to enrich the soil as well as broken down into compost by fungi and other microorganisms that can be used for the “next generation of materials”.
The process begins by reaching out to the many kelp farms out on Eastern Long Island with the assistance of one of Algi Knit’s research partners, Brookhaven National Laboratories. Alginate is then extracted from the seaweed or kelp in the form of a powder, sodium alginate. A mixture of alginate and other biopolymers are then made into a paste that can be formed into biofilament threads and other biomaterials using various methods including knitting, 3-D gel printing, and curing with a calcium chloride bath. Knitting, in particular, enables the threads to be formed into various shapes and further strengthened from their original form. Calcium chloride curing yields table salt, a non-toxic substance, as its only chemical byproduct. Natural pigments in compost such as avocado seeds, onion skins, and marigolds can be used for coloration as opposed to current synthetic dyes and toxic agents. The biofilament threads underwent various material tests to adjust chemical properties of alginate to promote strength, breathability, flexibility, and flame retardancy for clothing. As of now, Algi Knit has created a biomaterial with a strength greater than that of cotton and reaching that of polyester, one of the many man-made products that can hopefully be replaced in the future.
Having just earned first place and a prize of $25,000 in the Sustainable Planet category of National Geographic’s 2017 Chasing Genius Challenge this past September, Algi Knit has definitely hit the ground running with their sustainability initiative. According to Professor Schiros, the team’s next steps lie in acquiring a patent for their biodegradable shoes “Algi Kicks”, marketing their products to different companies while promoting consumer accessibility, and simply improving upon their biofilament research and design. When listening to Professor Schiros’ presentation on her team’s work this summer, I was inspired by her outlook of our planet’s future:
“If we got ourselves into this [current state of our environment] in fifty years, with the knowledge we have to actually measure it and quantify it, we certainly, with the right frame of mind, can get ourselves out of it. So it’s actually a wildly exciting time for you guys to be alive because you guys are going to be the ones to create the future.”
– Professor Theanne Schiros, FIT
So what do you get when you combine 4 design students with no scientific background, a physics and sustainability professor, a fashion design professor, and a vast amount of kelp?
A chance to change the face of fashion and sustainability forever.