Bored of those pants or shirt? Then you can dissolve them in water in the future

Bored of those pants or shirt? Then you can dissolve them in water in the future

The research represents a promising step towards more sustainable fashion and textile production.

Meet the fashion of the future: a T-shirt that you can wear multiple times and, when you get tired of it, dissolves and recycles into a new shirt. Researchers have now taken an important step towards that goal. And according to the team, it is urgently needed. Because the way we currently deal with discarded clothing is really no longer acceptable.

Discarded clothing
The study addresses a growing and global problem. In 2019, 174 kilotons of textiles were thrown away in the residual waste in the Netherlands alone. Of the textiles that ended up in the residual waste, 58 percent were potentially rewearable or recyclable. A waste, according to researcher Lázaro Vásquez. “We think about the entire life cycle of textiles,” she says. “That starts with the origin of the material. Can we use materials that would otherwise be considered waste?”

In the new study Vásquez and her colleagues designed an innovative machine that makes textile fibers from gelatin and other sustainable materials. These fibers feel like flax and dissolve completely in hot water within minutes to an hour. “When you don’t want these clothes anymore, you can dissolve them and recycle the gelatin to make new fibers,” says researcher Michael Rivera. The machine is small enough to fit on a desk and can be built for just $560. Vásquez hopes that the device will help designers around the world experiment with making their own sustainable fashion and other textiles from biofibers of their choice. “With this machine, anyone can make fibers,” Vásquez notes. “You don’t need big machines that are only in university labs.”

This gelatin fiber spinning machine cost just $560 to build. Image: Utility Research Lab

There is a good reason why Vásquez wanted to make biofibres from gelatin. This strong protein is abundant in the bones and hooves of various animals, such as pigs and cows. Every year, a lot of gelatin is thrown away by meat producers, which does not meet the requirements for cosmetic or food products. This means that a lot of gelatin is actually wasted. “We chose gelatin because it is a by-product of the large meat industry,” Vásquez explains in conversation with out. “Our goal is to reuse existing waste materials as raw materials.”

That is how it works
The team’s machine uses a plastic syringe to heat a liquid gelatin mixture and squeeze out droplets of it. “The mixture contains three ingredients: gelatin as a biopolymer, isopropanol as a non-solvent, and water as a solvent,” Vásquez lists. “By combining these ingredients, we obtain a high polymer concentration of gelatin, which is used as a solution to make biofibers.” Two sets of rollers pull on the gelatin, stretching it into long, thin fibers, similar to how a spider spins silk. During this process, the fibers pass through liquid baths where researchers can add bio-based dyes or other additives to the material. For example, adding a bit of genipin, an extract from fruit, makes the fibers stronger. Vásquez notes that designers can create virtually anything they can imagine. “You can tailor the fibers to the strength, elasticity, and color you want,” she says.

The beauty of this is that, as mentioned, the clothing completely dissolves in water after use. This is because the gelatin dissolves, making the yarns easy to recycle and reuse. “After dissolving, you are left with a mixture of water and gelatin,” Vásquez explains. “This mixture must be heated so that most of the water evaporates and only a thick gelatin solution remains, which can be reused to spin new fibers. Our gelatin biofibers are specifically designed to dissolve in hot water, which makes recycling easier.”

Washing machine
But does this mean that the clothing cannot be machine-washed at all? We put it to Vásquez. “By changing the composition of the solution, we can make gelatin fibers that last longer,” she says when asked. “For example, we can add genipin, which increases the strength of the biofibers. This requires more heat and agitation to dissolve the biofibers. In addition, bio-based coatings can be added to the gelatin fibers to improve their durability and make them resistant to machine washing. However, more research is needed to determine the right formulations for these bio-based coatings and verify their durability, without compromising their biodegradability and compostability.” In short, there are certainly ways to modify the fibers to make them more resilient – ​​so you don’t have to worry about your jacket suddenly dissolving in the rain.

With the study, the researchers show that the fashion industry can also become more sustainable. In further research, Vásquez plans to expand the range of biomaterials that can be spun with their machine. “We are currently investigating and testing spinning solutions based on algae and chitin,” she says. “In addition, I am looking at applications of biofibers outside the textile sector.” What does Vásquez ultimately hope to achieve? “Our main goal is to spread our machine to research labs, design schools and startups,” she explains. “Our ultimate goal is to stimulate innovation in sustainable textiles.”