May 22, 2017

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Stockings Made from Sunlight: Redefining Fashion

Have you ever stopped to consider the environmental impact of your stockings, your pants, or the shirt on your back? From manufacturing and shipping to retail and garment disposal, the fashion industry is often said to be one of the most damaging to the planet.

But one professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering is looking to revolutionize the way certain fabrics are produced, employing new technologies to create a more sustainable fashion future and a fully-circular fashion industry.

Professor Miguel Modestino and his team of researchers recently won a €250,000 2017 Global Change Award from the H&M Foundation to develop a prototype for nylon production that uses solar energy instead of oil. Traditional nylon production—estimated to be more than six million tons per year—creates a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

Modestino’s method employs the same process traditionally used for nylon production and creates an identical nylon product at a comparable cost—albeit one that is now climate-positive and sustainable.

“There are four steps to producing nylon. The first step is a chemical process produced by electricity. Our process basically takes sunlight [instead of oil] and produces electricity to drive the first chemical reaction,” Modestino said.

“The other three steps are thermochemical steps that need heat. You get heat in a similar way to what you did as a child when you would focus sunlight through a lens onto a piece of paper and burn paper.”

“It’s the same thing, but with chemistry. You can concentrate sunlight into a chemical reactor and use the energy to drive the chemical transformation.”

This process was developed more than 40 years ago but has always required carbon-intensive sources, such as oil. Modestino and his team are now replicating this process in the lab using sunlight as the energy source. In order to scale-up the process, they plan to still utilize existing infrastructure, meaning the only change for manufacturers will be where they derive their energy from.

“You can drop the key technologies directly in with the infrastructure already in place. You can put solar cells near chemical plants cheaper than you can put them on the roof of your house.”
—Professor Miguel Modestino

“We would go to these existing factories that already have the know-how and engineering design, and tell them ‘hey we can just cut the cable to the grid and put in our solar cell rays’.”

Modestino’s ‘Solar Textiles’ was one of five innovations presented at last month’s H&M Foundation’s Global Change Awards in Stockholm, Sweden, and was selected from more than 2,885 entries. A company producing vegetal leather using leftovers from winemaking and a fabric made from cow manure were also among the winners.

The sustainable nylon has already garnered interest from H&M and other retail companies. H&M’s publicly-stated commitment to becoming a climate-positive company by 2040, and the H&M Foundation’s mission of promoting sustainable fashion across the industry, represent a huge opportunity for Modestino’s research.

“Fast fashion and the environment are completely incompatible unless your fashion contains CO2 captured from the environment. In that case, fashion helps the environment.”
—Professor Miguel Modestino

But partnering with the fashion industry was never Modestino’s goal. For him, sustainability is a logical application of chemistry, and his research in particular—fashion happens to be an industry that is asking for his technology.

“If we can leverage the knowledge we have to affect a much broader chemical industry, we can have much larger impact than just clothing.”