Fashion Forward Science

Fast fashion is all the rage but there are environmental consequences to making clothes quickly and inexpensively. In this next segment a team of scientists looked to plants and solar energy for a new way to create nylon.

TRANSCRIPT

Fast fashion is all the rage, but there are environmental consequences to making clothes quickly and inexpensively.

In this next segment, a team of scientists look to plants and solar energy for a new way to create nylon.

Here's the story.

In the fast-fashion industry, it's all about quick turnaround from trendy design to take-home garment.

That's why nylon is a preferred fabric in this arena.

It's strong, shrink-resistant, wrinkle-resistant, and cheap to produce, but it's not environmentally friendly.

Nylon is a kind of plastic created from chemicals found in petroleum, a natural but nonrenewable resource, and the energy that fuels the chemical process to create nylon is also mostly generated from coal and natural gas.

It's actually the same...

Now scientists are changing the fabric of fast fashion.

Researchers at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering are developing a more sustainable nylon.

They start by using chemicals from plants to create the nylon.

The team would also use solar energy to power the production process, making this material even more environmentally friendly.

They call it the Solar Textiles Project, and it's already generating buzz.

The team received a 2016 Global Change Award research grant for environmental sustainability in fashion from the H&M Foundation, the nonprofit arm of global fast-fashion retailer H&M.

Assistant Professor Miguel Modestino heads up the project.

The concept behind Solar Textiles is trying to go from CO2, sunlight, and water, and then create a textile.

Instead of starting with petroleum, Modestino's process would start with plants.

So, you have a plant of corn.

Then you take the corn out, and then you use that corn for food, but then you have the plant left behind.

So people, what they usually do is they cut them and then they throw it away, or they use it for, like, you know, not-high-value products.

So, we can take that and chemically transform it into diesel that you can use to run your car, and then the waste that is produced in the diesel-production process, we can take and then transform that into nylon.

Just starting the process with plant waste would prevent carbon emissions from hitting the air, simply by not working with petroleum by-product.

To put this in perspective, Modestino says if all the nylon in the world was produced from plants, approximately 4.7 million tons of carbon dioxide would be captured by textiles each year.

Then there are the carbon emissions typically generated from transforming petrochemical by-product to the nylon fabric.

These chemical processes require electricity and heat that would usually pull energy from a grid, energy often created by coal and natural gas.

In Modestino's process, these steps would utilize energy from the sun.

As you can imagine, having now a solar farm that is capturing your energy from the sun, that is attached directly to a chemical plant on the side, that is producing the chemicals that you want.

Modestino also envisions using the sun to generate heat for two thermochemical reactions that turn chemical compounds into nylon.

He proposes using a solar concentrator, a mechanism that focuses the sun's heat in the way a magnifying glass would be used to start a fire.

You use a solar concentrator to provide the heat necessary for those two steps to produce an acid and a base that will react and produce a salt, and that salt you can polymerize into nylon also through a thermochemical step.

The result is a sticky substance that will be rinsed, melted down, and spun into thread.

So, this is nylon that polymerized in the interface.

You grab it, and you pull it out, and then you can, like, roll it like this.

On a molecular level, this eco-friendly nylon is exactly the same as the nylon in these jackets.

For the H&M Foundation, it could be an important step toward their goal -- a more environmentally-sustainable fashion industry.

If we can make nylon, which is an oil-based product -- if we can make that not from oil but from something else, and it's the same product, so it does not mean a compromise for you as a customer, then that's a whole-new avenue in how to produce things.

Bang says this would be a tremendous innovation for the fashion industry.

Not only that, but the plant-based method would be of particular interest to the retail arm of H&M.

They plan to become climate-positive by the year 2040, meaning the company will reduce more greenhouse-gas emissions than it emits.

I think it's -- We're at this very exciting moment where fashion and glossy fashion and design meets science, and it's where these super unexpected and interesting junctions and where new solutions come alive and where people start to think outside of the box.

The Solar Textiles team is still in the research phase, but they plan to start approaching companies that produce nylon through the connections the team has made via the H&M Foundation.

And for them, it's magical, right, because they believe in a fast-fashion production process -- the H&M company.

So, of course, they're highly unsustainable, but if you manage to create your clothes from CO2 that you capture from air, then by producing clothes faster, then you're contributing to alleviate the environmental issues faster.