Bioengineering Textiles Across Scales for a Sustainable, Circular Economy
Current textile production and processing practices provide materials with desirable performance properties, such as stretch and moisture management, but these processes are leading contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, microplastic pollution, and toxic wastewater. Fortunately, green alternatives to current textile fibers that support a transition to a sustainable, circular materials economy are within reach. Bioengineering of fibers at the nano-, micro-, and macroscale provides several avenues to improve both the environmental impacts and technical performance of textile materials. These include the genetic engineering of microorganisms for biofabrication, green processing of raw materials, and green manufacturing techniques. Following a bottom-up approach that utilizes microbial biosynthesis and enzyme-based chemistry, we create biodegradable fibers with DNA-programmed structural color. High performance, microbial bioleather products are also engineered with a factor of 103 reduction in carcinogens relative to leather and a ~97% lower carbon footprint than synthetic leather and cotton, for widespread application in fashion, interiors, construction and insulating materials. This talk informs a discussion of the future outlook of sustainable biotextile production, with a focus on the principles of biomimicry and utilization of waste streams to both improve the circularity and commercial viability of the processes.
Theanne Schiros, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she guides students to rethink materials in collaboration with nature, and a Research Scientist at Columbia University MRSEC. She earned a PhD in Chemical Physics from Stockholm University, followed by postdoctoral research at Stanford University and Columbia University, where she served as a United Nations ECOWAS Fellow for Sustainable Energy Engineering, a NYSERDA Fellow, and an Energy Frontier Research Center Fellow, developing advanced materials for nanoelectronics, photocatalysts, and next generation photovoltaics. Theanne is also a co-founder of Werewool, engineering biodegradable textile fibers with DNA-programmed color and performance, and a co-founder and the former Scientific Director of Algiknit, developing a kelp-based bioyarn. Her research in this area has received international recognition, including the 2020 H&M Foundation Global Change Award (Werewool), and the 2018 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge and 2017 National Geographic Chasing Genius Award (Algiknit). Theanne has been engaged in international sustainable development and education since 2005, including work with Engineers Without Borders (Haiti), Finca Morpho Permaculture (Costa Rica), and There Is No Limit Foundation (West Africa).