A/D/O by MINI | Wonder Materials

Journal

Product Design

Wonder Materials

Shape-shifting biopolymers, genetically engineered spider silk and single-atom-thick conductors are all making their way into manufacturing.

As the world continues to undergo radical transformation, from shifting politics to climate change, pillar industries that traditionally supported our global economy have needed to adapt. In fashion, this has led to the utilization of unconventional and renewable textiles, from Phillip Lim, Dior and Nike’s use of leather made from fish to Ying Gao’s touch-responsive clothes. In urban design, Doris Sung’s “living architecture” flexes to fit environmental stressors, while NYC’s recently opened cultural space, The Shed, provides a fully morphing exoskeleton.

Yet many of the most revolutionary “wonder materials”, capable of altering our commercial and creative landscape, are born in labs rather than on the runways, and are still far from appearing at your nearest Target. From an organic fiber stronger than steel to a durable plastic made from typical kitchen waste, these products offer a glimpse into the future of design, as well as a visionary path forward in this new, environmentally unstable millennium. But where do these materials come from, and who is actually using them?

Chitosan bioplastic can be molded into 3D forms and produced in a variety of colors

Sustainability is often at the core of the wonder materials movement, with scientists, designers, and companies searching for a means to create fabrics that are both biodegradable and relatively waste-effective to replicate. At Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, researchers have isolated chitin – the major component of crustacean shells, insect skeletons, and the cell walls of many fungi – to make chitosan, a durable bio-polymer composed of sugar molecules that can easily shapeshift into 3D forms using injection molding or casting techniques. “Chitin is the second most abundant bio-material on earth, followed only by cellulose, the major building block of all plants and trees,” said Robert Cunningham, platform development director of the Wyss Institute. He explained that chitin repurposed from the many tons of shells we discard each year can be purified through a simple chemical process to produce chitosan for use in antibacterial coatings, green food containers, and plant fertilizer. In addition, when combined with the silk protein fibroin, it can generate a multilayer material called Shrilk – a tough and transparent entity able to break down after two weeks, compared to the decades or even centuries it can take plastic and styrofoam.

Unfortunately, getting the world to swap plastic goods for shrilk spoons and bottles may take time: chitosan-based materials don’t have melting properties compatible with existing thermo-injection or molding equipment so, while raw materials are readily available and fairly inexpensive, new equipment and processes must be developed to produce consumer products in industrial quantities. “Someday, it may be possible to replace petroleum-based plastics with bio-plastics like Shrilk for use in simple products like drinking cups, trash bags, or food packaging materials, but it will require a large cooperative effort between scientists, consumers, industry, and governments to make these materials economical and widely available,” according to Cunningham.

AMSilk's Biosteel is one of several new synthetic spider silks

But some wonder materials are already market-ready. “Spider silk combines both strength and stretch to create one of the toughest materials on earth,” said Jon Rice, chief operations officer at Kraig Biocraft Laboratories Inc. He explained that while previously scientists had been able to replicate the proteins that produce spider silk – a resilient fabric able to withstand enormous environmental pressures – they have been hampered by the inability to form these proteins into a fiber for use at a reasonable cost. As a solution, Kraig has acquired exclusive rights to patent genetic sequences for many fundamental spider silk proteins, working collaboratively with The University of Notre Dame to develop genetic engineering technologies for industrial applications utilizing the domesticated silkworm. “We’ve essentially taken a page from the spider’s cook book on how to make its silk and inserted that receipt into the silkworm,” he said. “The result is an eco-friendly and sustainable system to produce large amounts of this amazing material.”

Spun by lines of transgenic silkworms, and composed of a unique combination of spider and silkworm protein, these genetically engineered silks are significantly stronger and more flexible than commercial grade silk, and can be used as antibacterial agents for medical use as well as industrial processes. Kraig Labs recently announced a partnership with Polartec to develop applications for use in military textiles, and is in talks with several brands for additional uses. The materials, once readily available, will soon become a veritable cash cow for its creators; in 2012, the annual global market for technical fibers had already reached approximately $133 billion, and it is only projected to grow.

But what if researchers could go further, creating a spider-less spider silk? This was the mission of designer and lifelong vegan Stella McCartney who, since 2017, has experimented with the use of synthetic spider silk. This is made from a protein brewed with genetically engineered yeast transformed into a fiber-like material in a process similar to brewing beer, in partnership with California-based startup Bolt Threads, which produces synthetic spider silk called Microsilk.

AMSilk partnered with Adidas on a sneaker with an upper woven from Biosteel fibers

The insect-friendly material is part of a new wave of synthetic spider silks, along with AMSilk and Spiber, which have already enjoyed mainstream success – Bolt Threads has collaborated with Patagonia, AMSilk with Adidas, and Spiber with North Face. “We’ve received an incredible response from consumers,” said Anastasia Kuznetsova of Bolt Threads, who explains that the project began with a market need for innovation. “The textile industry hasn’t achieved a major breakthrough in decades, and as the second largest industrial polluter in the world it's directly affecting our planet.” Kuznetsova sees the popularity of these new materials continuing to grow as consumers become more aware of the environmental impacts of the fashion industry and seek change. Ultimately, Bolt Threads envisions these materials as enabling the fashion industry to move away from petroleum-based polymers and toxic processes to embrace a more sustainable and biodegradable solution.

But not all wonder materials need to be worn to have an impact. Graphene, a one-atom-thick carbon layer a million times slimmer than a sheet of paper, has the “outstanding electronic, optical, thermal and mechanical properties” to revolutionize our existing technologies. Discovered in 2004 by University of Manchester scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won a Nobel Prize for this innovation in 2010, Graphene applications are the end product of advanced composites, biosensors and photonics. “The most amazing aspect of graphene is that it opens new applications that cannot be done with other existing materials,” said Jesus de la Fuente, CEO of Graphenea, which sells a range of Graphene-based lab materials.

Graphene is formed from single-atom-thick layers of carbon, and is the world’s best heat conductor

Graphene can also be found in consumer goods, including a range of hair tools for Bio Ionic that boast a proprietary natural mineral complex said to penetrate hair with amazing “moisturizing heat conditioning as you dry” – not unexpected given Graphene’s reputation as the world’s best heat conductor. Where Graphene is a single-atom-thick layer of carbon, its cousin Stanene is a single-atom-thick layer of tin that can transform into a piece of silicon around the size of a thumbnail. Unlike Graphene, researchers at Stanford and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory say that Stanene can also be used as a topological insulator, providing a more efficient, greener form of energy at all temperatures.

Despite the tech sector’s reputation as the ultimate disrupter, the fashion world has traditionally led the charge for wonder materials. “On the whole, fashion is an industry first, and therefore very open to innovation,” said Jessica Glasscock, a professor and fashion historian at Parsons, who refers to the early acceptance and widespread success of former “wonder materials” like rayon and nylon. “The typical history of fashion emphasizes the designer's creative genius, but a deep dive into the history reveals the crucial importance of manufacturing and its demands on what makes it onto a retail hanger.”

Graphene products by Graphenea can be used to create advanced composites, biosensors and photonics

She points to the use of wonder materials in fashion history, from Jean Patou’s embrace of “machine-washability” to Schiaparelli’s utilization of synthetic fabrics like Rhodophane, presented as a "glass" cape. “In the 1960s, the Parisian Space Age designers – Courreges, Cardin, Rabanne – made high-tech fabrics and their commitment to experimentation a primary marketing pitch. Halston hyped his 1970s house with Ultrasuede. There has always been a new miracle on the horizon, and there always will be,” she said, explaining that “the new” is a primary impetus for fashion. “Its speed of adoption and then disposal is a feature, not a bug.”

Text by Laura Feinstein.