The promise of Bioyarn from AlgiKnit
by Purva Chawla
What really draws us to design products, processes, and their makers? For me, it is not so much the allure of finessed, matured end results, but the attraction to that which holds promise, and possesses seemingly limitless potential.
It is this latter quality I sensed when I began following the formal and material explorations of biomaterials research group AlgiKnit.
At the heart of AlgiKnit's work, is the innovation and evolution of Bioyarn–a substance molded from readily abundant biopolymer ‘Alginate’ (extracted from Kelp, Seaweed or Algae). This Bioyarn, then naturally dyed and knit into a bio-based textile holds the promise of a sustainable material alternative for the footwear and apparel industries. In fact, functional textiles or wearable products created from Algiknit’s material are geared towards a dramatically reduced environmental footprint, relative to conventional agricultural and petroleum-based textiles and materials.
The New York-based interdisciplinary research group owes its visionary presence to last year's prestigious Biodesign Challenge*, where they came together as 'BioEsters,' the winning team of the National Biodesign Challenge Summit, held in June 2016. The result of a collaboration between students from FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) and Pratt Institute, the team, represented FIT in the international challenge. BioEsters and FIT as a school were assigned the theme 'materials' for this challenge, spurring their early investigation of microbial cellulose, and then their successful production of Bioyarn from Alginate.
*The Biodesign Challenge gives art and design students the world over the opportunity to envision future applications of biotechnology, and culminates each year in the Biodesign Challenge Summit, at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City.
Since their success at the Biodesign Challenge last year, this crew of design professionals, students, and their advisors have dived deep into testing, and further developing their material medium. Such issues as tensile strength, dissolution in water, temperature tolerance and embedding natural dyes into the original kelp-based paste have been at the forefront of AlgiKnit's investigations. Equally in mind for them, have been the applications of this newly minted material, and the industry collaborations that can widen the reach of their bio-based sustainable textile.
In conversation with Tessa Callaghan, Aaron Nesser and Aleksandra Gosiewski–AlgiKnit's co-founders, I learned of the immense potential they see in their biopolymer-based material today, and equally, of the challenges associated with working with and scaling the production of their biomaterial.
The fact that the key ingredient of the Bioyarn–Alginate–can be sourced by simply feeding off of our waste streams makes it incomparably valuable in today's context. "We could be sourcing raw material from our Agricultural runoff," Aaron says.
Aaron's words align with a growing school of thought in our innovation-oriented industry today–the desire to look at our waste streams, and their treatment as 'Biorefineries,' and value-generating assets, rather than liabilities. AlgiKnit's idea of a closed-loop product lifecycle and nature-inspired recycling of biomass is also completely in line with the ethos of the Circular Economy.
Another insight into the sheer value of bioyarn came from the results of their testing, shared by AlgiKnit. "In the last few months, we have made tremendous strides in material stability, and have arrived at a point where the biomaterial does not shrink, even when left exposed for long periods of time," says Tessa. These are feats for the development of a new biomaterial, especially one whose composition and even methods of manipulation are still being unearthed by the broader industry.
What are the steps involved in this development then–in the capture of biopolymers from Kelp and their translation into a viable bio-based textile?
AlgiKnit’s trio shared insights into their process with us– “As you know, the main component of the material we’ve designed is alginate, a biopolymer derived from Kelp, one of the fastest growing organisms on earth. Our process begins by adding water and complementary biopolymers that enhance strength, to form a paste" they said.
"The paste then undergoes a physical and chemical transformation. After the alginate-based paste is made, we extrude it into filaments. The resulting monofilaments have sufficient stretch and strength to be hand or machine knit, assembled into fabrics with flexible form factors and used in existing textile manufacturing infrastructures. The filaments readily absorb pigment from a variety of plants, so that the large water demands and toxicity of conventional dye processes may also be avoided.”
Keeping in mind this process, what are the challenges, that this pioneering group faces today?
Funding and the need for resources to scale-up their production and testing are of course at the forefront. "But so is the challenge of designing an entirely new vocabulary of machinery, tools, and methods to 3D print, cure and then knit the alginate into usable bio-based textile," says Aleksandra.
With these challenges though, come opportunities for growth and evolution as well. With exciting prospects for several applications and collaborations ahead, AlgiKnit is currently testing material strength, varied knit and shaped formats and embedded natural dyeing (versus conventional dip-dyeing).
AlgiKnit's research is funded by The Fashion Institute of Technology, and they continue to partner with research institutions like Columbia University and Brookhaven National Laboratory, to explore the synthesis and chemical modification of biopolymers, and test the tensile properties of materials.
AlgiKnit's innovative work can currently be seen at the prestigious 'Force of Nature' exhibit (on till November 18th, 2017) at The Museum at FIT, in New York City.
For more information on the group or to connect with them, follow this link to their website.