The presence of spandex in clothing is a huge hindrance to textile recycling. Creating a natural, biodegradable version would allow far more clothing to be recycled, keeping it out of landfills and reducing the amount of raw natural resources needed to create new clothes.
The students did initial experimentation in an interdisciplinary course called Designing with Emerging Materials. The course, team-taught by Susanne Goetz, associate professor of Textile/Surface Design, and Theanne Schiros, assistant professor of Science and Math, teaches students materials science and encourages them to undertake original research to develop new materials.
They decided to use elastin, a protein that allows for stretch and recovery in skin, connective tissue, and blood vessels. Elastin is also present in high concentration in the adductor muscles of oysters—an inedible component of the oyster. Restaurants throughout New York were already collecting oyster shells for the Billion Oyster Project, which uses them to create oyster reefs in New York Harbor: Each shell becomes a home for 10 to 20 oyster larvae. Team EcoLastane borrowed shells to harvest the adductor muscles, then ground up those muscles to isolate the elastin. Using a common enzyme, they created strands of elastin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very strong. Next, they purified the elastin using sodium hydroxide and were able to isolate a small amount, which they will use to create a durable spandex-like fiber.
Team EcoLastane was selected to be in the top nine of 34 teams for the top prize at the Biodesign Challenge Summit, held June 20 and 21, 2019, in New York. The Biodesign Challenge was founded to encourage undergraduate research into biologically inspired fibers and other materials. EcoLastane also competed for the ORTA Prize for Bioinspired Textile Processes.