WASHINGTON, June 20, 2013 — Richard Wool, the man who brought us computer circuit boards made of chicken feathers and resins made from soybeans and newspapers, says he’s about to take another step toward a green and sustainable future. The University of Delaware chemical and bioengineering professor is developing artificial eco-leather that can be used to make shoes, handbags and a host of other fashion accessories.
“We can design leather much better than an animal can,” Wool said today at the 17th Annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference in Bethesda, Md. “We’re basically taking aerospace engineering of highly complex materials and using it to make wearable items that are a much better design for people than the original design from an animal would be. And it’s all green and sustainable.”
The conference, which regularly attracts scientific leaders from around the world, is sponsored by the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute®.
Wool, who is also director of the University of Delaware’s Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources program, began developing what he calls “eco-leather” four years ago in collaboration with Huantian Cao, an associate professor in the university’s fashion and apparel studies department. The researchers hope their efforts will lead to the development of mass-produced apparel and footwear made from renewable resources.
Eco-leather is made with natural fibers such as flax or cotton mixed with palm, corn, soybean and other plant oils that are laminated together in layers to create something that looks and feels as if it came from an animal.
“The designers love it because it gives them a whole element of design that they didn’t have before when they were trying to work with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as an artificial leather substitute,” Wool said. “And it’s breathable. It’s not like a plastic that would make your foot sweaty if you wore it.”
And unlike real leather, which requires tanning — a process that releases potentially toxic materials into the environment — the materials in eco-leather are sustainable and produce a low carbon footprint, Wool said.
Interest in the material is growing, he noted. Nike, Puma and Adidas have requested samples of it so that they can experiment with this new, green product.
“Producing leather is not very eco-friendly. So to be able to have a material that looks, feels and has the same properties of leather — but is more controllable and is more environmentally friendly — would be a great achievement,” said Loris Spadiccini, general manager of Tretorn North America, a subsidiary of Puma, which produced a prototype shoe using Wool’s eco-leather.
However, it might be awhile before you see eco-leather shoes in stores.
“Eco-leather has some really awesome properties,” Spadiccini said. “But some improvements are still needed. The product is stiff, it’s difficult to work with and the stitching breaks. So right now, with the techniques available to us to make shoes, we couldn’t use the material at this stage. But it is promising for the future.”
Still, once the kinks are worked out, Wool believes eco-leather could have a vast impact.
“If we can use plants to make a bio-based material that replaces something like leather that has all sorts of environmental and social concerns surrounding it,” he said, “then that would be a very positive contribution to the sustainability of our planet.”
The ACS Green Chemistry Institute® is an organization focused on catalyzing and enabling the implementation of green chemistry and engineering throughout the global chemical enterprise. ACS GCI operates industrial roundtables; conducts conferences, seminars and training; maintains an international network of 26 green chemistry chapters; and with its partner NSF International, led the effort to establish the first consensus standard for greener chemical products and process information in the United States.
The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With more than 163,000 members, ACS is the world's largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.