Nylon, the multipurpose fabric made with fossil fuels, has just met its environmentally friendly match. Miguel Modestino, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Tandon School of Engineering, was awarded the H&M Foundation’s Global Change Award for his research, which has produced a fabric similar to nylon using solar energy, plant waste and water — not oil.
Modestino and his co-researcher, Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne Tenure Track Assistant Professor Sophia Haussener, invented this fabric in the lab alongside Tandon Chemical Engineering Ph.D. students Daniela Blanco and Adlai Katzenberg.
The 250,000 euros grant will go toward their Ph.D. students’ stipends and fund materials for the fabric prototype that the team will market to the textile industry. While the reward was given by the H&M Foundation, Modestino’s invention will not necessarily be used by the company in its clothing designs as part of his award.
The production of this eco-friendly, inexpensive nylon alternative isn’t the only thing that is environmentally friendly — the cloth itself absorbs carbon dioxide. In doing so, the cloth prevents harmful toxins from circulating in the atmosphere.
WSN sat down with Modestino to discuss his plans to transform the textile industry.
Washington Square News: What is the focus of your research?
Miguel Modestino: My group works on different aspects of solar mechanical transformations that use, in one way or another, solar energy to carry out chemical reactions. I’ve had a lot of experience with solar fuels, which is basically taking sunlight and water and making a fuel such as hydrogen.
By looking into them, we realized that we can implement the same concepts that we’ve been applying to hydrogen production to the production of intermediates — like the manufacturing of nylon. Nylon is one of the largest [synthetic] fibers in the world, and if you are wearing clothes you are most likely wearing some nylon. We realized that the H&M Foundation had an award perfectly tailored to what we were doing. They were looking for innovation that would help the process of what they were trying to do and eventually become climate positive — which is not just that they don’t add any solution to the environment, but also that the operations help to capture [carbon dioxide] from the environment and that way they help to clean up the environment. So the foundation has this very ambitious goal to achieve by 2040 and our project [fit perfectly] within that framework because of what we’re doing — we’re fitting the manufacturer with a fabric widely used in textile production and clothing and the fashion industry by substituting fossil fuels and petroleum sources with solar energy and possibly biomass that captures [carbon dioxide] in the process.
WSN: What sparked your interest in creating sustainable fabric?
MM: I think it was basically what I mentioned at the beginning — that I had a lot of experience in an area that allowed me to learn how to use solar energy to carry chemical information and we were pretty much always against fossil fuels. It’s a very difficult position to be in because natural gas is very, very cheap today and doing research in this area and trying to understand the process of product commercialization — it’s always a little bit frustrating because you see that the economics are not there while we look at textiles and clothing. At the end of the day, we are talking about really high-value products. Which, just a small difference in the cost of the energy that you get by introducing solar energy, will actually not make a huge difference in the overall cost of the product at the end of the day.
On top of that, when you make fabric, you have the ability to get really close to the consumer. It is something that people wear that provides some level of identity to them — clothing is a form of identity. It’s easier to transmit your message — when you think about fuels and energy, people don’t really have a feel for it. They just turn on their light and don’t think about where it came from. They don’t know if it came from a clean source or a polluting source, from solar or wind, but once you take a piece of clothing and you know that that clothing was created using a process that captures [carbon dioxide], so that every single molecule inside your clothes came from the environment and by doing so you helped to clean up the environment — that creates a very different connection for the consumer.
WSN: What was your testing and experimenting process like?
MM: We have Ph.D. students in our lab and we’re trying to create a small, provable concept — a device that carries out the complete process to produce these nylon precursors. At the moment [the devices] can produce up to one kilogram of material per day, so they are quite small compared to what the industry needs. But all of the principles will be the same as the large-scale system that the industry will actually implement. So what we are trying to do now is improve the concept so we can go directly to the industry and say “Hey, look we can do this in this other way, and it will actually not be more expensive than how you are doing it today.” It will be highly beneficial for the environment. We have big companies, like H&M, who are actually asking for this.
WSN: What role did NYU play in all of this?
MM: If it wasn’t [for] NYU, I wouldn’t have a lab to develop the concept. NYU has been incredibly supportive of that. I arrived here in January and the school not only gave us lab space but has been incredibly supportive, financially too, to conduct the experiments to prove this. Even if we hadn’t gotten the award, which also brings with it a sum of money to carry out research, thanks to the school and the forms provided by the school, we could have started this project and [started] to create some momentum behind them so that other organizations could complement the funds that were provided.
WSN: How does what you teach tie into your research? What do you hope your students learn?
MM: The class that I teach is one of the most practical chemical engineering classes in the whole curriculum. I teach a class on how to use computation methods to model processes that you encounter in chemical engineering as a whole. And within my class, pretty much all of the homework I give [students] are real problems and many of them come from my research, and the reason for that is two-fold. One is for my students to understand that what they’re doing is actually useful and convenient to them in a real setting, and second is that I can use my students’ findings in my research and what we do in the lab.
WSN: How do you intend to use the grant money?
MM: The way it works here in chemical engineering is that we get two Ph.D. students, and they work in our lab from anywhere between four and six years, and we need to provide financial support for their studies and they also get a stipend. The grant will go to pay for one of the students [and] to pay for supplies and to develop these large-scale prototypes that we will then use to approach the industry with to implement it.
Email Miranda Levingson at [email protected]