Researchers at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder have developed an innovative DIY machine that produces textile fibers from sustainable materials, such as gelatin. This machine could revolutionize the fashion industry by offering a solution to the significant environmental impact of textile waste.

Led by doctoral student Eldy Lázaro Vásquez, the research team has created a machine capable of spinning textile fibers from gelatin, a protein commonly derived from animal byproducts. These fibers feel similar to flax and can dissolve in hot water within minutes to an hour, providing a sustainable alternative to traditional textiles, which often end up in landfills.

In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that over 11 million tons of textiles were discarded in landfills, comprising nearly 8% of all municipal solid waste. The ATLAS Institute’s method aims to mitigate this issue by producing textiles that can be easily recycled and reused.

The team has also investigated the potential of integrating their biofibers into smart textiles. For example, combining gelatin fibers with conductive yarns can create wearable sensors. These textiles can be dissolved to separate and recycle the components, addressing the recyclability issues of existing smart garments. Michael Rivera, a co-author of the study, noted the challenges with current smart textiles: “That jacket isn’t really recyclable. It’s difficult to separate the denim from the copper yarns and the electronics.”

The small-scale, cost-effective machine could democratize sustainable textile production, enabling both small designers and large manufacturers to adopt more eco-friendly practices. This development aligns with broader industry trends toward sustainability, as seen in the rising popularity of biodegradable and recyclable materials in fashion.

The global sustainable fashion market, valued at $7.8 billion in 2023, is projected to reach $33 billion by 2030, expanding at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22.9%. Sustainable fashion encompasses clothing, shoes, accessories, and jewelry produced ethically and environmentally friendly, promoting fair wages, safe working conditions, and a reduced environmental footprint. The market’s growth is fueled by increasing consumer awareness of sustainability, supportive government regulations, and incentives encouraging eco-friendly products.

Regionally, North America is expected to dominate the sustainable fashion market, holding over 35.6% of the market share in 2023. Europe is anticipated to be the second-largest market, with a market share exceeding 25.8%. Meanwhile, the Asia Pacific region is poised to be the fastest-growing market, with an impressive CAGR of over 16.5% throughout the forecast period. This regional growth highlights the global shift towards sustainable practices in the fashion industry, driven by both consumer demand and regulatory support.

Costing approximately $560, the DIY machine is designed to be accessible to designers worldwide. It uses a plastic syringe to extrude a liquid gelatin mixture, which is then stretched into fibers by rollers. This process allows designers to customize the fibers’ strength, elasticity, and color using bio-based dyes and additives. Rivera emphasized the accessibility of the machine: “With this kind of prototyping machine, anyone can make fibers. You don’t need the big machines that are only in university chemistry departments.”

Beyond gelatin, the researchers explored other natural ingredients, such as chitin from crab shells and agar-agar from algae. These materials could enhance the durability and versatility of the fibers, broadening their potential applications in the textile industry.

By Impact Lab