In the future, leather shoes won’t come from cows. They’ll be manifested out of petri dishes, or in green chemist Richard Wool’s vision, divined from chicken feathers, flax, and soybean oil.
Over the past two decades, Wool has figured out how to turn chicken feathers into computer processors and soybean oil into John Deere tractor parts. His latest project aims to capture the attention of catwalk watchers: Wool hopes to commercialize a new kind of breathable leather that's made without the environmentally destructive chemicals.
"It turned out to be one of those ‘oompah!’ moments in the lab," the University of Delaware professor told me the day after he had returned from Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had honored him with the green chemistry academic award for 2013. "We made a beautiful sheet of material and it was also breathable. The technology that took us to the moon, we’re using that to make our Eco-leather material."
Synthetic animal products backed by Silicon Valley investors have ignited the popular imagination in recent years. Early investors in Amazon, Twitter, and Google have thrown money behind plant-based meat and egg experiments, while PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel supports Modern Meadow, a startup growing leather from animal cell biopsies in petri dishes. But while Modern Meadow’s technology is promising, it has yet to prove it can be produced at a commercial scale. Wool’s Eco-leather could present an option more immediately applicable to the fashion and footwear industries.
Already, Wool’s company, Eco-leather Corp., has begun collaborating with Nike and Puma on developing an athletic shoe made out of non-toxic materials. In his own Affordable Composites from Renewable Sources lab, students have worked with the university's fashion department to develop prototypes. Check out one below.
As for his process, Wool makes bio-composites using techniques developed by aerospace engineers to process the scraped, downy fibers from chicken feathers into the hardy soles of shoes. With heat and pressure, the feathers are combined with natural fibers and plant oil resins, which can be made soft or rigid. Wool’s lab has also developed a bio-based foam that can replace polyurethane, a widely used petroleum-based material that releases airborne pollutants.
The goal of his work, Wool explains, is to provide alternatives to the toxic leather production process. The Blacksmith Institute, a nonprofit environmental think tank, regards pollution from leather tanneries in Hazaribagh, Bangladesh, as one of the top toxic threats in the world. Various chemicals used in leather tanning can cause cancer in humans, as well as skin and respiratory diseases. They include toxic heavy metals like chromium as well as hormone-disrupting PFCs.
But if using chicken feathers would truly create a more sustainable process, where would all those feathers come from?
"There about 6 billion tons of these chicken feather fibers that are a waste stream material, and a bit of a nuisance to the chicken processing companies," Wool said. "They’re either sent to a landfill—burning them isn’t a very good option for them—or they’re rendered down to make certain kinds of animal feed, because the current protein can have some food value."
Disposing of these chicken feathers can also get pretty expensive. Once, Wool recalls, a company called the professor and asked if he could use 2 billion pounds of the material. For free.
The EPA also honored Wool for his work on developing the "Twinkling Fractal" theory, a chemical engineering concept that examines how molecules "dance" around one another. By realizing that a material’s properties are determined by this dance, Wool is able to figure out how his Eco-leather's strength, softness, or flexibility manifests on the molecular level.
Wool imagines that an Eco-leather with radically different design properties from traditional leather could push the material far beyond its obvious non-toxic and environmental benefits. "These are materials with new optical properties," Wool explains. "They have a certain translucency to them if you want. Imagine a translucent Nike shoe."