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At the University of Delaware, the worlds of fashion and engineering meet to create renewable clothes

Sep 28, 2011

Dr. Richard Wool is a chemical engineering professor at the University of Delaware.

He is a well-respected man on campus, and a leader in his field. So it's a safe bet that he never thought a reporter would call him one day and ask if, in light of his new "career path," he's been watching "Project Runway" or "The Rachel Zoe Project."

"I don't think I've quite gotten there yet," Wool said, chuckling at the thought. "But you know, I like to remind people that Madonna was singing to chemical scientists in that song of hers ("Material Girl.")

What in the world is a man like Dr. Wool doing talking fashion? Well, about two years ago Wool and some chemical engineering students at Delaware teamed up with Dr. Huantian Cao, an associate professor at the school's Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, and his students to form a truly unique partnership.

The two groups have teamed up to begin designing, developing, and perhaps one day mass-producing apparel and footwear using renewable resourced and waste.

Thanks to an initial $10,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the UD team hopes to create products that are fashionable, affordable, and also great for the environment.

So far Drs. Wool and Cao and their team of four students have produced a shoe prototype as well as a coat made with wool, cotton, chicken feathers, and a chicken feather composite.

Not exactly what you're used to finding at the Burlington Coat Factory, eh?

The project began in 2009, Dr. Cao said, when he learned that Dr. Wool's team of engineers and his team of fashion designers had both competed in an EPA-sponsored competition.

"Dr. Wool was doing research on using chicken feathers to store large quantities of hydrogen in a smaller space," Cao explained, "and I saw his project and thought that probably we could work together."

Cao and his team of undergraduates (Stacey Lipschitz, Paula Bonanno and Jillian Kramer) combined with Dr. Wool and two students from Delaware's nationally-respected chemical engineering team (Quan Dan, and grad student Mingjiang Zhan) and soon began brainstorming.

"We make bio-based composites in chemical engineering, plus foam, and pressure-sensitive adhesives," Wool said. "We make these materials from renewable resources, and the first thing Dr. Cao asked me was if we could make leather."

The use of leather in fashion has long been a controversial topic; animal rights advocates for decades have deplored the wearing of leather, while environmentally the popular material has also been derided, since thousands of chemicals are released into the air during the "tanning" process, something that can only hurt the air quality and the people who have to breathe it every day.

"You're talking about billions of pounds of toxic waste, involving chromium-6, that is released," Wool said. "It's toxic to animals and toxic to the air."

And so Dr. Cao, cognizant of that, was curious to see if Dr. Wool and his students could create something new. The UD engineering team came up with a process to make what they call "eco-leather," which combines oils and fibers to create a leather-like substance. (Dr. Wool said the patent for their process is currently pending).

The eco-leather is actually a composite made of natural fibers, such as cotton and flax, along with resin, soybean oil and palm seed oil.

The first project the two teams worked on was making a pair of shoes. Wool's team worked for months to come up with a way to "make leather breathe."

Dr. Wool said the use of composite science, which involves foam and other bio-based materials, has excellent design flexibility."

"Getting the bio-based leather to breathe, which is what we were using, is difficult," Wool said. "We made laminates of material, like a square foot of leather, and then gave them to the fashion apparel team.

"Then," Wool said with a chuckle, "they take our two-dimensional things and turn them into something extraordinary."

Quan Dan, the chemical engineering student, also said one of the biggest early challenges was satisfying the needs of the fashion side of the experiment.

"It's a hard balance," he said. "We would do something and I felt like the fashion people wanted an exact thing, and they'd tell me what they wanted more of, and then I'd try to figure out how to do it."

Dr. Cao said that for the initial footwear project, he and his team looked around the state of Delaware for shoe-repair shops and other businesses that might be able to make a prototype for them.

Eventually, though, Cao and the team reached a deal with Reebok, and last year Reebok developed a prototype (see above).

The heels of the shoe are made from rubber materials that were reinforced from chicken feathers. There's also an insert foam part inside the shoe for comfort. The three materials used, Dr. Wool explained, were the eco-leather, elastomer, and foam.

"I remember the first day they got back from (Reebok) and Dr. Cao walked in with the shoes I was absolutely gob-smacked," Wool said. "It was such a fantastic thing, to see what could be made from our work."

For their next project the two teams created an environmentally sustainable coat. This was done using chicken feathers as a fiber lining, wool and cotton for the shell and lining, and a chicken feather composite for buttons.

"We'd been using the chicken-feather fibers in other composites," Dan said, "trying to find alternative uses for them, and when we started thinking about the coat it seemed like it would work."

In addition to the possibly groundbreaking new products being designed, Dan said it has been a totally new experience working with a part of the university in fashion apparel that he would previously never had anything to do with.

"You're used to being in a lab by yourself sometimes, and you just deal with things on your own," Dan said. "This has been a lot of fun interacting with people from a different field."

Wool believes that the eco-leather breakthrough and other developments in green engineering will open up huge new markets.

"Leather is a $100 billion industry, and this is something that could have tremendous benefits across the board," Wool said.

Cao said he wasn't sure what the long-term goals of the UD project are; the possibility of mass-producing their products has come up, but he said that for right now the teams are more interested in working on prototypes. Their next project, Dan said, involves using Sorona, a renewable fiber made from corn and developed by DuPont.

"Ultimately in my head, I just want to make a product that works; mass marketing isn't something I'm thinking about," Dan said.

Perhaps not, but if the Delaware team does mass-market their new products, perhaps Madonna will write another song about them.