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Scientists Transform Unwanted Denim into Artificial Cartilage for Humans

A team of scientists at Australia’s Deakin University is taking the concept of upcycled denim into new territory.

The team, led by Dr. Noelene Bryne, has developed an advanced textile recycling method that dissolves denim and manipulates it into an aerogel, or a low-density material with a range of uses including artificial cartilage for humans.

Denim’s cotton base—a natural polymer comprised of cellulose—allows for the process to take place.

“Cellulose is a versatile renewable material, so we can use liquid solvents on waste denim to allow it to be dissolved and regenerated into an aerogel, or a variety of different forms,” Bryne said.

The “sticky nature” of the denim cellulose solution was likely responsible for the unique aerogel structure that resulted when her team reformed the cellulose, Bryne explained, and the end creation is well suited for use in synthetic cartilage.

“That’s exactly what cartilage looks like—you can’t 3D print that material—and now we can shape and tune the aerogel to manipulate the size and distribution of the tunnels to make the ideal shape,” she said.

The aerogel has a porous structure and nanoscopic tunnels running through it, which she said is ideally suited for use as synthetic cartilage. Scientists are able to manipulate the size and distribution of the tunnels to make the ideal shape for joint restructuring. The method is in pilot-scale trials and may become commercial in three to five years. Along with its medical advantage, the innovation would provide a unique and cost-effective way to fight textile waste.

“With population growth and the development of third world countries combined with today’s rapid fashion cycles, textile waste is always increasing, leading to millions of tonnes of clothes and other textiles being burnt or dumped in landfill,” Bryne said.

One of the drawbacks of textile recycling efforts, according to Bryne, has been the costliness of chemicals needed for these advanced repurposing techniques. With her team’s approach, however, Bryne said “we can address the limitations affecting other less cost-effective methods,” or in effect offset