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Waste to Wardrobe? Research Explores Oil By-Product as Fashion Feedstock

A $7 million project investigated the feasibility of making nylon at scale from waste oil by-products.

Radici Group led a recent initiative exploring the possibilities of converting renewable raw materials into polyamides for use in textile, apparel, automotive, design, electrical and electronics. The research, which got underway in March 2018 through the ULISSE project, aims to not only enhance the Bergamo-based company’s sustainability posture but also meet customer demand and European targets for low-emissions, circular businesses.

Italy’s Piedmont region contributed 1.7 million euros ($1.97 million) of the total 6.2 million euros ($7.12 million) in funding.

A Radici Group research project has achieved its objective of producing nylon from bio adipic acid obtained from renewable raw materials.
Radici’s pilot factory. Courtesy

“Radici Group’s commitment to the ULISSE project, carried out thanks to the facilities of Radici Chimica and the research and innovation expertise of Radici InNova confirms the strategic importance of sustainability, which has always been part of the group’s DNA,” Stefano Alini, CEO of Radici InNova, said. “Sustainability principles accompanied the project all through its development process. First, waste oil becomes a raw material for the production of adipic acid, which in turn serves as the base material for the production of polyamide polymers, the key ingredients for the manufacture of components. Finally, the components are fully or partially recycled at the end of their useful life.”

Alini noted that “fashion and textile” clients are increasingly “sensitive to the environmental impact” of their products. “These customers are requesting the development of new materials that can also meet the sustainability goals at the national and EU level, such as Agenda 2030 and the Green Deal,” he added. “The concept of bioeconomy fits perfectly into the Radici Group sustainability program, in which the careful use of raw materials and resources is of vital importance.”

The ULISSE project focused on three main areas: designing and constructing a polymerization line to industrialize bio-based, high-performance polyamides, which required building a semi-industrial scale production plant. Next, the team developed a process to produce partially or fully bio-based polyamides from renewable raw materials and high-performance specialty polyamides.

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Finally, research explored the feasibility of using biotech to produce adipic acid, a chemical intermediate used in the production of polyamides, polyesters and polyurethanes from renewable sources including waste oils and other oil sector by-products.

The project produced a “few tons of bio adipic acid,” according to Radici, with the support of Rynetech Bio, an American company experienced in the field of industrial biotechnology. Italy’s Piedmont region gained “significant” fermentation skills and technologies as a result of the collaboration.

Radici said the next challenge will be to truly industrialize the process, and bring fashion made from waste oil to market. Thanks to the processes tested as part of the ULISSE project, RadiciGroup is set to become one of the world’s first companies to offer a range of sustainable and circular polyamides, with an estimated polymerization line production capacity of roughly 4,000 tons each year.

Employing approximately 3,000, Radici Group generated 1.02 billion euros ($1.18 billion) in 2020 revenue and a has network of production and sales sites throughout Europe, North America, South America and Asia.