Eighty years after nylon went into commercial production, the manmade fiber is getting a “much-needed makeover,” a California-based bioengineering firm says.
San Diego’s Genomatica announced Wednesday that it has produced the first ton of a key ingredient for nylon-6, made from plants instead of crude oil.
Nylon, the first completely synthetic fiber to be incorporated into consumer products such as clothing and carpeting, has a long footprint. Conventional nylon, according to Genomatica, is responsible for roughly 60 million tons of greenhouse-gas emissions per year. On the other hand, its breakthrough, which it will share with its partner Aquafil—the Italian yarn producer behind the recycled nylon Econyl—will result in 100 percent renewably sourced nylon that “delivers equivalent performance to the conventional nylon that touches millions of people’s lives, but with lower environmental impact.”
The bio-based nylon, Genomatica noted, could potentially reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in a $10 billion global industry that churns out more than 5 million tons of nylon-6 each year for carpeting, clothing, car interiors, engineered plastics and food packaging.
“DuPont’s landmark production of nylon 80 years ago introduced a highly versatile staple material to the apparel, textile and engineering product industries,” Christophe Schilling, CEO of Genomatica, said in a statement. “It’s a terrific material, and now, with the power of biotechnology, we can reinvent where it comes from.”
Genomatica’s innovation, he added, represents a “major step forward”—one that will offer a “new, more sustainable future with a better nylon for the full range of industries it serves.”
The company’s technology, which was recognized by Time as one of the best inventions of 2019, is underpinned by the process of fermentation. Genomatica says it uses an engineered microorganism and production process to ferment sugars found in plants to make the chemical intermediate for nylon-6. The chemical can then be converted into nylon-6 polymer chips and yarns by Aquafil in Slovenia.
Aquafil was the first company to join Genomatica’s program, bringing in funding and relevant expertise. The two companies went on to form Project Effective, a multi-company collaboration to produce more commercially used sustainable fibers and plastics from renewable feedstocks and bio-based technologies. Other members include H&M, Vaude, Balsan and Carvico.
“More renewables in product value chains means more impact,” Schilling said when the initiative debuted in May 2018. “More and more manufacturers and brands get it; more and more are taking action. We look forward to rapidly expanding the circle of action.”
Biotech fabrics have its detractors, however, most notably Fibershed, a California natural textile collaborative that warned in a 2018 report about genetically engineered microorganisms exerting undue pressures on ecosystems while creating potentially dangerous sources of biotech waste. Critics have also red-flagged the use of precious cropland to grow the feedstock for non-food products.
Still, Schilling believes in his company’s work.
“Ninety five percent of Americans think sustainability is a good goal and we’re seeing consumers demand more sustainable products,” he said. “Our technology provides brands with a solution to meet this consumer demand for better-sourced products.”