German researchers are exploring ways of using chitosan, which is derived from a component of insect skin called chitin, to replace toxic chemicals in the production of textiles.
The researchers, who are based at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology in Stuttgart, plan to commercialise their technology and are already working with several industrial partners including Protix Biosystems & Textilchemie Dr. Petry.
Chitin has two potential applications in the textile industry.
First, it can be used to protect textiles from breaking in the weaving process.
According to Thomas Hahn, a research associate at the Fraunhofer Institute, who is involved in the project, "The protective effect is based on the film formation of the chitin around the yarn."
Secondly, chitin can be used to produce textiles with specific properties such as water resistance. The chitosan molecule can be modified to give a fabric different properties. For example, water-resistant molecules can be added to chitosan to make textiles water-repellent. Additionally, coating fabrics with chitosan can give them anti-bacterial properties. Swicofil, a Swiss company, produces chitosan derived from crabs to make anti-bacterial textiles.
Furthermore, chitin could provide a more sustainable alternative to compounds that are currently used in the textile industry, as insects are increasingly utilised as a source of protein in the animal feed industry.
"Insects have the advantage that they reproduce quickly and can be bred cheaply on low-value substrates. This makes them a sustainable source of protein," Hahn noted. Using insects to this end creates large amounts of chitin as a byproduct. If successfully commercialised, this could be a good source of chitosan to fuel the new technology. The German team's research efforts are still at an early stage and will take time to reach the market.