BROOKLYN, New York - Currently, many types of fabrics, including nylon, are made in an energy-intensive, unsustainable process that uses fossil fuel. Now, NYU Tandon School of Engineering Assistant Professor Miguel Modestino, of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, is proposing a method that eliminates oil from the equation, employing water, plant waste, and solar energy to deliver a material identical to the nylon now widely used in the fashion industry and in other commercial applications.
Modestino and his co-researcher, Sophia Haussener of the École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne (EPFL), have garnered a 2017 Global Change Award of €250,000 ($267,000) from the H&M Foundation, the non-profit arm of the retailing giant. The first such initiative by a major member of the fashion world, the Global Change challenge attracted almost 3,000 applicants this year and aims to support early innovations that can accelerate the shift to a circular and sustainable garment industry, in order to protect the planet. The awards were presented in Stockholm, Sweden, on April 5.
The researchers chose to focus on nylon because of the large market for the popular polymer, which they estimate to be more than 6 million tons per year, with a value of more than $20 billion. Their proposed process uses photovoltaic arrays, which generate electricity directly from the sun, to drive the electrochemical reduction of acrylonitrile (ACN) to adiponitrile (ADN) and hydrogen (H2), which will, in turn, be synthesized into hexanediamine (HDA), one of the existing precursors to nylon.
Because ACN can be derived from plant waste, only sun, water, and carbon dioxide will be required as inputs, and the new process will represent a new scheme for carbon capture, where greenhouse gases will be bound into the fabric, rather than releasing them into the air.
"It is gratifying to contribute toward a zero-emissions world," Modestino said. "Once this process is tested and scaled up, there is the potential to expand the concept to other segments of the chemical industry, including the synthesis of substances like aluminum and chlorine."
"Miguel Modestino takes an approach that we hope to see in every bit of research done at NYU Tandon: to create technology that can be used for the benefit of humankind," said Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan. "We are proud that the H&M Foundation recognizes the value of his hard work and vision."
About the New York University Tandon School of Engineering
The NYU Tandon School of Engineering dates to 1854, the founding date for both the New York University School of Civil Engineering and Architecture and the Brooklyn Collegiate and Polytechnic Institute (widely known as Brooklyn Poly). A January 2014 merger created a comprehensive school of education and research in engineering and applied sciences, rooted in a tradition of invention and entrepreneurship and dedicated to furthering technology in service to society. In addition to its main location in Brooklyn, NYU Tandon collaborates with other schools within NYU, the country's largest private research university, and is closely connected to engineering programs at NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai. It operates Future Labs focused on start-up businesses in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn and an award-winning online graduate program. For more information, visit http://engineering.nyu.edu.