Scientists make breakthrough on sustainable nylon

posted by Charlie Hart and Andrew Allen
20 August 2020

Industrial production of nylon could soon become much more sustainable after scientists discovered a way to manufacture one of the key chemicals in the process without emitting greenhouse gases.

Researchers at University of Edinburgh discovered that bacteria could be genetically altered to make a key chemical – adipic acid – that is currently used to make nylon. 

Following the discovery procurement teams have been warned to consider not just the ecological impact of innovative new materials, but also the wider social, cultural and economic welfare of supply chains.

Creating large quantities of adipic acid neccessary to produce nylon relies on fossil fuels and the process produces large amounts of nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas three hundred times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

The University of Edinburgh team looked at whether it was possible to create adipic acid sustainably, without the nitrous oxide byproduct.

Scientists altered the genetic code of the common bacteria E. coli and by doing so were able to transform a naturally occurring chemical called guaiacol into adipic acid, without producing nitrous oxide.

Lead author of the study Jack Suitor said the team was continually exploring new ways of using bacteria to produce chemicals.

Suitor said: “[This] is the first time adipic acid has been made directly from guaiacol, which is one of the largest untapped renewable resources on the planet. This could entirely change how nylon is made.”

He believes the environmentally-friendly approach could be scaled up to make adipic acid on an industrial scale.

More than 2m tonnes of nylon – a major material in the manufacture of items like clothing, furniture and parachutes – is produced globally each year. The global nylon market is worth around £5bn a year.

Emma Wilson, director at Smartway Consulting, said nylon, which is commonly referred to as polyamide in the UK, is heavily used in sports and activewear and while many brands claim to use plastics found in the ocean to make sustainable nylon alternatives, this can be difficult to determine.

“It’s often extremely difficult to get comprehensive information from yarn suppliers as to what percentage of yarns can be guaranteed to be either from ocean plastic, ocean bound plastic  or even recycled. The way forward is to focus on development of affordable bio-based yarns,” she told SM.

Wilson added the sustainability credentials of brands was becoming more important to consumers, but costs for sustainable alternatives were significantly higher than virgin or recycled polyamide.   

Procurement teams must also evaluate how sourcing innovative materials fits in with their wider sustainability agenda, she said.

“Sustainability is not just one single area. You need to consider not just the ecological impact of your product but also how your business practices impact on the social, cultural and economic welfare of your supply chain.”

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