Textile Technology - Can we really grow leather in a lab?

by YPU Admin on January 10, 2020. Tags: Biomaterials, chemistry, environment, ethics, materials, PhD, STEM, sustainability, textiles, and textile technology

Introduction

My name is Dana and I am a 1st year EPSRC-funded PhD student at The University of Manchester. My project is interdisciplinary, spanning across the Textiles and Biomaterials research groups. I also need to draw on the Chemistry knowledge I learned at Undergraduate level. I work within the broader Department of Materials and spend most of my time on the Sackville Street Campus. My research aims to grow leather in a laboratory using tissue engineering techniques. It is hoped that this method could potentially be more environmentally, socially and ethically sustainable than current manufacturing practices.

In Depth…

At school, I enjoyed learning about a broad range of subjects. By A Level, I narrowed my favourite subjects down to Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Textiles. Teachers advised me to drop Textiles, so I could focus on more academic subjects. However, I persevered, since I enjoyed the subject so much. Textiles is, sadly, often undervalued as a subject in schools due to a lack of understanding. It offers many more career prospects than the stereotypical fashion designer. The scientific side of the subject, Textile Technology, is a fast-growing industry, with many exciting innovations already discovered. These textile products are designed to perform specific functions, as opposed to simply looking attractive. Examples of products already developed include smart, electronic textile garments to monitor patient health or army officer location. The technology spans a wide range of industries, also including agriculture, construction and sports. In fact, it would be difficult to find an aspect of modern life without Textile Technology in action!


My journey progressed through studying a Chemistry degree at The University of Durham. I appreciated the quaint city, having originally come from a rural area, and enjoyed participation in several extracurricular societies. During my degree, I gained a strong core knowledge and skillset that would be useful in any future career path, not just scientific. I confirmed my key interests were in the Biological and Materials fields. During my Master’s, I completed a year in industry with Solvay, specialising in composite materials for high performance automobiles. This gave me valuable, first hand work experience in Textile Technology. Following graduation in 2018, I took a year out to go travelling and learn more about the world. A fascinating exhibition on ‘Fashioned From Nature’ at the V&A Museum in London really captured my interest in sustainable fashion.

Meanwhile, society has become increasingly aware of the harmful impacts that materials can have on the environment. Plastics in particular have received a lot of negative media coverage. Animal welfare activism has reached broader audiences through social media. The proportion of people classifying themselves as vegetarian, or even vegan, is growing. Even those still consuming animal products are conscious about cutting down to lower negative health and environmental impacts. I myself converted to vegetarianism a couple of years ago. Leather is a luxurious fabric used in a variety of high-end fashion and furnishing products. It does however raise animal welfare concerns as it is made from animal skin, mostly wasted in the meat industry. As more people become vegetarian, we may need other sources of leather to meet demand. We should avoid equally harmful plastic alternatives though. Human skin is already grown in laboratories for medical skin grafts, so perhaps we could use similar techniques to grow animal skin? This is exactly what I shall work on over the next few years. This topic perfectly combines my academic and personal interests.

A typical working day could involve a mixture of: laboratory work; reading literature; analysing data; writing up; presenting research or teaching. I collaborate with staff members from many different departments. This variety of work during a PhD can make it more interesting than a typical day job. I am excited to see where my research goes! Maybe one day, lab-grown leather will make high street jackets… I am very lucky to be meeting my niche subject interests through this PhD. After completion, I hope to return to industry for a while. I may either continue down the sustainable fashion route or move into lab-grown meat research.

Going Further…

If you are interested in learning more about the potential of lab-grown leather, see this paper outlining research by another group:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2589234719300193

For The University of Manchester Department of Materials website, including many other interesting research projects:

https://www.materials.manchester.ac.uk/research/

To learn more about lab-grown meat technologies see this news article:

https://www.economist.com/international/2019/10/12/plant-based-meat-could-create-a-radically-different-food-chain

For the unique courses available at The University of Manchester specifically in Textile Technology:

https://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/2020/09900/meng-materials-science-and-engineering-with-textiles-technology/

https://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/masters/courses/list/08611/msc-textile-technology-technical-textiles/

Youtube videos introducing other textile technologies:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuXPCXEKvSo

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=smart+textiles

Career prospects:

https://nationalcareers.service.gov.uk/search-results?searchTerm=textile+technoloy


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