Though highly useful thanks to its impressive properties of durability and versatility, animal-derived leather has its issues, most of which pertain to the environmental toll associated with its production. That’s why, scientists and designers are in search of more sustainable materials to replace leather with, including those derived from food waste and mushrooms. Now, a team of engineers has demonstrated that silk might be a contender, too.
Developed by scientists at Tufts University, the new leather-like material is made out of environmentally friendly, synthesized silk, and can be printed into shape and easily recycled as desired.
As reported by New Atlas, the production process involves mixing regular silk fibers into a slurry, which breaks them down into their original protein components. That silk fibroin is then combined with a plasticizer and a vegetable gum thickener, creating a 3D printable material. To help strengthen the material further, the scientists also used a base layer of chitosan, mixed with plasticizer and dye.
“Our work is centered on the use of naturally-derived materials that minimize the use of toxic chemicals while maintaining material performance so as to provide alternatives for products that are commonly and widely used today,” said study author Fiorenzo Omenetto.
“By using silk, as well as cellulose from textile and agricultural waste, and chitosan from shellfish waste, and all the relatively gentle chemistries used to combine them, we are making progress towards this goal.”
To top it all off, at the end of its life, the silk-derived leather can be redissolved back into the silky slurry, and recycled into brand new products. Even if it ends up in a landfill, it will easily biodegrade since it’s made out of organic materials.