From Canada’s University of Guelph comes the interesting news that fashionistas of the future may find themselves sporting fabrics derived from fish slime. Hagfish slime, to be precise.
It’s ironic that the hagfish could play a major role in an industry characterized by constant change, since this ancient eel-like species has undergone very little change itself for the past 300 million years. However, in the search for renewable fabric alternatives to nylon, Kevlar and other petroleum-based products, the hagfish seems to be on track to come out on top.
Silk vs. Slime for the Renewable Fabric of the Future
When you think about it, wearing fish slime on your back is hardly any more gross than wearing the worm secretions known as silk.
The advantage of hagfish over silkworms is partly one of sheer productivity. When an Atlantic Hagfish is threatened it can spit out quarts of slime in a matter of mere seconds, which seems to be at least enough to make a nice scarf. Try that with a silkworm!
Of course, the raw slime is not exactly fit for use. Hagfish slime is partly composed of mucus, which we’re not interested in. The part that is really intriguing consists of tens of thousands of protein threads.
According to the University of Guelph, the threads are classified as an “intermediate filament.” Each is 100 times thinner than a human hair, but has “remarkable mechanical properties that rival those of spider silks.”
A Slimy Path to Artificial Spider Silk
Spider silk is outrageously strong for its weight, so much so that it has the potential to outperform petroleum-based products like Kevlar.
But, of course, unlike silkworms, spiders are notoriously hard to motivate for commercial-scale silk production. That’s where the hagfish could come in.
Researchers have been studying ways to create artificial spider silk from more cooperative renewable sources, but hagfish offer the prospect of cutting out the middleman and going straight to the source.
The research team, headed by Atsuko Negishi with co-authors from Guelph as well as McMaster and Dalhousie universities, has just published a paper showing that protein threads isolated from hagfish slime can be purified and spun into fibers. That leads to the possibility of using similar slimes from other animal proteins:
“This work is just the beginning of our efforts to apply what we have learned from animals like hagfishes to the challenge of making high-performance materials from sustainable protein feedstocks.”
So far, the researchers have found that higher levels of protein concentration yield materials with potentially useful properties. The next step is to find efficient ways to spin fibers, leading to commercial-scale production.
Big Demand for Alternative Fabric
It’s not like hagfish slime is ready for its Top Model moment any time soon, but when it does break through, it could find a whole range of uses as a renewable alternative for petroleum-based products.
Ford, for example, is pushing hard to introduce renewable and recyclable materials in upholstery and other automotive fittings that are typically made from synthetic petroleum-based materials.
The sporting goods industry is another area in which lightweight, high performance petroleum alternatives would find an eager market.
Image: Hagfish courtesy of NOAA, via wikipedia
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.