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A new biomaterial in fashion: bacterial nanocellulouse

By Kristopher Fraser


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Image: modern-synthesis.com

Bacterial nanocellulose probably sounds like a term learned in high school Biology and forgotten about unless you went into a STEM field. Fear not those with the trauma of high school science class, bacterial nanocellulose is actually the core of building a uniquely versatile material that can replace a variety of animal and petrochemical-derived materials. These uniquely versatile materials are currently being developed by Modern Synthesis, a biomaterial innovation company based in London that works on developing radical and regenerative material solutions for the fashion industry.

Modern Synthesis has currently raised over four million dollars in seed funding, which has allowed them to build a pilot facility in Southwest London and increase their capacity to scale their materials made from bacterial nanocellulose. According to McKinsey, more than 70 percent of the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions come from upstream activities, like energy-intense raw material production, preparation, and processing.

Modern Synthesis’ technology utilizes the ability of bacteria to transform sugar from agricultural waste into nanocellulose, a particularly fine and strong form of cellulose. The company’s biomanufacturing platform combines the microbe’s growth patterns with cutting-edge textile production techniques to create a novel range of natural nonwoven materials that have a distinctive look, feel, and performance potential.

Bacteria essentially “weaves” customizable biotextiles and composites. To further its quest for sustainability, the fashion industry needs to move away from fossil fuels.

The company’s CEO, Jen Keane, said, “Fashion needs to decarbonize its existing supply chains in the short term. But equally, we need new materials and systems that holistically address key challenges related to emissions like plastic and chemical pollution.”

Cellulose is one of the most abundant polymers on the planet and the building block for most plant-based materials, from cotton to linen. It is low-cost, biodegradable, and adaptable to many different applications. On a fiber level, it is 8 times stronger than steel and stiffer than Kevlar. When it’s grown by bacteria, the material becomes a tightly packed mesh of fibers so small they appear like a transparent film or gel.

The journey to developing bacterial nanocellulose began with Keane’s 2018 Central Saint Martins MA project. She grew the upper of a shoe with bacterial nanocellulose and one continuous yarn. She collaborated with scientists from Imperial College London, including Dr. Ben Reeve, now CTO of Modern Synthesis. Reeve says the possibilities are exciting because “not only are these bacteria very naturally efficient, but we are able to innovate from the organism level to tailor the uniquely versatile material they produce.”

While this material production is new, and they just had a successful seed round, Modern Synthesis has yet to announce their initial brand partners, but a spokesperson for the company told FashionUnited they will share the news soon.

The company's latest round of 4.1 million dollar funding comes from AgFund, Collaborative Fund, Acequia Capital, and Petrio Bio, among others. Funding will go toward developing Modern Synthesis' platform.

bacterial nanocellulose
Modern Synthesis