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FIT students win Biodesign Challenge for algae yarn

August 1, 2016
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

FIT students won the first Biodesign Challenge with a textile alternative made partly from algae.

FIT students won the first Biodesign Challenge with a textile alternative made partly from algae.

The Fashion Institute of Technology, at the State University of New York, has won the first Biodesign Challenge (BDC), a competition in which teams of students from nine leading U.S. colleges and universities created projects that envision future applications of biotechnology. Themes for the projects included architecture, water, food, materials, energy, medicine, and others areas where biological design could make a dramatic difference.

The FIT team used novel growing techniques to develop a sustainable alternative to conventional textiles. For their winning project, they created a material out of alginate (algae) and chitosan (fungi). Rather than looking at this material solely as a molecular structure, they examined it through a fashion designer’s lens. As a result, they extruded it from a syringe as a filament and knitted this “yarn” into fabric. The resulting textile, though not ready for production, represents a step toward a closed-loop life-cycle system for fashion, as the fabric is not only biodegradable but could be used as a nutrient for growing more materials.

The prize was announced after the projects were presented at a June 23 event at the Museum of Modern Art and judged by 13 leaders in biotechnology, design, and education. The FIT team is comprised of three students from the Fashion Design program’s knitwear specialization: Tessa Callaghan ’16, Gian Cui ’17, Aleksandra Gosiewski ’17, and Aaron Nesser, who studies at Pratt Institute.

The team began with observations about the wastefulness of fashion: “It’s the second most polluting industry,” they noted in their presentation. They then spent months experimenting with different formulas of the biomaterial, curious to see how much it would stretch. They tested an early version of the knitted filament in FIT’s textile testing labs, where they discovered, to their surprise, that it stretched 70 percent beyond its original length. They also customized a 3D printer to make a mesh version, which stretched 50 percent.

The FIT team’s trophy was the Glass Microbe, a fist-sized translucent artwork by U.K. artist Luke Jerram that symbolizes the intersection of art, design, and biology. Each year, the piece will be passed to the next winner.

The BDC was created by Dan Grushkin, a writer and the founder of GenSpace, a nonprofit that promotes education in molecular biology for both children and adults.

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