Researchers abuzz over sustainable polyester replacement

Published: 20 May 2022

Research funded by Sustainability Victoria’s Circular Economy Business Innovation Centre (CEBIC) could unlock the secret to creating a new, more sustainable textile material. All thanks to the humble Australian solitary bee.

Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials (IFM) has been funded through the latest round of the Recycling Victoria Innovation Fund to create a natural polymer that mimics the water-repellent and flame-resistant properties of the Australian solitary bee’s nesting material.

New Zealand-based Humble Bee Bio is providing bio-synthetically produced protein building blocks of the nest material of the solitary bee. These have been found to have unique properties that could replace harmful plastic fibres.

This will allow the Deakin team to engineer fibre with same natural qualities, without the need for the bee.

“By mimicking the properties of the solitary bee’s extraordinary nesting material, we are creating a natural polymer that’s water-repellent and resistant to flames, high temperatures and strong chemicals,” said Humble Bee Bio’s CEO and founder Veronica Harwood-Stevenson.

“Essentially, we are borrowing the recipe from the bee to rebuild the material at a large scale. No one has spun yarn from a bio-manufactured protein in Australia before, it’s a first.”

black and yellow bee Solitary Bee | Image credit: Tobias Smith, Bee Aware Brisbane

Avoiding a fossil-fuelled fashion future

With an estimated 62 per cent of all fibres used in the fashion industry made from a synthetic material derived from fossil fuels and a predicted growth of 7.40 per cent over the next four years - the race is on to find alternative fibres that won’t harm the earth or our health.

Deakin University will utilise its world class expertise and facilities in fibre and materials science to facilitate Humble Bee Bio’s vision of a sustainable Australian textile industry.

Professor Joselito Razal, Director of ARC Research Hub for Future Fibres at IFM, says his team was delighted to receive the funding.

“The injection of $149,650 in funding from the Recycling Victoria Innovation Fund takes our total project to nearly $1 million. This means we can employ more chemists and engineers, purchase more equipment and build on what the bees have built. It’s very exciting,” said Professor Razal.

“This collaboration has the potential to uncover new and unforeseen applications for the bee biopolymer – it could be used in everything from clothing to construction, aviation, electronics, and even medicine. The possibilities for the material are endless.”

On a mission to accelerate innovation

Sustainability Victoria’s Interim CEO Matt Genever said: “Accelerating innovation and making investments in businesses that will help Victoria transition to a circular economy is at the heart of the CEBIC, with textiles a big focus area over the past 12 months.

“Momentum is growing in this space as innovators in our backyard explore creative ways to develop more sustainable products. Sustainability Victoria is thrilled to have a role in supporting innovations like this. I can’t wait to see the project unfold.”

In the short-term Harwood-Stevenson says the thermal and waterproof qualities of the biopolymer make it an ideal substitute for chemicals currently used to waterproof clothing which have been found to harm our health.

“We also know synthetic fibres break down in landfill releasing micro plastics that leach into the soil and waterways. We have to do something about it before it’s too late.”