Researchers at Harvard University's School of Engineering have created a new wool-like material that can be molded into different shapes and then return to its original form when trigged by a stimulant. This "shape memory" material could someday be used in fashion and medical applications to cut down on waste by eliminating the need to make many sizes of clothing.
It works like your hair — Think about when you painstakingly straighten your hair only to have it return to its curly form when it gets wet. That's caused by the keratin protein in hair that "remembers" its shape based on its alpha-helix structure. The researchers used the same concept to create a new material by extracting keratin from Agora wool used in textile manufacturing.
With the protein, flat sheets were 3D-printed and, using a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and monosodium phosphate, folded into a variety of shapes including a star. Once the memory was set, researchers dunked the star in water, where it unfolded and became malleable. They were then able to mold it into the shape of a tube and let it dry, leaving it in that shape until it was again hit by water and sprung back to the star shape.
Sustainable implications — In fashion, the material could be used for self-fitting bras and other one-size-fits-all clothing that stretches and shrinks to a person's measurements.
"Whether you are using fibers like this to make brassieres whose cup size and shape can be customized every day, or you are trying to make actuating textiles for medical therapeutics, the possibilities are broad and exciting,” says professor Kit Parker. “We are continuing to reimagine textiles by using biological molecules as engineering substrates like they have never been used before."
The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. Fast fashion and seasonal styles combined with the low cost of manufacturing mean that millions of tonnes of clothing are discarded each year. Using proteins gathered from leftover Agora wool, the industry can cut down on the sheering of animals and also produce fewer sizes of each product as will be able to fit a wider range of dimensions. We can't wait for the first Nike or Adidas collab.