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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Awards Recognize Green Chemistry Innovators Solving Critical Industry Challenges

Winners of this year’s Green Chemistry Challenge Awards include Modern Meadow’s Bio-FREED technology — which uses bio-based proteins to create a sustainable dyeing process that can be applied to any type of fiber and uses 95% less water, 75% less energy and 80% fewer dyes and chemicals than traditional dyeing methods.

It’s awards season. And while the Green Chemistry Challenge Awards might not enjoy the same cachet as the Oscars or the Grammys, the winning companies deserve plenty more attention.

“It’s an exciting time to be a chemist,” says Adelina Voutchkova, who leads the American Chemical Society’s Green Chemistry Institute — which stages the awards, together with the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The awards shine a light on the green-chemistry innovations that are making the world a better place. By redesigning the way we make and use chemicals, companies can reduce — or eliminate — hazardous substances. And as this year’s winning companies showcase, there are also plenty of other ways in which green chemistry can significantly reduce our environmental impacts and spur climate-related innovation.

Among them is Modern Meadow, which topped the Small Business category. The New Jersey-based firm was recognized for its Bio-FREED technology — which uses bio-based proteins to create a sustainable dyeing process that can be applied to any type of fiber.

The team has proved that its revolutionary process saves 95 percent of water compared to traditional dyeing methods, cuts energy use by 75 percent, and uses 80 percent fewer dyes and chemicals. No additional step is needed to fix the dye; and it only needs one wash (or sometimes nothing) at the end of the dyeing process, compared to up to seven washes involved in traditional dyeing.

“Typically, when you dye a textile, it goes into some sort of bath where the organic chemistry of binding dyes to the textiles happens,” explains Dave Williamson, Modern Meadow’s President and Chief Operating Officer. “But that bath then needs to be changed — and you have to wash the textile several times to remove any of the colorant that’s not affixed to the textile — so, there’s lots of water and energy involved. Developing a technology that can have significant reductions in the overall dyeing process is a huge advantage for the dye industry.”

Bio-FREED can be used at either the pre-dye or post-dye stage, delivering more environmental savings and supply chain benefits.

Voutchkova says the Awards judging committee was impressed with Modern Meadow’s “novel approach” to using plant proteins in combination with more traditional biopolymers to obtain properties to create positive environmental impact.

“It’s an honor to recognize these types of technologies,” she added, “because, let’s face it, they’re facing an uphill battle getting into a market that doesn’t automatically recognize the value of this technology and the positive impact that it will have compared to traditional alternatives that they’re replacing.”

Bio-FREED (which stands for Fast Resource-Efficient Enhanced Dyeing) is just one of several applications Modern Meadow developed through its Bio-Alloy platform — a proprietary system that combines select proteins with bio-based polymers to produce a variety of materials that are much more sustainable than their conventional counterparts while offering comparable or better performance.

“We’re combining two very different materials together at a molecular level. And when they come together, they behave as though they’re a whole new type of material,” Williamson says. “An alloy is not a mixture of two different things that remain the same — when you mix salt and pepper, the pepper is still pepper and the salt is still salt. An alloy is more akin to combining water and ethanol to create vodka.”

Modern Meadow is using soy (sourced from the US, so “we don’t have to worry about deforestation”) as a sustainable protein feedstock, together with polyurethane: “When we combine those together, we preserve the flexibility of the polyurethane with the hardness, toughness and natural feel of the protein together to create a material that is abrasion resistant, ductile and breathable,” Williamson explains.

Combining two very different polymers that are capable of being mixed is rare, as polymers don’t like to be molecularly mixed — they like to separate, like water and oil.

“What made this unique for us is we were able to go back to a first principle’s understanding to establish what the protein needed to look like, what functionality it needed to have, how did it behave in different solutions. It started out as a fundamental physics question — which has allowed us to create this unique, new alloy material.”

Alongside Bio-FREED, the company has also created Bio-Tex — a luxury leather-replacement material without the environmental footprint of conventional leather — perfect for accessories; Bio-Tex Shield — a breathable, waterproof membrane — perfect for outdoor apparel; Bio-VERA is a novel, leather-like material which is lighter and stronger than leather and with 90 percent sustainable content — perfect for a range of applications including footwear and automotive; and Bio-Tela is a materials system that enables the use of rich colors and two-tone effects — perfect for fashion brands.

Each of the applications uses different combinations of alloys, protein content and additives. Bio-Tex Shield, for example, was created by adding more and more protein into the Bio-Alloy to create a coating that allows the protein to channel moisture through the material — perfect for materials that need to be both water repellent and breathable: “It avoids the use of the forever chemicals that have been widely employed in these products for years and years,” Williamson says.

He asserts that when it comes to realizing the environmental benefits achieved by these new materials, the company has barely scratched the surface: “That’s the power of the Bio-Alloy: Being able to easily change the properties of a material allows you to address a wide range of applications without having to go back and do a lot of cumbersome, fundamental research and development. This makes it really exciting from a technical perspective, but also from a market perspective.”

As more and more companies strive to reduce their impacts and contribute to the climate fight, green chemistry holds innumerable solutions.

“Sustainability has been a critical issue of importance that’s been emerging in the corporate world these last five years. But the ‘how’ of sustainability is still very much evolving,” Voutchkova says. “It’s critical to think about the design of any new chemical, any new process or any new material by considering the environmental impact from a very early stage.”

Part of the answer lies in asking chemists and engineers to think beyond atoms and molecules, and about the context in which their creations might be used in the real world — and then, design new chemistries that have significant impact.

“Modern Meadow is a company that is committed to incorporating green chemistry from the early stages in their R&D. That is hopefully going to become the status quo for most companies.”

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