The Journey Towards Creating an Environment-Friendly Textile Fiber

Recently, I wrote an article for The Triple Helix Online, titled, “From Milk to Qmilch: Creating an Environment Friendly Textile Fiber”. This article was about Qmilch, a fiber spun from the milk protein, casein, which can be used to create articles of clothing that have the consistency of silk. Qmilch is both untreated by chemicals that can cause an allergic reaction and is also extraordinarily environment-friendly. It is made from soured or low-quality wasted milk, can be manufactured far quicker than other fabrics can, and uses half a gallon of water to make two tons of fabric. Cotton cloth, on the other hand, requires 10,000 liters of water to make the same amount. I had the opportunity to ask the creator of Qmilch, biochemist and fashion designer, Anke Domaske, a few questions.

(1) I read that fibers made from milk were already in existence, but weren’t very practical and also used a lot of chemicals in their production. What inspired you to invent Qmilch? Did you have a specific goal in mind, such as creating an environment-friendly fabric, at the outset?

My stepdad suffered from cancer and received a textile allergy as a result. We were looking for chemically untreated fashion but couldn’t find any. Even natural fibers are treated with pesticides nowadays that cannot be removed completely.
So we heard of casein fibers and learned about their disadvantages. In the 1930s, the Germans discovered that the milk protein has the potential to be spun into a fiber. But cloth made with casein also incorporated formaldehyde. Then, over the years, Chinese manufacturers exchanged the formaldehyde with acrylic to create a copolymerization of 75% acrylic and just 25% casein. This process needs 60 hours and is very resource and water intensive. We thought that there must be a way to keep natural resources, such as milk, natural.

Our process uses 100% natural and renewable resources, and only one hour of processing time. It consumes less energy, as everything is produced at 80°C and there is no waste at all during the process. Plus, we need only a max of 2 liters of water and we use milk that is not allowed to be used as food.

(2) I got the impression that the invention of this product and further research on this product is extremely interdisciplinary in nature. In fact, you say that you are the only natural scientist in your team. Could you tell me about some of the other members of your research team, and the roles that they play? How has working with people from different fields created a unique research experience and helped you develop Qmilch?

Well, I also have engineers. However, we don’t come from the fiber field, which might have been a good thing, because we were able to look at the fiber production in a different kind of view. Nowadays we have big network in the field, but when we started we didn’t. So as we have had no previous knowledge, we were able to try things more differently than usual. Think about it. The development was received quite fast, as the idea was born only 2 1/2 years ago.

(3) I read that Qmilch was quite expensive to produce, more expensive even than organic cotton. How do you plan to keep the price of clothes made from Qmilch down?

We are cheaper than silk, and lots of kind of wools. Those are the fibers we can be compared to because those are the protein fibers on the market. We don’t compare Qmilk to the cellulose fibers. Cotton prices are instable and will increase. In fact, 6 million tons of textile fibers are missing to the market at the moment and the gap is rising. In 2030, there will be more than 11 Million tons missing. The prices of Qmilk Fashion can vary. We have all European production and a small quantity. However if you mix Qmilk with cotton for example, then it’s not too expensive. If you compare a 30% mixture of Qmilk fiber in a cotton shirt to a 100% cotton shirt, then it would only cost 1 euro more.

(4) Most of the articles I have read about Qmilch are from over a year ago. Where have you gone since then? Have you begun mass-producing clothing made from Qmilch? How is your new fashion line doing?

We are just building up our own production line with 1000 tons/year. It’s a big step as we are building up the structure from 0. The line is doing great and we do get a lot of feedback from it as well. Even from men.


(5) Many other companies, such as automobile companies, as well as hospitals had expressed interest in Qmilch. Are you supplying the fiber for other companies to use? If so, what companies have began to use Qmilch and for what purposes?

Yes, we do send out samples but for end products to come to the market we have to wait for our own production plant, as we are only producing 5 kg/h. But due to the market situation as well as, the properties of Qmilk and the sustainable production way, we have received interest from producers that come almost from every field of textile imaginable.

(6) You seem to be very enthusiastic about the potential of biopolymers. In fact, in an interview you said that anything made from plastic could be made from biopolymers. What roles, other than clothing, do you see Qmilch fulfilling in the future? What are the advantages of using biopolymers over materials like plastic? What should scientists, who are involved in inventing new biopolymers, keep in mind?

The advantage is in first place that we have to look for new resources that can be used as the gap is increasing. So why not using a resource that has to be tilted away, because it cannot be used as a grocery? In fact, in Germany 2 million tons of milk are tilted away because of the food requirements are so strict. The innovation is that we have just a 20% biobased biopolymer and we copolymerize it with another synthetic. It’s a 100% one.
The biggest advantage of biopolymers are that they can be recycled and they use an endless resource. We should look for resources that cannot be usually used or and not as a grocery, which is one of the biggest concerns on biopolymers. And the processing ways should be eco friendly. I think new technologies can make it happen.

(7)You are both a fashion designer and a biologist, both an artist and a scientist. How has your artistic ability and mindset helped you face challenges in the realm of science? Do you think that art has something meaningful to contribute to science, and vice versa? If so, what?

I don’t think there is a big difference between science and designing. In both fields, you have to be creative in designing a dress and a production way. And to invent something new you get struck by a vision and put together the experiences you have had to create something new.


(8) I see your invention, as an example of positive environmentalism, where instead of recycling or turning off a light bulb, you are attacking the problem at a deeper level, by re-imagining the way we do something very fundamental, the way we make clothes. Do you see it in the same way? What do you think the best approach to environmentalism is?

Yes, I do. But it’s also about great resources we throw away every day without even giving them a glimpse, such as the milk. We don’t think anymore about what our nature has to offer, as our grandparents did. We don’t know what it means to wear a cotton shirt (20.000 liters of water/kg). I think it is important that people get more of a sense of what it means to wear clothing and to give more of a thought about our resources.

The best approach is to talk about it. We do that already with other environmentally problems but not with clothing yet.

References:

  1. Interview with Anke Domaske.
  2. Image credit (Creative Commons): Kay, Mowie. “Milk.” Flickr. Last modified November 15, 2009.
  3. Image credit (Creative Commons): Telefónica Germany External Communications. “enable2start Gewinner 2012.” Flickr. Last modified February 2, 2012.

Prathima Radhakrishnan is a third year student from the University of Chicago majoring in the biological sciences and biochemistry and minoring in creative writing. She is also a Senior Editor of The Triple Helix Online. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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