For the first time, we’ve discovered how to liquefy natural silk protein, and maintain it in a stable liquid form. Now we’re able to produce it at commercial scale and are using it to replace chemicals common in the textile industry. And that’s just the beginning.
When asked to describe the liquid silk we create and work with at Evolved By Nature, the answer depends on whom you’re asking. Our textile expert might say, “A technology that makes any fabric more wearable.” One of our chemists might recite the amino acids that form the chemical structure of silk protein; another might delve into the nitty-gritty of the molecular cutting that gives our silk its range of applications.
They’re all correct: Activated Silk™, our green chemistry platform, is pure liquid silk protein that we’ve derived from natural cocoons and configured in more than 75 patented ways to do everything from making your clothes more moisture-wicking to keeping your skin more hydrated.
Everything we do begins with fibroin, the protein that gives silk its characteristic strength. Fibroin is extraordinarily versatile, so once we’ve isolated and liquefied it, we’ve got a great starting point. But Activated Silk is more than a barrel of liquefied fibroin—it’s a platform for a molecule that can be transformed for use in a staggering array of applications.
The Basic Chemistry Behind Activated Silk
How do we use the same protein to do things that seem opposed to each other—like absorb moisture and repel it? Think of the fibroin molecule as a chain of segments. Now imagine that this chain is made up of a meter of rope, followed by a meter of tape, followed by another meter of rope, and so on. Thanks to a molecular property known as self-assembly, the fibroin molecule has a tendency to arrange itself in a certain way. Specifically, the tape segments of the fibroin molecule are going to want to come together (because that’s how tape behaves, as anyone who has tried to wrap a gift knows) while the rope segments won’t want to come together (because that’s how rope behaves, which is why we have to tie a rope in knots when we want it to bind to itself). That’s the basic molecule.
From there, we cut the tapes and the ropes in a number of ways so the molecule comes together in different configurations. We might expose it to different temperatures; we might use a certain type of salt; we might add a naturally derived acid or base. All of these techniques will rearrange the way the tapes and ropes come together—or don’t come together—giving the basic molecule different properties so that we can leverage it in a number of ways.
One variation of the molecule might put the “rope” part on the outside, making it absorb water, which would give it wicking properties when applied to fabric. Another variation might put the “tape” part on the outside, making it repel water so anything it treats would be water-resistant. It’s all the same protein, but we’ve made it behave differently depending on what we do with it. Fibroin is flexible in a way you don’t see with many other proteins—which is why we find it so exciting to work with. (That flexibility extends to the way it’s applied, too. Adding Activated Silk to the textile manufacturing process is as simple as replacing the current finishing bath with our solution).
The Body Chemical
But the larger results surrounding liquid silk are what really excite us. We’re focused right now on using Activated Silk to replace harmful textile finishing chemicals that are standard in the fashion industry. Textile finishers give clothes certain desirable qualities, but the conventional chemical finishes that are incorporated into virtually every item of clothing you wear aren’t necessarily safe for you or the environment. Just one example: A proprietary chemical used on rayon clothing to help wick moisture from the wearer’s body is listed by the company that makes it as potentially causing cancer when inhaled. The maker of the chemical also advises workers to avoid letting it come in contact with their skin. Even chemicals that don’t cause visible irritation can have drastic effects. Some textile finishing chemicals like brominated phenols are being studied as endocrine disruptors, meaning they may fall into a class of chemicals that mimic the body’s naturally occurring hormones, altering anything from our reproductive health to our metabolisms. And even if you manage to avoid textile finishing chemicals altogether, these substances enter our waterways via wastewater systems. That water winds up in some foods we eat, meaning that even the most diligent consumers wind up with some of these chemicals in their body.
Silk protein rises above all these concerns thanks to its biocompatibility: Humans have been putting silk into our bodies for hundreds of years. Take out the sericin, and you’ve gone a step further, leaving you with a silk protein that’s safe for the human body. That translates to it being not just safe to wear against your skin, but also safe for the planet. Activated Silk doesn’t pollute our waterways the way conventional textile finishers do, and because we get our silk from cocoons that would otherwise be discarded, our supply chain is relatively low-impact.
We refer to Activated Silk as a green chemistry platform, but it’s also useful to think of it as a springboard. A single jar of liquefied silk contains an astounding breadth of potential, changing our wardrobe’s effect on human health, the way we care for our skin, even the way we get a touch-up at the dermatologist’s office. We want to revolutionize the home in invisible yet crucial ways, making toys, children’s clothing, mattresses, linens, and upholstery safer for families—and these are just the applications that are already in the works. With time and further research, Activated Silk has the potential to replace unhealthy chemicals in a range of products we use every day, from packaging to household appliances—all with minimal environmental impact and no risk to human health. We’re a company, of course, but referring to what we do as a “green chemistry company” puts the emphasis on us, not on what we’ve created. Calling our work a platform keeps the focus on our goal: elevating the no-harm, high-performance chemistry we’ve spent years developing and showcasing the possibilities of this elegant molecule.