The Textile Industry May Soon Turn to Insects to Help Produce Fabrics

German researchers are exploring ways of using chitosan, which is derived from a component of insect skin called chitin, to replace toxic chemicals in the production of textiles.

The researchers, who are based at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology in Stuttgart, plan to commercialize their technology and are already working with several industrial partners including Protix Biosystems and Textilchemie Dr. Petry.

Chitin has two potential applications in the textile industry. First, it can be used to protect textiles from breaking in the weaving process.

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“A sizing agent is applied to protect yarn during the weaving process from abrasion and yarn breakage,” explained Thomas Hahn, a research associate at the Fraunhofer Institute who is involved in the project. “The protective effect is based on the film formation of the chitin around the yarn.”

Secondly, chitin can be used to produce textiles with specific properties such as water resistance.

The chitosan molecule can be modified to give a fabric different properties. For example, water-resistant molecules can be added to chitosan to make textiles water-repellent. Additionally, coating fabrics with chitosan can give them antibacterial properties. Swicofil, a Swiss company, produces chitosan derived from crabs to make antibacterial textiles.

The Textile Industry May Soon Turn to Insects to Help Produce Fabrics

Chitosan, purified from insect skin.

Furthermore, chitin could provide a more sustainable alternative to compounds that are currently used in the textile industry, as insects are increasingly utilized as a source of protein in the animal feed industry.

“Insects have the advantage that they reproduce quickly and can be bred cheaply on low-value substrates. This makes them a sustainable source of protein,” Hahn noted. Because they are rich in protein, insects are a good source of food for farm animals. Using insects to this end creates large amounts of chitin as a byproduct. If successfully commercialized, this could be a good source of chitosan to fuel the new technology.

Biotechs are also using chitin for applications outside of textiles. For example, the German company KitoZyme uses chitin from non-animal sources to develop products for weight management and digestive and cardiovascular health. Other uses may be found in the food industry, as well as in sewage plants.

The German team’s research efforts are still at an early stage and will take time to reach the market. But we look forward to watching their progress with interest!


Images by Fraunhofer IGB, Khomenko Serhii/Shutterstock

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