Next November 25th, at the Institute of Textile Research and Industrial Cooperation of Terrassa (INTEXTER) of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, our professor Marta Casadesús will defend her doctoral thesis. A few days before the presentation, she has given us this interview:
- First of all, tell us a little about yourself and your professional career.
I studied Chemical Engineering and later I specialized in textiles. Coming from the banks of the Llobregat, I have always heard of threads and fabrics, and I like that it continues. That's why I teach at LCI Barcelona and at UPC, where I have participated in research projects that have allowed me to combine science and creativity. I hope to be able to follow this path, because there is a lot of work in the sector: we must move forward and do it in a responsible and sustainable way.
- In a few days you will defend your doctoral thesis Evaluation of industrial alternatives for obtaining new materials that value keratinic waste. What are the basic lines of your research?
The general objective of the thesis is to study possible ways of valuing chicken feathers, which are currently destined for landfill and of which only a small part is recycled or valued, bearing in mind that the feathers used in jackets and duvets have another origin. From here, three ways are proposed to achieve the objective: the manufacture of composite materials, the manufacture of nonwovens and the use of feathers as biosorbents of contaminants present in water. In the first case, the feathers are mixed with polymers to obtain lighter materials, but maintaining or improving properties such as resistance; in the second place, non-woven fabrics are formed with feathers and wool and their properties as an insulating material are studied; and, in the third way, the sorption capacity of the copper feathers that could be found in contaminated water is determined.
- How did the idea of working from chicken feathers come about?
First, it may sound strange because it is a very specific problem, but this does not mean that it is any less important. This is a real situation favoured by the intensive industry which, in turn, lowers the price of chicken meat and makes its consumption frequent all over the world, which translates into a remarkable volume of waste (around 110 million tonnes worldwide annually!). Aware of this, a few years ago, American researchers began to study options for valuing feathers, since their properties make them suitable for various uses. The tutor of my thesis, professor Fernando Carrillo, decided to follow this line at the Universitat Politècnica de Terrassa, and currently the research group has already studied several applications for feathers.
- Why did you decide to reuse this waste to create nonwovens? What advantages does it offer over other alternatives?
For this application, the central part of the feathers is discarded, which is harder, and only the fibres, called beards, are used, which are not too physically different from other materials from which threads are made. In fact, on a chemical level, feathers are mainly made of keratin, just like wool. On the other hand, feathers have a thermoregulatory function in birds, which is why they are used to make anoraks. Therefore, if they have properties that make them ideal as thermal insulator, why can't they also serve as acoustic insulator? Considering all these facts, the idea of making a nonwoven seemed feasible and, in fact, it is, since very similar results have been obtained to those of commercial materials in terms of its capacity as an acoustic insulator. Then, if it behaves the same, once the manufacturing process has been optimised, this material will be better due to its renewable origin. Undoubtedly, nonwovens could have many variations and, in short, many more possible uses that will have to be studied in the future.
- What has it meant for you to work on a circular economy project? What do you think the role of this system will be in the coming years?
When you look at a project from this point of view, you realise that sometimes the economic or environmental performance of recycling a material is low or zero, and therefore you must study the processes very well. We must take this as a challenge that, on the other hand, is very necessary, because when you analyze the cases in depth you realize the amount of waste that is currently generated. This makes you learn methodologies to quantify them while demonstrating that we are not yet used to designing thinking about the end of life of products and their final disposal. Evidently, the specific case of chicken feathers affects an unavoidable residue whenever this meat is consumed, and even so there are no industrialized alternatives the valorization is not normalized. The textile industry, for example, seems increasingly aware of the pollution it generates, and these terms are gaining strength. If this trend translates into real changes, in the future we will no longer have to talk about circular economy as an exception.
- Is the thesis related in any way to your classes at LCI Barcelona? What design values are you trying to teach to the students?
I'm in charge of the subject Textile Products and Processes within the Bachelor’s Degree in Fashion Design. Although we focus specifically on studying the creation of fretwork fabrics, I like students to be aware of the options they have when it comes to designing and/or choosing a fabric. That's why I try to keep them up to date on new materials or research being carried out. In the end, a designer works through the entire creative process, from the choice of raw materials to the final aesthetics of a collection and everything it conveys. I think it's important to be aware of this in order to work responsibly. In this sense, design and technology go hand in hand: from my point of view, an innovative design implies the use of sustainable materials, creativity must be used from the beginning, arriving where it is needed to be able to stand out both in originality and in values.
Good luck, Marta!