Photo by greyloch [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr
Fashion has long been as symbol of style and sophistication, but it also has an ugly and well-hidden underbelly: pollution. The clothing industry emits over 300 thousand tons of carbon dioxide annually, and a single factory uses over 200 tons of water to wash fabric dyes. To compound the problem, clothing factories are often located in developing countries with loose environmental guidelines, which allows dye pollution to run rampant and unchecked into the surrounding environments. The rivers of factory-heavy regions such as Bangladesh and China frequently run purple and blue with chemical run-off, which is carcinogenic and causes myriad health concerns. Despite the magnitude of this problem, a single butterfly is paving the way towards a solution: the stunning blue morpho, found primarily in neo-tropical areas of Central and South America. It is a creature so beautiful that it's referred to as a “living jewel.”
Although our legislators have no power in these regions of the world, engineers from many different countries and even more disciplines have begun research to solve this problem. A joint research project by the University of Exeter (UK), General Electric (GE) Global Research Centre, and the University of Albany used a focused-laser technique to mathematically model the reflective patterns of a morpho butterfly's wings. They found that the morpho’s wings are made of microscopic scales and layers of proteins that refract light in different ways, creating the illusion of a shimmering and shifting palette of colors when in fact no pigments are present. Building on this research, a group of materials and chemical engineers from Teijin Limited, a Japan-based company used concepts from the morpho’s wings to develop Morphotex - the world’s first dye-free, chromogenic nanofiber. Morphotex is made from layering films of varying thicknesses that mimic the scaled pattern of morpho wings. Each layer consists of 61 nylon and polyester fibers, with layers ranging from 70-100 nanometers in thickness. The role of Teijin engineers is to create mathematical models of how thick each layer has to be, then design and program lasers to create fibers to their exact specifications. By precisely controlling the thickness of each layer, scientists and engineers can control exactly which of the four basic colors - red, green, blue, and violet - will be produced in the resulting material. This way, they can create a wide range of colored fabrics without using a single drop of dye. Morphotex technology can also be used in a variety of other ways, such as to make short-cut fibers or powdery materials that can be implemented outside of textiles. The versatile nature of Morphotex allows it to replace dyes in everything from nail polish to fishing rods. By rendering dyes unnecessary, Morphotex aims to leave the days of high energy consumption and chemical waste far behind.
Although still in developmental stages, Morphotex garnered worldwide attention when Australian fashion designer Donna Sgro created a shimmering dress made entirely of Morphotex fibers. Transfixed by its stunning colors, the public threw its support behind this remarkable fabric, which now stands as a symbolic reminder of what true beauty should always be: 100% natural.