Sci-Lume Labs is manufacturing fibers that could revolutionize what is used to make clothing and could reduce the industry’s dependence on petroleum-based fibers. The manufacturing world is noticing: The H&M Foundation named the company as a finalist for its 2023 Global Change Award.
Every year, manufacturers produce more than 100 metric tons of fibers to make clothing.
To put that massive number in context, that’s the equivalent of filling 13 Boeing 747s full of polyester fibers — every hour.
And then this: Consumers dispose of one garbage truck of clothing every second and wear an article of clothing on average seven times.
For Oliver Shafaat, a Caltech postdoctoral scholar and founder and president of Sci-Lume Labs, this was too big an environmental concern to ignore — and one he thought he could solve.
“From the creation, through the use, through the microfiber shedding to the end of life, apparel impacts the world at a massive scale,” he said. “It’s just sort of crazy. Like, how do you buy clothes and only wear them seven times? And then you throw them away?”
Shafaat worked in Japan for almost five years as a fiber research and development manager with a Japanese biotech company working on sustainable synthetic fibers and resins. When he and his wife moved back to her hometown in Edmond, Shafaat dived in to solve the problem stateside.
“The question that I was trying to answer is, ‘How can we actually make materials that are circular?” he said. “We need to make sure that when they do end up in the environment, they’re not there forever.”
He began by working on a better fiber to make clothes with from the beginning.
“I’m not going to be able to convince people to wear clothes more or just not buy more clothes,” Shafaat said. “But I can try to find new materials that maybe harness the best of the synthetic fibers where they have the same performance and they have the same cost, but also sort of leverage some of biodegradable properties.”
And he did. Sci-Lume created a fiber, called bylon, a patent-pending technology where bio-based carbon becomes biodegradable fibers to replace conventional synthetic and natural fibers. And clothing manufacturers are already taking notice: Sci-Lume Labs is on the shortlist for the H&M Foundation Global Change Award 2023. H&M will announce the winners in early June.
“I did not expect it at all,” he said. “I watch these awards, and it’s sort of the who’s who in fashion, fiber and textile apparel startups. So, it’s pretty cool. It also has generated a lot of buzz, which we’re trying to capitalize on. Some brands have reached out. And beginning conversations have been very positive so far.”
Clothing waste is just the first problem Shafaat plans to tackle with his fibers. He said he sees applications for his technology in all kinds of moldable plastic uses.
“As a company, what we imagine doing is basically repeating this playbook for other plastic form factors,” he said. “So maybe it’s bulk molded parts or maybe it’s films or maybe it’s packaging. I mean, that’s like the big-picture goal of what we want to do.”