Denim jeans could be transformed into artificial cartilage for joint reconstruction thanks to advanced textile recycling methods pioneered by Hub researchers at Deakin University.

Beini and Nolene with their denim aerogel

Hub Chief Investigator Dr Nolene Byrne and Hub PhD candidate Beini Zeng have discovered how to dissolve denim and manipulate the remains into an aerogel – a low density material with a range of uses including cartilage bioscaffolding, water filtration and use as a separator in advanced battery technology.

The process works because denim is made from cotton, a natural polymer comprised of cellulose. “Cellulose is a versatile renewable material, so we can use liquid solvents on waste denim to allow it to be dissolved and regenerated into an aerogel, or a variety of different forms,” Dr Byrne said. “Aerogels are a class of advanced materials with very low density, sometimes referred to as ‘frozen smoke’ or ‘solid smoke’, and because of this low density they make excellent materials for bioscaffolding, absorption or filtration.

As well as making a useful new material, Dr Byrne said the denim recycling technique would also help contribute to the fight against textile waste. “Textile waste is a global challenge with significant environmental implications, and we’ve been working for more than four years to address this problem with a viable textile recycling solution,” she said.

“With population growth and the development of third world countries combined with today’s rapid fashion cycles, textile waste is always increasing, leading to millions of tonnes of clothes and other textiles being burnt or dumped in landfill.”

Aerogel made from denim jeans

Dr Byrne said the IFM team used an “upcycling” approach to get around cost-effectiveness issues. “One of the main drawbacks of textile recycling efforts is that any advanced technique requires the use of chemicals, which can then make the procedure less cost-effective,” she said. “We use environmentally-friendly chemicals, and by upcycling our approach to create a more advanced material we can address the limitations affecting other less cost-effective methods.

This research is now entering pilot-scale trials and the team hope to be at commercial scale within 3 to 5 years with industry support.

Read more about this research in the media release here.