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Can we weave together 3.8 billion years of evolution?

Fibres, textiles and clothing are an everyday part of the human experience. If they were to dramatically evolve, society as a whole could transform. We believe that by understanding life’s ability to adapt to its environment over the course 3.8 billion years, we can discover new ways of making things to change the way we live.

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Teijin was founded in 1918 as Japan’s first rayon maker. Teijin Frontier, recognized professionals in the field of high-functioning fiber, is currently focusing on relations between fibers and lifestyles. In our Think Human Project, being held in this one-hundredth year since our founding, we are considering what kind of fibers will be vital to our lives after another century of further climate change.

Human lives are highly influenced by changes in weather, climate, and temperature. Since the time human beings started walking on two legs, we have incorporated into our lives fibers suited to the environment at the time, in forms such as clothing and bedding. The climate is expected to further change over the next century, and we believe that living creatures can provide us hints regarding how to live in response to environmental change. Other lifeforms have been exposed to environmental change for far longer than we have, and have evolved through surviving such exposures.

Teijin Frontier’s focus on biomimetics is a manifestation of the history of Teijin’s fibers, which began with a longing to reproduce natural fibers. In this era where “digital” reigns supreme, it is not human-constructed technological systems from which we wish to obtain an image of fibers that will advance our lifestyles, but rather the expertise and processes that life has developed over 3.8 billion years of evolution, allowing it to adapt to the environment and thereby survive. By incorporating results from biomimetics research while embracing the same admiration for living things that lies at our foundation, we believe we can reveal the systems that living organisms have built from a whole new perspective.

Fibers developed from our admiration for living things

Working with us is Takahiko Hariyama, a forerunner in biomimetics research and a research professor at the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine’s Institute for Medical Photonics Research. Professor Hariyama’s investigations began with a desire to contribute to the improvement of patient quality-of-life issues resulting from injury or illness, such as lowered grip strength, painful sensations upon contact with cold objects, or trembling hands. By combining the knowledge of biomimetics that Professor Hariyama has cultivated with the technology behind Teijin Frontier's ultrafine fiber “Nanofront®,” we have developed and commercialized products such as our “Nano-pita®” lifestyle assistance gloves and finger cots. Ultrafine Nanofront fibers are similar to the nano-sized hair bundles on a gecko’s feet, which generate a high frictional force called the van der Waals force. When applied to the palm, the resulting grip force can be utilized in various lifestyle scenes such as opening plastic bottles, turning pages, or placing hands on a desk when standing.

Nylon is well known as a chemical fiber that imitates silk thread, but the relation between the two goes far deeper, to the extent where we can consider the textile industry as a biomimetic industry. “Since the industrial revolution, textiles have been developed through a combination of industrial products, chemical research, and engineering,” says Professor Hariyama. “However, we know that there is no future in the high-energy development approaches of the past. We have thus undergone a significant shift in our thinking, from manufacturing within traditional technological systems that rely on iron, aluminum, and rare metals and energy sources based on fossil fuels or nuclear energy, to biological technological systems in which manufacture is based on molecular assembly and self-organization using solar or chemical energy.”


Can we do that? The future of biomimetics and fibers

Well then, in what way will future fibers imitate biology-based technological systems? Professor Hariyama describes it as follows:

“As I see it, the fibers themselves will come to have all the functions we require of them. For example, I believe we are headed into an era where by changing the surface structure or chemical substances in fibers with ultra-high water repellency, such as those found in lotus leaves, we can realize superhydrophilic performance. Or we might give single fibers multiple functions by combining superhydrophobic and superhydrophilic characteristics. Life began as prokaryotes—something like bacteria—some 3.8 billion years ago, and has been evolving since. In other words, all life is made from the same building blocks. There is thus no reason why we cannot devise ways of assigning individual characteristics like hydrophobia and hydrophilia to specific parts. Today we are realizing various functions through weaving techniques or applications of chemical substances, but the future will likely be an era that emphasizes functions through fiber surface structures.”

The U.S. and Europe have pulled far ahead of Japan in terms of biomimetics research, but Prof. Hariyama says, “I aim at a biomimetics that incorporates a Japanese sense of nature. I am referring here to the Shinto belief of spirits residing in all things, which I think can be considered as a customary view shared by all Japanese. We have a certain respect for the various functions of all living things. Because we have that respect, we can observe and adopt such functions with a sense of awe. I believe that by embracing that awareness, we can produce more sophisticated products.”

Teijin began with an admiration for natural fibers. Today, as we celebrate our centennial anniversary, our Think Human Project has renewed our desire to create a technological system of living things, and we have begun to reconsider the fibers we have as we imagine what life will like be a century from now. While the ideas presented here may seem absurd, we believe that a certain playfulness, along with continued pursuit of what we wish were possible, as key to accelerating our studies.
Continuing with our theme of “fibers a century from now,” we will next introduce a collaborative project between Teijin, Prof. Hariyama, and the Takram engineering and design team.

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