Researchers Develop Vegan Leather That Repels Water and Oil

Researchers at Ohio State University have developed a new type of leather that is both animal-free and water-repellent.

Synthetic leather has long been reputable for being more “sticky,” than genuine leather, as high temperatures make the plastic surface become soft. But the new, vegan material is said to be able to prevent things from sticking to it in temperatures as high as 158 degrees Fahrenheit (70 degrees Celsius).

The researchers successfully developed technology, including a type of mesh, that catches oil but allows water through as well as glass that “cleans itself,” using a nano-engineering process. According to results published in the science journal Colloids and Surfaces A,” the researchers have applied the same principles to developing the new liquid-repelling synthetic leather.

“The coating could make for cleaner, less sticky furniture, automotive interiors, clothing, shoes and handbags—any products for which people use synthetic leather,” noted Bharat Bhushan, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Howard D. Winbigler, Professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State. Bhushan’s work utilizes biomimetics inspired by nature. In this case, it was substance-repellent lotus leaves.

“Genuine leather has been an important material since the beginning of human history,” added Bhushan. “Today, the market for synthetic leather is growing because it’s less expensive and easier to work with. To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has managed to fabricate synthetic leather that is not just water resistant, but super-liquiphobic—it repels both water and oil-based liquids.”

Vegan leather has come leaps and bounds since the first known animal-hide-free products launched in the early 20th century, before becoming more popular in the 1960s. Today, products made with vegan materials are in high demand, as they tend to be lower in price than animal products, yet possess many of the same qualities. Animal-free leather is more efficient to develop, as it takes less time, requires no slaughter, and produces far fewer emissions than traditional leather. In contrast, making genuine leather requires animals to be bred, raised, and killed for their hides that then undergo a lengthy materialization process.

Leather-style products can be made out of many different plant items. Mushrooms and apple skin can be processed into “leather” materials for products such as shoes, watches, and bags. And over the past couple of years, scientists have developed a strain of yeast that assembles into an animal-free “Zoa bioleather,” using a fermentation process similar to brewing beer.

Image Credit: The Ohio State University | Modern Meadow