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  5. New International Standard for Names and Definitions of Protein Fibers Issued

New International Standard for Names and Definitions of Protein Fibers Issued

- New international fiber standard broadened to include synthetic proteins (an innovative biomaterial) while defining minimum protein requirements (ISO2076) -

December 3, 2021

Synthetic proteins are innovative biomaterials that do not depend on non-renewable resources. They are also very promising as a raw material for fibers. A standard by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has been revised to include synthetic protein fibers in addition to petroleum-based and animal fibers. It has also established new standard values for protein content in fibers.

The issuance of this standard is expected to increase awareness of synthetic protein materials, expand their applications, improve their social credibility through the elimination of poor-quality products, and speed up their rollout into domestic and overseas markets.

1. Background and purpose

Many of the fibers used generally today are derived from animals (wool, cashmere, etc.) and non-renewable resources such as petroleum (nylon, polyester, etc.). However, petroleum-based fibers have a problem: they release microplastics into the environment. There are also concerns that animal fibers will drive environmental destruction (e.g., overgrazing by cashmere goats, etc. causes desertification, and livestock are a source of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming). For this reason, it is necessary to develop and produce materials that do not depend on animals or traditional non-renewable resources.

In this context, synthetic proteins are garnering attention as a material with low environmental impact. They are produced by microbial fermentation using plant-based sugars as the main raw material and thus have excellent biodegradability. Moreover, proteins are composed of combinations of 20 amino acids and can be applied to a variety of materials with different properties by designing the combination sequence according to the application. Therefore, they are attracting attention as a next-generation innovative biomaterial that contributes to creating a circular society.

Boasting a high level of technology for manufacturing fibers using these synthetic proteins—from DNA sequencing to fermenting, purifying, spinning, and processing—Japanese companies have led the world's technological development in this field.

The world's first jacket made using a synthetic protein material for the shell fabric.
R&D of this product was carried out as part of ImPACT. (Credit: Spiber Inc.)

However, in terms of traditional international standards, classifications, definitions, and testing methods in each country and region, protein fibers were limited to natural proteins only, and there was no clear mention of synthetic proteins. Not only that, some fibers in overseas markets containing very small amounts of proteins and consisting mostly of petroleum-based materials have been sold as protein fibers. The definition of protein fibers by traditional international standards allowed for such fibers to be identified as protein fibers, which could lead to consumer confusion and misunderstanding in trade.

To address this, Japan has proposed a revision of the international standard for terminology regarding protein fibers to include artificially manufactured proteins and to define protein fibers as those with a high protein content. This proposal was spearheaded by industrial and academic institutions that developed technology for synthetic proteins in the Impulsing Paradigm Change through Disruptive Technologies Program (ImPACT)*1 led by the Cabinet Office.

2. Outline of the standard

A revised version of the international standard for generic names of fibers (ISO2076)*2 was issued on November 1, 2021.*3 The revision was led by Japan under an "All Japan" framework by the industry, academic, and government sectors. The main details of the revision are as follows:

(1) Origin of materials defined as protein fibers

Previously, only fibers made from natural proteins were defined as "protein fibers," but the revised version now includes artificially manufactured proteins.

(2) Protein content in fibers

Previously, there was no protein content requirement, but the standard was revised to specify that the protein content needs to be at least 80% on a weight basis.

3. Expected effects

This revision to the international standard has made synthetic protein fibers (a next-generation material) an international standard, which will increase awareness and social credibility of them as a material and help differentiate them from inferior products. This in turn is expected to help high-quality synthetic protein fibers manufactured in Japan become more versatile and widespread in the global market in the near future.

(Credit: Spiber Inc.)

1: Impulsing Paradigm Change through Disruptive Technologies Program (ImPACT)
The program was established by an initiative from the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, Cabinet Office, to promote high-risk, high-impact, and challenging research and development with the aim of creating science and technological innovations.
*2: Official name: ISO2076 Textiles — Man-made fibers — Generic names
*3: The international standard issued this time is the result of the "Strategic International Standardization Acceleration Project: International Standards Development Activities in the Government's Strategy Fields," a project commissioned by METI.

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