Gills, Garments and More: The Story of Amphico
Jun Kamei is a Japanese entrepreneur, material scientist and founder of Amphibio (trading as Amphico). Whilst studying material science, Jun witnessed first-hand the 2011 tsunami and earthquake that devastated North Japan. The sheer destruction that Nature can bring as a result of human civilisation became a turning point. Technology of the future needed to align with nature, not confront it. Since then, the world of biomimicry has become a primary source of inspiration and guidance. Pursuing the mission to create a human society which can coexist in harmony with Nature led Jun to bring his bio-inspired ideas to the service of the real world and went to the UK. In 2018, he completed a joint Master’s in Innovation Design Engineering at the RCA and Imperial College London in which he used his expertise in material science to create AMPHIBIO as a direct response to rising sea levels and natural disasters.
AMPHIBIO was designed for a future where humankind lived in very close proximity to water, a 3D printed garment that provided daily comfort for those who spent as much time on land as they did in water. The gill itself was 3D printed from a hydrophobic microporous material, supporting subaquatic breathing by extracting oxygen from the surrounding water and dissipating carbon dioxide that accumulates in the system. A functionality that mimics the water-diving insects and lizards that survive underwater by way of a thin layer of trapped air on the surface of the hydrophobic skin. Although dystopian, the aim of the project was to propose a more optimistic vision of such a future, where humans could live in an amphibious manner by virtue of the garment.
This project is ongoing under the name Amphigill aimed to provide more efficiency in the diving market. Due to the unique hydrophobic and breathable material innovation that enabled the gill to function, there was an opportunity to reimagine this technology for another industry: outdoor performance and waterproof breathable textiles (WBT).
Waterproof breathable textiles are the perfect product to enjoy Nature in any climate, from snow to scorching sun. However, the outdoor apparel industry’s dark history of pollution using PFAS chemistry and unrecyclable multilayered materials leading to 300M sqm of post-consumer waste and 5000 tonnes of PFC bio-accumulating in the environment annually. The irony that nature lovers use products that pollute nature was an issue too big to ignore. It swiftly became the focus for Amphico’s team of designers, scientists and engineers, driven and focused to tackling the major issues within the outdoor textile industry. In 2018, Amphitex was born.
Amphitex is a waterproof breathable textile that uses no fluorinated chemistry. Outdoor performance brands, as well as other companies who produce water-repellent products, have relied on PFAS (per- or polyfluorinated chemicals) to make their products water and liquid repellent. These, now dubbed, “forever chemicals” are brilliant but toxic during its manufacturing phase, use and disposal phase, not just to the environment but also to human health. The PFAS group has over 9,000 synthetic chemicals. Within the outdoor industry, the C8 “long-chain” strain is being phased out in favour of C6 “short-chain” as they were perceived to be safer but research has found they are just as bad.
Though a daunting problem to rectify, the majority of outdoor brands and material suppliers are already investigating and implementing PFAS-free materials. Together with the impending global legislation, it brings greater awareness and education to the public allowing companies like Amphico to offer better alternatives.
Taking inspiration from the structural hydrophobic nature of lotus leaves and the nanostructure surface of springtails, Amphitex is a bio-inspired waterproof breathable textile with excellent water and liquid repellent properties. Without relying on PFCs, Amphico contributes to the mitigation of 5000 tonnes of PFC leaking into the environment. Additionally, all layers of the WBT are made from 1 material type, a hydrophobic polymer, making it 100% recyclable and fully compatible with the existing textile recycling infrastructure. Therefore, recyclability of the whole garment and redirecting Amphitex’s own pre-consumer manufacturing waste helps close the loop for the next generation of outdoor products.
While Amphitex is inherently hydrophobic, making it a viable alternative to traditional PFC WBTs, colouring the textile proves a challenge. Due to its hydrophobic nature, traditional water-based processes used for other natural and synthetic yarns are not compatible. Therefore, solution (dope) dyeing is implemented. This is a waterless process where pigment is directly extruded with the yarn leading to a significant reduction in water (on average mills use 1.6 million litres of water daily) and improved performance properties such as colour fastness, durability and sweat-wicking. The significant drawback of this technology is the high minimum order quantities and production cost.
Here, principles from nature become an exciting R&D exploration for colour, focusing on structural colour. The emerald swallowtail butterfly is one such inspiration. The bright green colour is caused by unique microstructures in the wings and when the scales reflect blue and yellow light, their arrangement mixes them together. For Amphico, this means a strategy that combines dope dyeing, colour theory and textile engineering will help ensure low prices for customers, efficient manufacturing and greater freedom to create custom designs. The ideal scenario is no pigment, only structural colour from nanostructures that reflect light in a certain wavelength range. The main challenge is to introduce structures on the textile, which has its own surface topology, but it’s not impossible. There are several avenues currently being explored including plasma technology, laser engraving, embossing and polymer engineering to name a few. This is not only to investigate if structural colour is possible but also to improve the hydrophobicity of the proprietary material, with nanostructures having the highest potential for the outdoor market and if successful, applied to other industries using PFAS chemistry.
ONE MATERIAL, LIMITLESS POSSIBILITIES
While Amphitex and Amphigill are two major innovations under development, the continual investigation into the science, design and environmental impact of the proprietary material is leading to exciting unchartered territory. Thought-provoking design concepts supported by strong scientific research has become the backbone of Amphico, helping to lead the material itself to other markets beyond gills and garments.
Whether it’s challenging the reliance on PFAS in the outdoor industry or more efficient way to explore the world beneath the surface, Amphico’s innovations are born out of necessity to deliver an alternative that fulfills both sustainability and performance requirements.
Though we are still in the midst of fine-tuning our technology and establishing our LCA, we have been fortunate enough to receive recognition and invaluable support from market leaders and industry professionals interested in our solutions.