Fixing the Chemical Industry’s Sustainability Problem

A startup, led by a 25-year-old chemical engineer, is leading the way

For IEEE Spectrum's podcast series, “Fixing the Future,” Steven Cherry, an adjunct professor (TCS) and contributing editor to Spectrum, interviews Myriam Sbeiti (CBE ‘18 about her mission to improve the ecological downsides to the synthetic fabric industry. With Miguel Modestino (CBE) and Daniela Blanco (CBE ‘18), Sbeiti founded Sunthetics, a sustainable chemistry startup that is pioneering electrochemical manufacture of the nylon precursor adiponitrile. 

Myriam Sbeiti  Nylon is quite literally everywhere. ... We designed nylon specifically to essentially last forever, which is a problem in itself, because that also leads to a lot of pollution. And one of the main reasons why the fashion industry is such a big polluter, but also its manufacturing takes a lot of energy to make just because it’s such a stellar material. It takes a lot of steps and it takes a lot of energy to get the molecules to come together in that particular way. But that’s essentially kind of one of the main reasons why nylon is one of the most energy-intensive fibers.

Steven Cherry So your original idea was to replace the thermal part of the process with an electrical one. How does that lower the carbon footprint of the nylon?

Myriam Sbeiti ... Rather than using heat and temperature to make that transformation happen, we can use electrons from electricity. And that’s already a much more safe process just because you don’t have to use high heat or high pressures in order to make it happen; it’s a lot more benign. And it also replaces the use of more toxic chemicals like hydrogen cyanide by essentially making that transformation happen, just purely using those electrons. Overall it also uses less energy just to make that happen. And putting all of that together, you can actually reduce the carbon footprint by at least 30 percent.