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Could Intergalactic Mining for Fashion's Raw Materials Be Good for Our Planet?

Amy DuFault

At least one scientist sincerely believes that making clothes out of molten rocks mined in space is the future of fashion. From a sustainability perspective, that's complicated.

Tanu Vasu with her designs.

Have you ever looked out at the night sky and wondered if the materials for your next dress were floating through space on an asteroid?

Believe it or not, that's a possibility. While many tech companies and designers are experimenting with materials found on the earth's surface to create new clothes, others are looking deep under the earth's crust — and beyond it, into space — for potential textile resources. 

It all started with molten rock, which exists as an extremely hot liquid located under the earth's surface that blasts out of volcanos before cooling and becoming hardened basaltic lava. According to Geology.com, basalt underlies more of the Earth's surface than any other rock type — and amazingly enough, it can be used to make textiles. The pursuit of those textiles is what brought together NYC-based designer Tanu Vasu and Silicon Valley-based scientist Dr. John Roma Skok. The abundance of the rock has Vasu and Skok wondering if it could provide an alternative to over-reliance on scarcer textile resources.

All the elements for success are here. Australia-raised Vasu has already interned at Carla Zampatti, worked for the fashion editorial team at Vogue, showcased at New York Fashion Week and taken her passion to the United Nations for the 74th International Global Climate Summit. And Dr. Skok is a former NASA scientist who has conducted Martian research at the Seti Institute and pursued geological sciences at Cornell University as a member of a team working on Mars Exploration Rovers. His graduate work at Brown University focused on the evolution of volcanic terrains.

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Vasu says their magma collaboration resulted from a reflection on overconsumption and her desire to work with new materials that could take the weight off of the materials we overuse. After hundreds of hours of prototyping and toiling with various designs and magma fabric weights, the duo created a capsule collection of "magma dresses."

"When I first heard about fabric created from volcanic magma I thought, 'Wow, a material that is 100% rock? How is that even possible?'" says Vasu. "[Combining] various materials — both conventional and futuristic — is vital in my process. [It's] this notion of old world meets today's technological advancements."

As for sustainability, Vasu keeps her eye on the prize through the innovation and preservation of ancient artisanal practices. Her favorite mediums are hand-loomed wool, Peace Silk and vintage fabrics.

"Slow production and focusing on craftsmanship and textiles are important for me. It's also about considering where the fiber comes from, who spun the yarn, who wove the fabric and even what kind of loom was used," she says.

Of course, harvesting rock and harvesting wool aren't quite the same thing. But mining aside — potentially an intensive process — making the magma fiber sounds relatively simple. The mined basalt is heated to about 2,192 degrees Fahrenheit and extruded to create small filaments. The thread-like material is then woven into a textile that is pliable enough to make fabric suitable for apparel.

Potential challenges

Once current problem with the fiber? It's itchy. Though it's a long staple fiber, it can break, and with the breakage comes an uncomfortable scratching that Dr. Skok compares to the feeling of raw wool against bare skin.

"Wearing it against the skin is a concern as it's in the realm of fiberglass," says Dr. Skok. "There isn't any long-term harm, but it will cause irritation."

One of the solutions currently being used is an aluminum backing that stops the fibers from breaking. Aluminum on the skin, however, comes with its own set of problems: it prevents toxins from being expelled by the body.

And though basalt is plentiful — meaning it could potentially replace more limited resources — it's still not exactly straightforward by sustainability standards. The incredible amount of energy needed to melt the rock is daunting. Though there's one factory making basalt fibers in the U.S. (Mafic in North Carolina) and one research center working with the fiber domestically (PISCES in Hawaii), most basalt fiber production is done in Russia or China. The location and type of factory can have a sizable impact on the carbon footprint and human rights impacts of producing the fiber.

"If the factory is creating the biggest carbon output heating the rock, we have to consider the high-energy equation. If the heat is coming from a coal-powered factory in China, then it's not as sustainable as a solar grid in the U.S. doing it," says Dr. Skok. But he notes that the lack of data available makes it hard to gauge the actual carbon footprint of the material.

Taking it to space

Considering that Dr. Skok is looking at taking the mining off our planet and into space, though, brings up an entirely different set of questions.

A self-described "space entrepreneur," Dr. Skok founded the company Made of Mars to develop the technology and economics needed to build products from materials found beyond Earth. The magma clothing with Vasu is just one of his textile-based projects. Others have involved collaborations with designers like Kitty Yeung, who focuses on programmable clothing, computational textiles and wearable devices, and Noah Christian, whose designs are inspired by Japanese martial arts and astronomy.

Made of Mars plans to scale textile development by creating technology that uses the materials found on Mars, the moon and asteroids to build the things that we need here on Earth.

"Using our natural resources on Earth has proven to be incredibly successful, but also incredibly damaging," Dr. Skok says. "The vision of the future is that we see exporting industry to space, with orbiting factories harvesting materials."

There's certainly a lot of material out there. Universe Today notes that magma is known to exist on other terrestrial planets in the solar system (Mercury, Venus and Mars) as well as certain moons (Earth's moon and Jupiter's moon Io).

If this immediately calls to mind science fiction narratives — Sam Bell mining helium 3 in "Moon," anybody? — that's probably fitting. It feels like a rather literal parallel to "Wall-E," where people destroy the planet through overconsumption. But Dr. Skok says we would engage in this mining exactly so that wouldn't happen.

"Earth is such a special place for how it creates life," he says. "If we can take that industry off our planet, we might just save our planet."

Vasu puts her own sustainable spin on it.

"There may be a gap between tech and sustainability, but I feel they can act together in one cohesive sphere as opposed to separate realms through projects of this nature," she says.

Sustainability can take the propulsion out of anyone's spaceship, but one thing seems clear: the more we fail to consider the psychology behind over-consumption, the more we will keep reaching for the stars instead of looking to our home planet for answers.

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