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Reducing leather pollution with molten salts

September 13, 2017

From handbags and jackets to car interiors, leather products are almost everywhere. But processing the leather for these luxury items creates a lot of potentially harmful pollution. Now, one group reports in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering a new method for processing leather that is more eco-friendly.

According to Rolls Royce, it takes 12 cow hides to upholster the interior of one of their automobiles. The journey from cow to a leather seat is a long one, involving many steps. One of the more well-known steps is called tanning, but before that can even happen, hair must be removed from the hides, and the fibers must be "opened" up or swollen. Currently, manufacturers use lime and sodium sulfide to accomplish these steps, but this produces sludge waste and toxic gas, and then it requires ammonium salts to remove the lime. Ionic liquids are molten salts at room temperature and are not very volatile, making them attractive alternatives to harsh substances. These liquids have been investigated for use in leather-making, but they've only been applied to a single process. Jaya Prakash Alla, Jonnalagadda Raghava Rao and Nishter Nishad Fathima wanted to see whether they could completely eliminate the need for lime and sodium sulfide by using ionic liquids in both the hair removal and fiber opening steps.

The team performed three different treatments on goat skins. For the control, the researchers used traditional methods. The second set of skins was processed with a hybrid method (called E1) that involved an enzyme for hair removal and lime for opening fibers. The third treatment (called E2) involved the enzyme and an ionic liquid for hair removal, then the ionic liquid again for fiber opening. The ionic-liquid-treated skins weren't quite as strong as the control after tanning, but they had the right coloration and appearance. The E2 treatment eliminated the use of lime, sodium sulfide and ammonium salts, and it reduced pollution output and treatment time.
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The authors acknowledge funding from the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research.

The abstract that accompanies this study is available here.

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