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“After 10,000 years of doing everything in an aqueous solution, do you think that the leather industry is really culturally able to discard water and replace it with plastic balls?” This was my final question to Vik Pratap of Xeros on April 21.
We were at the 121st Annual Conference of the Society of Leather Technologists and Chemists (SLTC) talking about their Polymer Bead Technology, which he explained should be ready for commercialisation later this year.
The Xeros concept evolved from an invention a decade ago to use polymer balls instead of water to extract dirt and stains from laundry, which attracted a lot of venture capital and is now an established business. They started looking at leather in 2012 setting up a semi-secret research facility at the ICLT at Northampton University. Some readers of this column might remember that I wrote about the work in 2015 after sitting through a presentation to a tiny Northampton audience on a cold and wet February night.
Vikram Pratap took over as head of leather unit in April 2016 and has overseen taking the project to full scale and ready to launch. The most public agreement is a ten-year one, with Wollsdorf Leder of Austria and six or seven other agreements are currently underway. These are mostly, but not exclusively, in Europe. The current focus is on the retanning stage with the objective being to minimise changes needed in processing and yet allow the tanner to make big savings in water, energy and effluent. The balls are not “charged” with chemicals in any way so their role is to aid the mechanical action.
It appeared at one time that to introduce this process tanners might have to buy new drums, but Xeros has a conversion kit that works with all modern equipment and can be installed in about half a day. The company has overcome the initial problem of collecting all the beads after processing and it was explained that, since they were inert, the main issue was cleaning out the straggly little bits of leather that gets mixed up with them. There is no difficulty doing a light colour after a dark one with the balls, which are now called XOrbs.
Vik Pratap did not react to my rather cynical question about the attitude of tanners to advancement, but someone in the audience did make it clear that I would be wrong to imply that the Xerox system replaces water with the XOrbs, so this was still very much aqueous leather making. The use of water as a carrier does feel dreadfully inefficient in the 21st century. We drum the material for an hour or so to get 90% of the chemicals into the hide and then for another three or four hours to try and get a few more percent in, and then drain and collect the residual water only to spend a fortune cleaning the chemicals out of it.
For all our successful reductions in water consumption in recent decades, there are still tanners buying water from tankers, so even a start point that cuts water consumption and effluent costs in half is a significant start, and hopefully can be a stimulus for more advances in the future, be it from Xeros or others.
As Vik Pratap ponders the new name for the leather business of Xeros, and details his commercial launch plans for later this year, he will have to decide whether he is offering a disruptive technology or merely a disruption. Certainly, if one can routinely pull the effective float down to the water that is within the hide and use the XOrbs to get better distribution, penetration and uptake, then, one can sense real value here.
Dr Mike Redwood
April 25, 2018.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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