There was a time when we all used to celebrate the top leather scientists. Their names were on our tongues and we were honoured to have the chance to meet them and hear their thoughts on the future. I travelled through Europe in 1966 and was privileged to meet Professor Herfield and Professor Heidemann and listen to them in conversation on this three-week trip to tanneries and research institutes. They were inspiring moments.
We continue to have some formidable scientists working in leather but, like politicians, their status has diminished over the decades, not helped by the switch of most of our famous research institutions into auditing and consultancy bodies. It needs rebalancing as science and the progress it brings is needed more than ever in leather.
With so many leading research bodies moving to commercial organisations, doing auditing, testing and consultancy, this decline in profile while understandable has made life harder for our research publications to find the high-quality research material they need. Some material has transferred to vastly improved trade magazines. This reaches a wider audience but is diminished by the fact they are not peer-reviewed. It partly explains, perhaps, why the applications have so few references to the ALCA and SLTC Journals.
If long-term research is to be encouraged, we must provide a raised profile for the research that is happening, and a good start would be with the IULTCS Young Scientists Awards. Leather industry history shows us that some of the best work is done by youthful minds and the leather industry has two good examples.
Sir Humphry Davy
Over 200 years ago, Sir Humphry Davy, better known for inventing the Miners’ Lamp and discovering endless chemicals, never went to university yet, by 21, was both a published poet and scientist. By 25, he had completed a study of leathermaking for the Royal Institution in London and worked out how to identify, isolate and measure tans and non-tans. Seguin had done some good work a year or two earlier, but vegetable tanning was still thought to be a mechanism through the “required astringency” and tannin to little more than “a green colouring matter, gallic acid and ligneous tissue….in strong combination”.
Davy’s analytical methods were used for most of the 19th century, and he opened to us the world of catechols among vegetable tannins. For this work, in 1805 when he was still only 27, he was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society.
120 years later, the American scientist from A. F. Gallun and Sons in Milwaukee, John Arthur Wilson, had also done outstanding work by the time he was 30, having been sent to study and research with Professor Procter at Leeds University. He became a prolific producer of research and public papers and books and looked deep into every corner of a rapidly advancing industry.
The leather industry today does not appear to offer the same opportunities to youthful scientists and the IULTCS Young Scientists Awards are for under-35s. Their importance cannot be underemphasised although they do not get widely promoted. The 2023 Awards were announced last month via the websites of many trade magazines, including ILM, and subsequently we get more details of the research work involved via the IULTCS website, but it still feels underwhelming.
We know little of the institutions in Brazil, China, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and elsewhere that are supporting these young scientists, and nothing other than the names of the young people themselves. What brought them into leather, what are their hopes and aspirations and how do they view our industry technically, scientifically and otherwise?
Meeting the young trainees and graduates that are to be found in some tanneries throughout the world there is no doubt we have some excellent skills and personalities among them. No surprise that some are seeing rapid promotion, and significant that quite a few are female. It would be good to see this demonstrated in research and, without a doubt, the links between industry and our research and teaching organisations must be more porous.
For 2023, the Tyson Foods sponsored Basic Research grant has been awarded to Dr Ilaria Quaratesi from the Leather and Footwear Research Institute (ICPI), Bucharest, Romania, for a project to develop an antimicrobial flame retardant based on hydroxyl apatite and cyclodextrines using an ultrasound-assisted continuous flow process.
The Erretre Machinery / Equipment grant went to PhD candidate Vasanth Swaminathan from Anna University, Chennai, India, who is looking to optimise leather cutting by variation of the distance and pulse width of a laser diode-assisted machining.
And the Dr Mike Redwood (thank you Leather Naturally – you can never fully know what an honour this is) Sustainability / Environmental Award, provided by Leather Naturally, has been awarded to Dr Yue Yu from Sichuan University, Chengdu, China, for work to develop a light-coloured, lignin-based retanning agent which can be used as a green substitute for aromatic syntans using H2O2/O3 synergistic oxidation technology. The hope is to develop a new retanning agent.
Chair of the IUR Selection Committee, Dr Michael Meyer, said: “All three project proposals show technological knowledge at a very high level and demonstrate the competitiveness of the leather industry with other industries worldwide.”
Like our other organisations, the IULTCS has transformed over recent years and its activities and conferences have all become much more vibrant, but it can only support and reflect the ongoing science activity within the industry and somehow we need to raise the profile and the status of this work. We may be proud of what leather is, and has been, but it survives because tanners have been able to adapt it as times, technologies and fashions change.
The contribution of scientists is a vital part of this process and we need to celebrate both the individuals involved and their work. As competitive materials raise finance for research that tanners only dream of it is our few scientists that will keep leather in the game.
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood
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