A New Process for Leather Tanning

Lancaster University 

Investigators: Robert Apsimon (Lancaster University); Rebecca Seviour (University of Huddersfield) and Will Wise (University of Northampton) 

A team at Lancaster University in collaboration with the Universities of Huddersfield and Northampton are using particle accelerators to develop a new environmentally friendly method of leather tanning. This is a project that ties together research on accelerators, particle interactions with matter and leather tanning. 

 The RELIEF project is focused on the tanning of leather in a novel process using electron beams whilst drastically reducing the environmental impact of conventional processes by significantly reducing wastewater produced, which can have a long-term impact on the environment if improperly disposed of and incurs a large carbon footprint if properly treated. 

In conventional tanning, large drums are continuously turned to heat and mix large quantities of hide, water, and chemicals, after which the water and chemicals cannot be reused without treatment. With the RELIEF team’s process, hides need only be soaked in tanning solutions and then irradiated on a conveyer system, essentially eliminating wastewater. By not needing to mechanically mix and heat large quantities of water, the process also has the potential to reduce water and energy consumption during the tanning, further reducing the cost and carbon footprint of the process. 

The team are currently having meaningful conversations with global players in the leather market and there will be a significant impact potential both economic and environmental from this technology. As well as IAA funding the team has secured STFC funding directly and are currently approved for the ICURe programme, but have also received contributions in-kind to allow proof-of-concept testing in the near future, which will enable them to prepare bids for larger Innovate UK funding in the future. 

As part of the ICURe programme, the team will explore the feasibility in creating a spinout or licensing business models. With the imminent beam tests planned, they intend to use this to bid for larger grants to allow the development of a prototype for industrial scale testing. 

A conceptual layout of how the hides are irradiated on a conveyor system.
The RELIEF workshop, January 2019.

Scottish Leather Group is the producer of the worlds lowest carbon leather and has over the past 20 years created novel approaches to increasingly efficient leather manufacture. Our innovation team is constantly sourcing new approaches to challenge established methodologies. One such is the application of ‘E Beam’ which seeks to eliminate the current highly water intensive drum stages of leather manufacture, by encouraging chemical stabilisation of the hide (known as tanning) without use of the drum or water bath. This is an exciting prospect, with potential application in both conventional production and could be applied to new tanning chemistry under development, in house. We are keen to support his work and to extend this work.” 

Warren Bowden, Head of Innovation and Sustainability, Scottish Leather Group