Let’s start with a quick history lesson regarding gold — and your pants.

During the California gold rush of the mid-1800s, an industrious young Bavarian immigrant arrived in San Francisco to seek a cut of the fortunes through the sale of his dry goods. Shortly after arriving, the man became aware of the great need that local miners had for dependable, durable clothing.

He began by fashioning canvas tarps into uncomfortable pants, but the idea eventually evolved into a product that proved to have real legs. By 1873, the man, Levi Strauss, was tailoring a French fabric from the city of Nimes (the French “de nimes” means “of Nimes”) and using an indigo dye that inspired visions of the blue uniforms worn by sailors in Genoa, Italy. This combination of places, materials, people, and historical events (and Strauss’s patented rivets for utmost durability) led to a new global craze: denim blue jeans.

A century and a half later, denim has invaded the wardrobes of every stratum of society. From the roughneck biker in a jean jacket with the sleeves cut off, to the Midwest farmer in overalls, to the fashionable city slicker, to Brett Favre in a backyard football game

Portrait of Levi Strauss (Public Domain)
Levi Strauss–the man who made denim famous. (Public Domain)

In terms of infiltrating society, the invention of Levi Strauss ranks among the likes of automobiles, telephones, and light bulbs. You couldn’t avoid it if you tried.

However, if Jen Carlson and Josh Shear have their way, the denim invasion has only just begun. Based in Lincoln, Nebraska, the entrepreneurial husband and wife team has recently developed a product they call “Denimite.” It could immortalize your favorite old pair of jeans by turning it into solid countertops, jewelry, billfolds — and even car dashboards.

Their inspiration for creating Denimite comes from a belief that with a little imagination, a product has plenty of useful applications after it has exceeded its intended shelf life.

“We’ve all known for years that the landfills are too full, there are finite resources for many things, and it makes sense to use what we have access to for a real purpose,” Carlson said. “There are a lot of materials available easily that are technically waste materials that can be made into a new material.”

For Carlson and Shear this belief has become a lifestyle. After building a straw-bale home in Lincoln in 1999, they recognized a shortage of green building materials in the middle part of the country. Soon they started a business carrying sustainable materials and made a name for themselves locally by manufacturing countertops out of recycled glass. Their unique, colorful, custom-built products can now be found in homes and businesses across the city.

In recent years their business, Iris Industries, has experimented with transforming other materials into solid, sustainable composite building materials. Nonbelievers are treated to a suitcase full of wood-like blocks made of various “feedstocks,” including sunflower seed hulls, shredded magazines, grasses, even recycled U.S. currency.

Carlson said that turning a loose, flexible material into a solid composite isn’t as complicated a notion as one might think, but it entails loads of math, science, and experimentation.

“It’s really just the feedstock and the resin binder, which is a partial bio-based binder and what gives it durability. Then it just needs heat and pressure. So from that standpoint it’s very simple,” Carlson said. “Getting everything to work correctly — the right ratios, the right pressures — there’s a lot of work that goes into that, so that’s what we’ve been researching and developing.”

Josh Shear working with his custom press.
Josh Shear uses a custom built hydraulic press to create square samples of Iris Industry’s Denimite and other composite solids. (Jon Augustine/Quest Science)

The essential ingredient required for Shear and Carlson to work their magic is a solvent-free, VOC-free thermoset epoxy resin that, when combined with a fibrous material (such as denim), heat, and compression, causes an interlocking reaction at the molecular level. “It literally creates a long-chain molecule that now doesn’t change until you get it so hot that the resin breaks down, which would be very, very hot,” said Shear.

Typically, raw materials in epoxy resin are extracted from petroleum, but the resin used to make denimite is partially bio-based, meaning that a portion of the petroleum-based components found in traditional epoxies have been replaced with biomass materials—specifically itaconic acid.

Like a typical cut of composite plywood, Iris Industry’s products are usually made in sheet form and worked with standard wood tools, but Carlson and Shear are especially excited about Denimite because it can be molded into just about any shape.

“The automotive industry is a really cool and interesting application, as they’re trying to move into more sustainable materials in general anyway,” Carlson said. “We like the idea of using it for a console or dashboard.”

And as epoxy resin technology evolves, Iris Industries hopes to eventually carry fully petroleum-free products. Shear said it’s all part of an effort to see a petroleum-based society shift to a renewable-based society. “What we’re trying to get these things to do is replace, or partially replace, some 100-percent polymer compounds,” he said.

And what better way to do it than with one of the most recognizable, durable, and loved inventions in American history? Because of denim’s prevalence, Shear and Carlson believe Denimite has a leg up when it comes to both the product’s popularity and its ability to inspire people to expand their notion of how something can be recycled and repurposed.

Said Shear, “We like to see people say, ‘Oh, you can recycle that?’ or ‘Oh, I get that that’s recycled.’”

Samples of Iris Industries Products
Josh Shear and Jen Carlson use a variety of recycled materials to create solid composites–from magazines and shredded money to fabric and farm waste. Above are samples of finished products made from sunflower seed hulls, denim, and walnut shells. (Jon Augustine/QUEST Science)
Denimite: Discovering New Frontiers for Old Jeans 19 September,2015Jon Augustine


Jon Augustine

Associate Producer for QUEST, NET Nebraska.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor