1998 Associate Laureate, Applied Technology
Czech Republic, Born 1938
The process of tanning hides, whose fundamentals were recorded in Egyptian tomb paintings as long as 5,000 years ago, is a vital industry whose techniques have changed little over the past 150 years.
Since the late 19th century a chromium salt solution has been the main element used to strengthen hide fibres in industrial tanning. But the small amount of chromium leached from the leather shavings poses a threat to human health. An American specialist has described the chrome-waste problem as "perhaps the major environmental issue confronted by tanneries all over the world".
The dangers stem from conventional methods of handling the tanned shavings. The cheapest way of disposing of them is the stockpiling method in open-air dumps. If the hides have been properly tanned the shavings do not leach chromium salts, but not all tanneries follow strict procedures. In such cases acid rain, which is a major by-product of fossil fuel consumption and is a growing problem in industrialized countries, can result in the slow release of these salts. If the salts come in contact with certain types of treated drinking water, they become a carcinogen that threatens human health.
Kolomaznik improved upon the enzymatic hydrolysis process and, most importantly, adapted it to an industrial scale. He has also shown that the by-products of his improved process could be used in plaster as plasticisers and stabilisers. In addition, he has carried out tests to produce other adhesive agents.
Kolomaznik’s patented process has been tested industrially at the Czech TANEX company, which makes chemicals for the tanning industry. TANEX built a pilot plant for his experiments in 1995, and research is also being carried out with the USDA, the British Leather Centre, and a similar institution in Argentina.
"Dr Kolomaznik’s unique contribution is in demonstrating that this process could be run on an industrial scale [and in] successfully identifying markets for the protein products," says Dr. Maryann Taylor of USDA.
Kolomaznik will use his Associate Laureate Award to explore over the next 12 months whether the various possible products make commercial sense. The technology, if economically viable, could turn leather production into an entirely waste-free process. This would be in the interest of the richest, most environmentally sensitive countries where leather industries flourish; In 1996 in the European Union alone, production of finished leather amounted to more than 318 million-square-metres and was valued at US$7.6 billion. It would also be invaluable to other countries where industrial development is currently of critical importance.
Published in 1998