Method for Safer Leather Tanning Published by Texas Tech Researchers

Titanium could replace chrome as industry standard.

A post-doctoral student and a researcher at Texas Tech’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry have published a safer leather tanning recipe and process that the industry can use to make high-quality leather products that will last.

The recipe and tanning process appeared in the September and October issues of the Journal of the American Leather Chemists Association.

Biyu Peng, whose dissertation served as this new research, came to Texas Tech University in April 2005 from China’s Sichuan University. The Chinese government paid him to develop a titanium leather tanning method with Dennis Shelly, director of Texas Tech’s Leather Research Institute.

"The main goal of modern leather chemistry is to find another method to tan leather and replace chromium," said Peng, who now serves as an assistant professor at Sichuan University. "Chrome tanning causes pollution, and chrome is not very abundant."

Chrome tanning is still the best method, Peng said. But it’s falling out of favor. About a dozen sources of chrome ore exist in the world. And while the chrome salt used in tanning is stable and doesn’t pose an environmental threat, Peng said misuse, incineration or improper disposal of old leather can cause the safe chrome compound to change into a carcinogen.

Because of that, the European Union is gravitating toward chrome-free leather products for cars. Europe wants 95 percent of its automobiles to be recyclable by 2015, and chrome-tanned leather can’t be recycled. That’s driving research to find another tanning method.

"In the European Union, the environmental movement and consumers are insisting on chrome-free leather," Shelly said. "They’re saying they won’t buy any automotive leather that’s been tanned in chrome. Dr. Peng’s titanium tanning method causes less environmental risk, which is what European consumers are demanding."

Finding a titanium tanning recipe that produces the same strength and quality of leather as chrome tanning has eluded researchers, Shelly said.

While titanium tanning can’t provide the same kid-glove feel to leather as chrome tanning, Peng said his new method can produce leather strong enough for apparel and upholstery that is just as immune to decay.

"Now, an interested company can take these two papers and run their own trials on the procedure," Shelly said. "I think the method is much closer to adoption."

CONTACT: Biyu Peng, assistant professor, University of Sichuan, leatherscu@163.com, or Dennis Shelly, director, Texas Tech University’s Leather Research Institute, (806) 742-3059, dennis.shelly@ttu.edu