Growing shoes and furniture: a design-led biomaterial revolution

The natural world has, over millions of years, evolved countless ways to ensure its survival. The industrial revolution, in contrast, has given us just a couple hundred years to play catch-up using technology. And while we’ve been busily degrading the…

The natural world has, over millions of years, evolved countless
ways to ensure its survival. The industrial revolution, in
contrast, has given us just a couple hundred years to play catch-up
using technology. And while we’ve been busily degrading the Earth
since that revolution, nature continues to outdo us in the
engineering of materials that are stronger, tougher and
multipurpose. Take steel, for example. According to the World Steel
Association, for every tonne produced 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide
is emitted into the atmosphere. In total in 2010, the iron and
steel industries combined were responsible for 6.7 percent of total
global CO2 emissions. Then there’s the humble spider, which
produces silk that is — weight for weight — stronger than steel.
Webs spun by Darwin’s bark spider in Madagasgar, meanwhile, are ten times
tougher than steel and more durable than Kevlar, the synthetic
fibre used in bulletproof vests. Material scientists savvy to this
have ensured biomimicry is now high on the agenda at research
institutions, and an exhibit currently on at the Space Foundation
EDF in Paris is doing its best to popularise the notion that we
should not just be salvaging the natural world, but also learning
from it. En Vie (Alive),
curated by Reader and Deputy Director of the Textile Futures
Research Centre at Central Saint Martins College Carole Collet, is an
exposition for what happens when material scientists, architects,
biologists and engineers come together with designers to ask what
the future will look like. According to them, it will be a world
where plants grow our products, biological fabrication replaces
traditional manufacturing, and genetically reprogrammed bacteria
build new materials, energy or even medicine.It’s a fantastical place where plants are magnetic, a vase is
built by 60,000 bees, furniture is made from funghi and shoes from
cellulose. You can print algae onto rice paper, then eat it, or
encourage gourds to grow in the shape of plastic components found
in things like torches or radios (you’ll have to wait a few months
for the finished product, though). These are not fanciful designs,
but real products, grown or fashioned with nature’s direct
help.

In other parts of the exhibit biology is the inspiration, and
shows what might be. Eskin, for instance, provides visitors with a
simulation of how a building’s exterior could mimic and learn from
the human body in keeping it warm and cool.Alive shows that, speculative or otherwise, design has
a real role to play in bringing different research fields together,
which will be essential if there’s any hope of propelling the field
into mass commercialisation.“More than any other point in history, advances in science and
engineering are making it feasible to mimic natural processes in
the laboratory, which makes it a very exciting time,” Craig Vierra, Professor and Assistant Chair, Biological
Sciences at University of the Pacific, tells Wired.co.uk. In his
Californian lab, Vierra has for the past few years been growing
spider silk proteins from bacteria in order to engineer fibres that
are close, if not quite ready, to give steel a run for its money.
The technique involves purifying the spider silk proteins away from
the bacteria proteins, before concentrating these using a
freeze-dryer in order to render them into powder form. A solvent is
then added and the material is spun into fibre using wet-spinning
techniques and stretched to three times its original
length. “Although the mechanical properties of the synthetic spider
fibres haven’t quite reached the natural fibres, research
scientists are rapidly approaching this level of performance. Our
laboratory has been working on improving the composition of the
spinning dope and spinning parameters of the fibers to enhance
their performance.”Vierra is a firm believer that nature will save us. “Mother Nature has provided us with some of the most outstanding
biomaterials that can be used for a plethora of applications in the
textile industry. In addition to these, modern technological
advances will also allow us to create new biocomposite materials
that rely on the fundamentals of natural processes, elevating the
numbers and types of materials that are available. But, more
importantly, we can generate eco-friendly materials.“As the population size increases, the availability of natural
resources will become more scarce and limiting for humans. It will
force society to develop new methods and strategies to produce
larger quantities of materials at a faster pace to meet the demands
of the world. We simply must find more cost-efficient methods to
manufacture materials that are non-toxic for the environment. Many
of the materials being synthesised today are very dangerous after
they degrade and enter the environment, which is severely impacting
the wildlife and disrupting the ecology of the animals on the
planet.”According to Vierra, the fact that funding in the field has
become extremely competitive over the past ten years is proof of
the quality of research today. “The majority of scientists are
expected to justify how their research has a direct, immediate tie
to applications in society in order to receive funding.”We really have no alternative but to continue down this route,
he argues. Without advances in material science, we will continue
to produce “inferior materials” and damage the environment.
“Ultimately, this will affect the way humans live and operate in
society.”We’re agreed that the field is a vital and rapidly growing one.
But what value, if any, can a design-led project bring to the
table, aside from highlighting the related issues. Vierra has
assessed a handful of the incredible designs on show at
Alive for us to see which he thinks could become a future
biomanufacturing reality.BioCouture
Suzanne Lee founded BioCouture in 2003 with the
sole purpose of pushing forward the future of manufacturing fashion
through biodesign. BioCouture works to link up “biomaterial
innovators” and manufacturers to see if designs that are superior
to our current offerings can truly be brought to market. Along the
way, she has designed and engineered prototypes to prove the point,
including the crab helmet, a helmet inspired by a crab’s
exoskeleton and built from cellulose and keratin, similar to the
material chitin (which the real thing is largely comprised of).
From her South London workshop, Lee has also brought us “vegetable
leather”, grown from green tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast.

For Alive she is exhibiting the first shoe that
was grown rather than made, in collaboration with shoe designer Liz
Ciokajlo-Squire. The cellulose shoe, aside from being rather
attractive, can be moulded to fit any foot perfectly. Vierra’s take: This is similar to our approach
and the use of spider silk proteins that are manufactured from
yeast and bacteria. In this particular case, these organisms are
being used to produce a structural component that is found in plant
cell walls that can be used to make footwear. It is considered a
biodegradable, sustainable material that is eco-friendly. It has
good tensile strength (not as high as spider silk) and can be
moulded. This seems like a reasonable idea.Vessel #1
To convince bees to make you a vase, first you have to make your
faux-hive/shell bee-friendly. And that’s exactly what product
designer Tomás Libertiny did, using computer-aided design. “The
design always lies in a combination of convex and concave curves,”
he tells Wired.co.uk. “If the design doesn’t comply with these
rules the honeybees won’t accept it or will not build according to
the design.”Working with a beekeeper in Holland, Libertiny used a
combination of an original hive and a skeleton mould in which the
bees could produce wax, that would eventually form the vase. The
result, he says, is a vase that can contain 1,000 percent of its
own weight and be moulded according to any new design with the
employment of a few thousand more bees — like a bonsai tree, he
says, it must be encouraged to grow and thought of as a permanent
work in progress. “It would interesting to find a comparison of an
industrial manmade material that allows such radical reuse and
reshaping.”

It took 60,000 bees two months to engineer the vase making it,
for Libertiny, “an artistic exploration of the potential of natural
process that we could tap on and use to our advantage”.“I think there lies a huge potential for generations to come to
harness whatever is out there in order to live sustainably. I must
stress that sustainability is not what the general media talks
about. Sustainability is not what is made out of wood,
sustainability is not herbs and living in the tree houses…
sustainability is awareness.”Of the designer’s role in pushing forward thinking it fields in
biology, Libertiny says: “I think one day designers should be
elected as politicians on some levels. It is precisely this type of
pragmatic thinking for people that people need. If there is no
understanding of design as a way of thinking then the designers
role is irrelevant and is reduced only to the level of pretty
things that we buy.”Vierra’s view: The use of bees to create
vessels whose design is controlled by man is creative. However, two
months to create one vessel may not be a practical timeline for
materials development. The “slow prototyping” may be too
“snail-like” for the value of the final product and demand for the
vessels. Also, it would seem like the costs could be high.Algaerium Bioprinter Japanese designer Marin Sawa wants us to stay
healthy by printing and eating our own algae everyday. And she’s
already built the printer to do it. Sawa has been working with
researchers from Imperial College London to create an inkjet
printing technology that could print algae onto rice paper. “My
project aims at adapting this industrial-scale production to a
domestic technology,” she explains in a statement. “By introducing
living microalgae to food printing, we have invented a new way of
consuming health food supplements. At microscale, the Bioprinter
technology provides a process in which cells can be ruptured and
their nutrients can be readily absorbed. At macroscale, the
Bioprinter envisions an immediate future in which algae ‘farming’
forms a new part of urban agriculture to reinforce food safety in
our cities.”

Vierra’s view: Printing specific microalgae
that are domestically grown to use as a food source is an
interesting proposition. There likely is a niche for this
application in some parts of the world. On a global scale, however,
there are likely to be challenges. For example, let’s
hypothetically imagine that these organisms can be grown at home
(different species that have different colors etc.), printed into
different designs, and provide substances that are nutrient rich.
Will people want to print their food and move away from traditional
food sources, especially when traditional food sources and meals
have become such a large part of many cultures and their social
interactions? Personally, I could envision this dominating on a
global level if traditional methods of obtaining resources were
depleted or eliminated, but this is not likely to suit the masses
unless given no other alternatives. How will potential
contamination be controlled or monitored for the average layperson
at home with little or no scientific experience or knowledge of
algae?

Packaging That Creates Its Contents IDEO Designers Will Carey and Adam Reineck have joined
with Wendell Lim and Reid Williams of the University of California
to design a probiotic drink that uses light-responsive bacteria to
form a cup.“During shipping and storage, these light-moulded cups are
‘alive’ but remain dormant until water is poured inside, creating
an effervescent, healthy drink,” write the team. “After several
uses, the cup’s walls begin to degrade and it can be composted.”
It’s a utopian view of a life of consumption with no waste. But the
concept it just that right now, a conceptual view of what could
be.Vierra’s view: I’m more than a little nervous
about how the cup will be sterilised between uses. It can’t really
get wet or it will begin decomposition prematurely. How will
humidity and rain be handled? Other microbes are sure to take
refuge in the cup and grow too.Yamanaka Furniture Furniture designer Philip Ross decided to grow a funghi
chair off the back of a fascination with biochemistry during his
years working as a chef, and a wild mushroom-hunting hobby, through
which he learned about taxonomies, forest ecology and husbandry. He
began by combining live cells with sawdust to create sculptural
objects, but on realising how lightweight and strong the material
turned out to be once dried out, moved on to product design.

“The cellulose serves as both food and framework for the
organism to grow on, and within a week this aggregate solidifies as
a result of the fungi’s natural tendency to join together smaller
pieces of its tissue into a larger constituent whole,” he explains
in a statement.Vierra’s view: This is also an interesting
concept. One of my immediate questions revolves on what type of
processing must be done to the final product(s) in order to render
them inert? Which funghi will be used for the development of these
structures and, when dried, will it pose any health risks (e.g.
allergic responses or dangerous materials that could be inhaled) to
their users? When typical polymers are used to make objects this is
typically not an issue with humans as these compounds don’t readily
elicit strong immune responses; however, these are entire living
funghi that are loaded with different molecules that will become
dried and potentially airborne. If resins are needed to seal their
products, these resins might be toxic for the environment, limiting
the value of the final product.