Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 1

It may sound like an odd combination, living organisms, a secret room and a chair, but we promise you there’s an interesting explanation. Cue The Edge’s Science Catalyst, Dr Peter Musk. We spent some time in the lab with Peter this month exploring fungi, algae and kombucha. But, what’s so special about these living organisms and the materials they produce? Plenty! Because, we’re growing a chair!

In a series of conversations with the doctor, we will unravel the details behind this mysterious chair, from the use of sustainable new materials, to the design, what’s gone wrong, what’s worked, how we can try this at home, and the big question… why?

First up on this journey, we chat with Peter about a new movement in sustainable design, biofabrication: The design of sustainable new materials and fabrication of functional objects using living organisms.

Q.

Peter, I feel there is a new craze on the horizon. What can you tell me about Biodesign and Biofabrication and is it something anyone can do?

A.

Firstly, this is not a mirage – unlike many innovations in technology, this horizon does not recede as you approach it, in fact, it’s rushing to meet you in your everyday life!

To me, Biodesign and Biofabrication are linked, but different concepts. Biodesign looks to the natural world for design solutions to human problems. For example, imitating the grooved structure of sharkskin in the design of ships, to reduce drag and make the ships more efficient, this is also called bio-mimicry. Bio-mimicry uses biological materials to solve problems, like adding slimy plant gums to fluids, which in turn reduces friction by up to two thirds when they are pumped through pipes.

Biofabrication (or Biofacture) has been around for a while in the advanced medical field, where 3-D printing using various cells, has been used to make replacement body parts – and now, you can even get a Masters in Biofabrication at QUT. But, it is only recently that the field has exploded to cover a wider range of systems. New ideas are emerging where we can find applications for the particular properties of grown materials to make useful things. Useful things like growing coloured algae to dye clothes, growing packaging materials from fungi and straw, or experimenting with ways to use the cellulose produced by kombucha bacteria to make clothing. (Excuse me for shamelessly promoting The Edge in that last link).

I think this is more than a craze though, because these techniques are often more sustainable than traditional manufacturing. In many cases, the raw materials used are organic wastes, or can be grown themselves. Additionally, the finished products are inherently biodegradable, since they are part of the natural environment. Having a replacement for styrofoam packaging that you can compost in your garden, grown from agricultural waste, ticks a lot of green boxes, and will not be affected when the price of oil goes up again.

In my opinion, the most exciting aspect of this whole movement is that these new materials don’t require a million dollar factory to produce them. Anyone can grow fungi at home (check those leftovers in the back of your fridge, if you don’t believe me!), and algae or kombucha are only a bit fussier. This puts the cutting edge of materials research and design into the hands of any citizen who wants to play with it. And to me, it seems that the more people who explore this territory and imagine things they could do with this stuff, the more elegant solutions that will emerge. We can all be part of the solution, with just a little research and a willingness to experiment. If you’re interested to know more about this process, and want to be kept in the loop of any potential talks or workshops, email me here at The Edge, and we’ll keep you posted.

2 replies to “Living organisms, a secret room and a chair – Part 1

  1. Lucy

    Oh my gosh! I was lucky enough to have Mr Musk as my junior science teacher in high school – always knew he was outrageously cool and now he is proving me right!!! Way to go!

    • Peter Musk

      Hey Lucy- good to hear from you. Maybe you could come up with some ways to use the techniques in your architectural future? The people at Ecovative design (link above) have adapted it for grow-in-place wall insulation. I don’t know how they stop the fungus from consuming the rest of the house, though.

      Dr Musk

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