Following on from our previous post Biomaterials forecast near future of design: Part 1, Madeleine Hinchy continues her report on biomaterials forecasting the replacement of environmentally damaging products and manufacturing methods.
There are other groundbreaking uses for algae that scientists have been exploring, including its use in the production of ‘super-material’ nanocellulose. As the most abundant organic polymer on earth, cellulose on its own is relatively innocuous. Like plastic, cellulose consists of molecules linked together into long chains. It makes up tree bark, corn stalks, cotton fibre and is a major component in paper and cardboard. At a sub-nanometer scale, cellulose has some exciting and radically different properties. The material is thinner than paper and stronger than Kevlar, the space age material that has been used to create body armor. It is also flexible and some forms are conductive meaning it could be used to create things like thin displays for screens or mobile phones or in electronic sensors.
Research into nanocellulose production has been going on for forty years but until now it hasn’t been commercially viable as a material as it isn’t produced in large quantities in nature. It looks like that is about to change though. In April this year US scientists, announced they have achieved a breakthrough that could see nanocellulose mass-produced in just a few years.
Previous methods of nanocellulose production required the use of high volumes of sugars, nutrients and other resources – including grinding wood pulp or using chemicals to grow it. Dr. R. Malcolm Brown a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and his researchers have produced nanocellulose that is entirely self-sustaining, producing its own food from the sun and absorbing carbon dioxide during the process. The break through will make possible nanocellulose ‘factories’. Brown says,
“If we can complete the final steps, we will have accomplished one of the most important potential agricultural transformations ever…we will have plants that produce nanocellulose abundantly and inexpensively. It can become the raw material for sustainable production of biofuels and many other products. While producing nanocellulose, the algae will absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas linked to global warming.”
Nanocellulose algae can have numerous applications like lightweight armour and ballistic glass, wound dressings and scaffolds for growing replacement organs for transplantation. However Scientists are still establishing the potential toxicity on the environment when it biodegrades.
Plastic From Wool
Upcycling – the conversion of waste materials and even garbage into something of value – has been one of the most influential trends in sustainable product design in the last few years. Designers have been using smart design to transform discarded items – from plastic bags to post-industrial waste – into covetable and useful objects.
A clever recent upcycling project, is ‘Biowool’ – a durable, biodegradable biopolymer made from discarded wool and bio-resin. Developed by Daniel McLaughlin, the material was created as part of the New Zealand-born industrial designer’s final project at London’s RoyalCollege of the Arts. Inspiration for the project came from his desire to enhance the value of coarse wool and boost a struggling kiwi wool industry.
Wool is a renewable fibre but different grades have more value. The coarse wool is used in home insulation and for other uses, but McLaughlin wanted to see if he could extend the wool’s use before it was composted.
“I looked at how wool transfers throughout the value chain ie. How it is grown on a sheep’s back, to become to become carpet, to be sent to landfill,” says McLaughlin. “One paper I read suggested around 7% of wool used in carpet production became waste.” He began experimenting with the wool fibres from old carpets and post-industrial, post-consumer wool waste. He combined the fibre with bio-resin sourced from rapeseed oil, and after numerous experiments, he managed to produce a rigid plastic-like composite.
McLaughlin’s biopolymer could be used as an eco-alternative to robust petro-chemical plastics since it is not only biodegradable but extremely strong. Potential uses floated for ‘Biowool’ include within car interiors and even for luggage. The designer demonstrated this application with ‘Terracase’ – a prototype luggage range formed by placing the Biowool in a large CAD created mould. McLaughlin’s experimentations with tensile testers – a machine that pulls a product to the point of breaking – proved that his biopolymer suitcase was stronger than many commercially available hard shell luggage ranges. At end of life, the material can be composted and should break down within two years.
The designer was rewarded for his efforts with a grant of £5000 from the James Dyson Foundation to invest in commercial development so in just a few years, your car interior might be looking distinctly wooly.
Breaking our dependence on petro-chemical plastics will take time. But as these individuals and companies show, taking our cues from the miraculous production processes of natural organisms can take us a long way towards solving human-made problems.