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The future belongs to biomaterials. How designers are taking up the challenge

From fashion to design, from architecture to construction, biomaterials and their applications are constantly multiplying. And designers are responding to this revolution in many different ways.

Taking note of recent proposals on the international stage, it’s clear that the future – at least the near future – belongs to biobased materials inspired by the world of design. The sheer number and wealth of experiences through which the world of design is joining forces with the research and development of bioalternatives to synthetic products indicates a bright future for biomaterials. Is this just fruit of a temporary infatuation on the part of the design world or is it a harbinger of something more significant?

Biomanufacturing is the future of materials

Rapid progress in biomanufacturing is one of the drivers of this trend. This new frontier in material science allows for the production of biobased products starting from very specific raw materials. These include cells, molecules or extracellular matrices, some even deriving from human skin. Production can go far beyond natural materials that have been known for millennia such as natural textiles, leather, wood and paper, which all derive from animals and plants.

Biomaterial science and cellular biology have been at work for a long time to make biomanufacturing technology widely available. The main field of interest is medicine, where the technology is essential in studying and preventing rare diseases.

Furthermore, these technologies provide a valid alternative to synthetic materials that will be used by the biofuels industry to produce sustainable energy in the future. In addition, it’s worth remembering that they’re also useful in developing agricultural and food products that don’t use animal parts or products, necessary given the expansion of veganism.

jen keane, biomaterials
Biodesigner Jen Keane has developed an interesting “microbial weaving” process by manipulating the growth of k. rhaeticus, a type of bacteria typically found in kombucha tea. The resulting material, a synthetic fibre, is stronger than steel and more resistant than Kevlar © Vita Larvo

Less in the spotlight is how biomanufactured technologies are being employed to create biobased design materials with applications in construction, architecture and industrial design.

Biomaterials that have emerged from the design world

In some cases, the practice of design itself has led to experiments in which biologists, engineers and designers have created new, “design-driven” materials.

mycoflex, biomaterials
Mycoflex is a biomaterial made from 100 per cent pure mycelium. It’s the main component of high-performance foams that have a wide range of applications, from sports shoes to light insulators for thermal gloves, and much more. Mycoflex is a vegan, non-toxic alternative to traditional synthetic foams and biodegrades naturally after use © Ecovative

Modern Meadow

Modern Meadow is probably the most important example of this trend. The US design and research studio is a global pioneer in biomanufacturing advanced materials whose specific purpose is to offer new design possibilities. It was founded with the conviction that “multidisciplinary collaboration between design, biology and material science can lead to smarter ways to make evolved materials, inspired by nature and grown of life’s essential elements: cells, DNA and protein”.

This design and applied research studio based in Brooklyn, New York City has created the Zoa brand, a family of innovative materials based on a collagen protein tailor-made in the company’s lab. Among other things, this protein has spawned a new and completely biomanufactured material inspired by animal skin, dubbed liquid leather because of its distinctive versatility.

biofaber, biomaterials
Bacterial cellulose is a very versatile material and the BioFaber team, made up of designers, engineers, biotechnologists, plastic surgeons and researchers, has been able to create different processes with applications in sectors ranging from design to biomedics © BioFaber

BioFaber

Italian startup BioFaber, based in the region of Puglia, was launched with the intent of creating new nano-structured biomaterials based on bacterial cellulose.

The bio-company led by designer Mariangela Stoppa is a perfect example of the circular economy in action: the production process is based on the symbiosis between bacteria and fungi already present in many food products.

biofaber, hydrogel, biomaterials
BioFaber’s hydrogel is transparent and elastic © BioFaber

The transformation happens in an aqueous culture enriched with sugars from food waste such as molasses and olive residues, which are used by the microorganisms to synthesise the nanostructured cellulose. The latter self-assembles at room temperature and atmospheric pressure in a matter of weeks.

A nano-structured, biocompatible polymer emerges, one that can be customised to have particular traits. If necessary, it can be odourless, sterilised or hydrophobic.

From this technological starting point, the Brindisi-based company has created a sustainable material that in certain cases can replace use of animal skin and, in its hydrogel form, a series of materials aimed at the medical and biocosmetic sectors.

Biomaterials in the world of fashion

It must be noted that the tendency to introduce bio-generated products isn’t limited to design, and extends to the world of fashion. In certain ways, biomaterials have a higher likelihood of being applied in this field given that the required performance characteristics are technologically less complex.

Read more: The wonders of linen, a new study reveals the secrets behind its natural sustainability

biofaber, greenskin, biomaterials
BioFaber Green Skin, a biomaterial similar to leather, is made from bacterial cellulose © Tiziana De Angelis/BioFaber

Launch fabric

Launch Fabric, led by designer Suzanne Lee (Creative Director of Modern Meadow), is an offshoot of Launch, a US innovation platform that was founded to identify and promote innovative ideas for a more sustainable world. Launch Fabric’s biocouture projects have been developed in collaboration with NASA, Nike and Ikea (just to name a few) to enhance the circular economy in the world of fashion, with biobased materials playing a key role.

Lee is known mainly for Biofabricate, a consultancy whose team of designers and organic science experts works in the United States and United Kingdom. The company helps institutions and businesses introduce biomanufactured materials into the production of sustainable products.

Industry is also rich in concrete experiences in biomanufactured materials and technology, although these have generally been limited to special projects.

Amsilk

Such is Adidas‘ case. It was one of the first companies to commit to this direction by introducing Biosteel fibres developed by German industrial supplier Amsilk into the manufacturing of its shoes. The silk-like biopolymer is obtained by decoding spider DNA then applied to a bacterium. Adidas has also produced a tennis outfit in biofabric, but it’s still a prototype.

Spiber

Meanwhile, Japanese biotech startup Spiber has began selling the first sports garment in the world made entirely from synthetic silk: the Moon Parka, developed in collaboration with The North Face, was released on the market as a limited fifty-piece edition.

Design universities as incubators for biomaterials

In many European cities design schools offer Master’s courses dedicated to the materials of the future and around the world, design universities are becoming incubators for innovation in this field. It’s in this context that an increasing number of courses are being offered to young designers to work on the development of low-impact materials by collaborating with biologists, chemists and researchers.

An ever-growing number of design students choose to pursue Master’s and PhDs in the development of new biobased materials. As has happened more frequently in recent years, the creation of startups and experimental labs within design schools is promoted via special contests and public grants. Most designers attending these innovation accelerators might seem like bricoleurs, amateurs in a new age, but it’s likely that they’re truly the heroic vanguard trying, on their own, to do what heavy industry has failed to do up to this point.

Read more: Plastic waste as a resource, how design can shape intelligent (re)use

fibershed, natural fibers, biomaterials
Fibershed is a sustainable and regenerative regional farming system that produces natural fibres used to create clothes © Paige Green

Green Lab

Green Lab, open to individual designers, organisations and companies, is one such places. Based in Bermondsey, in West London, it was created as an incubator for bio-circular economies, to develop and experiment in the ambit of unexplored aspects of the food chain, waste processing and the biosphere. In the past few years, it has benefited from contributions by many young designers with Master’s degrees in the subject of Future Materials. As well being a hub to connect with key sustainability players in the UK, the lab also provides biodesigners with a Grow Lab where they can develop biomaterials, as well as “DIY” utensils and spaces in which to archive projects and experiments.

It isn’t rare for profitable startups that give birth to new, alternative supplies for semi-manufactured and finished products to emerge in this context, although their reach tends to be mostly local.

eggware, biomaterials
Eggware: single-use biodegradable crockery made from eggshell waste © Midushi Kochhar

Startups experimenting with biomaterials

Ponto Biodesign

Guatemalan designer Elena Amato explored the topic of biomaterials in her Design degree dissertation. She has now joined forces with researcher Caroline Pagnan to create Ponto Biodesign, an experimental bio-manufacturing lab.

The goal was to develop packaging from bacterial cellulose for the cosmetics sector. A new raw material was created by mixing bacteria and yeast cultures with water, then drying and processing them to create a sheet halfway between paper and plastic. These new materials, which designers source and create locally, further reduce the impact of transporting raw materials.

Totomoxtle

This is exactly what Mexican designer Fernando Laposse did a few years ago when he created Totomoxtle. This new veneer material is obtained from the shells of Mexican maize – which has become the symbol of diversity in native seed varieties – processed locally through simple technology.

There are many examples along these line and many sectors are being affected by this revolution: from the world of textiles and fashion, to footwear and sports equipment; from packaging, to interior design, to architecture. At the design weeks in London and Amsterdam this year there was a distinct feeling that young European design is cultivating an aptitude for promoting investment in biobased materials.

biofaber, biomaterials
Preparation of the bacterial culture needed to create hydrogel © BioFaber

Designers as developers and self-producers

Young designers are the new alchemists. They define goals that set innovation challenges, create their own laboratories, work with chemists and researchers, and experiment to reach the results they’ve set themselves. In other words, they self-produce new materials, determining their structural and aesthetic characteristics. They decide what to create them from – nature or recycling – and how to transform them, cultivating alternative solutions to traditional materials that are environmentally weak or unable to adapt to new needs.

Read more: Visionaries Marcel Wanders and Ross Lovegrove dialogue on plastics and design

Lindsay Ann Hanson was still a design student when she developed the Immunotex project together with Margot Vaaderpass and Zaki Musa for the yearly Biodesign Challenge organised by London arts university Central Saint Martins. Immunotex is a travel clothing startup: it creates clothes and footwear designed to protect travellers from the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Its experiments have led to the Resistance Runner project, in which sports shoes are made from biobased fabrics that use bacteriocins to protect wearers from potential contamination.

resistance runner, biomaterials
The Resistance Runner is a bioengineered shoe that incorporates a cloned bacteriocin and micrococcus matrix in its manufacturing technology, which allows for the blocking and capturing of resistant bacteria. The matrix is based on a protective biofilm and needs to be recharged in a nutritional broth every seven days to remain activated and create an effective bacterial culture. The shoes, therefore, come with a ziplock bag that contains the “nutritional broth” and serves as a charging unit © Resistance runner

It’s a well-known fact that in recent years antibiotic-resistant bacteria have been emerging more prominently, posing a significant public health threat in the years to come. In this context, bacteriocins – substances produced by some bacteria that are able to combat the growth of phylogenetically similar bacteria – are being explored as alternatives to traditional antibiotics in factory farming and used in methods to contrast food contamination.

green skin, biofaber, biomaterials
A weave made from BioFaber’s Green Skin, a material similar to leather made from bacterial cellulose © Trenove Lab/BioFaber

On the other hand, biodesigner Jen Keane has developed an interesting “microbial weaving” process by manipulating the growth of k. rhaeticus, a type of bacteria typically found in kombucha tea. The resulting material is a synthetic fibre stronger than steel and more resistant than Kevlar. This new material is customisable and completely compostable, and has allowed Keane to create a prototype of biobased sports shoes that she presented as part of the This Is Grown project.

Subsequently, Keane and synthetic biologist Marcus Walzer developed a bacterium that is self-dyeing, meaning it can create cellulose and melanin. This allowed for the development of This Is Grown, the first sneaker upper that can be “grown”; weaved and dyed by a single genetically modified organism. The material is 100 per cent compostable and entirely free of synthetic materials and dyes. The project was exhibited by The Mills Fabrica in Hong Kong, an open platform to facilitate collaboration between startups, brands, sellers and research institutes.

Jonas Edvard, a Danish designer and artist who experiments with natural raw materials, has perfected a material he calls Gesso, derived from the great Nordic coral reefs, a natural mineral deposit extending over 2,000 square metres that contains high-value limestone as well as a large quantity of ancient fossils, buried among its multiple white layers. Coral limestone is usually extracted, ground and turned into construction blocks, cement and fertiliser. Edvard instead has derived a completely natural limestone composite from it, made of calcium carbonate, an organic binder and some pigments. He uses this material to self-produce furniture and lamps in Denmark.

gesso, jonas edvard
Coral calcium, which contains a large amount of fossils buried in the white strata of compressed minerals, is used by designer Jonas Edvard for his Gesso project © Jonas Edvard

Even food waste can become biomaterials

Food processing waste also offers a wealth of possibilities that will fuel localised self-production in the future. The exploration of this frontier has already spawned new and unexpected materials.

In the UK, Blast Studio (Biological Laboratory of Architecture and Sensitive Technologies) has developed a project in which the pulp from recycled coffee cups collected in London is reborn thanks to fungi’s mycelium. Through this process waste is transformed into an organic material that can be used to make furniture and objects. To allow the pulp to be consumable by mycelium, Blast designs winged objects that can retain humidity, enabling the fungus to grow and generate the novel biomaterial.

Biomaterials from coffee

Another UK-based designer, Atticus Durnell, is behind That’s Caffeine, a material made from used coffee grounds aggregated with organic binders, minerals and a plant-based resin. Its light, biodegradable, water-resistant as well as heatproof, and Durnel shapes it using traditional tools like buzz saws, or uses moulds to craft objects that he then sells online.

that's caffeine, biomaterials
That’s Caffeine, a material perfected by young UK designer Atticus Durnell, is made from recycled coffee grounds, biobinders, minerals and a plant-based resin that make it light, biodegradable and sustainable. Its water and heat resistant, which makes it suitable for use in kitchen and bathroom settings © That’s Caffeine

Biomaterials from eggshells

Young designer Midushi Kochhar has experimented with the transformation of eggshells from the catering industry. With this chalky waste she creates biodegradable, single-use crockery as an alternative to plastic, which is often used to serve street food. With the right treatment this material might even have other applications, such as the creation of panelling for interiors, furniture and to be used in construction.

eggware, midushi kochar, biomaterials
Eggware single-use tableware is biodegradable and locally produced: waste is transformed into something useful. The products are designed for eating on the go, suitable for serving street food as an alternative to non-biodegradable single-use plastic © Midushi Kochhar

Biomaterials from oranges

A few years ago, Italian startup Orange Fiber patented and began producing a biomaterial made from processing the waste from Sicilian citrus fruits. It became one of the first completely sustainable textile products in the world: a gossamer fabric, soft and very similar to silk, perfect for low-impact fashion. In a field as collaborative and inclusive as that of new generation design, these “brand-materials” represent business models to be shared widely so that others can reproduce and develop them elsewhere.

orange fiber, biofabric
Cellulose from citrus waste is made into a filament and subsequently an innovative fabric © Orange Fiber

And then there’s mycelium

The regeneration of food processing waste isn’t only a resource; it represents something much larger. Scaling up from the local to the global could occur quickly as the raw materials needed for mass production of biomaterials from this kind of waste are available in abundance. A new protagonist in the future of biobased materials is already emerging: mycelium.

Biologically speaking, it’s the vegetative part of fungi. It’s made up of a dense tangle of filaments that are conduits for protoplasm, which is made up of amino acids, proteins, lipids and polysaccharides. The material that originates from it can be considered a full-fledged polymer. The advantage of mycelium is that it performs the irreplaceable role of being a natural aggregator, which explains researchers’ and designers’ interest towards it as this functions allows for the creation of new materials from organic waste. In fact, fungi tend to grow on any organic matter that contains cellulose, a natural sugar-based polysaccharide which they consume.

mogu, biomaterials, raw
The material obtained from fungi’s mycelium grown in a mould – whose growth is interrupted through heating and dehydration at the end of the biochemical transformation – is inert and free of spores © Ecovative

Mogu

The use of mycelium to create biomaterials for architecture and interior design is being explored by Mogu, a European company that resulted from a merger between an Italian and a Dutch startup, which is based in the Italian province of Varese. It specialises in the design of materials generated by fungi that consume organic waste.

mogu, panel, biomaterials
Mogu biomaterials are obtained by cultivating mycelium on organic agricultural and food waste that has been purified from microorganisms that would otherwise damage the fungus’ growth © Mogu

Founded by Maurizio Montalti with Stefano Rabbini, Federico Grati and Natalia Piatti, Mogu recently developed highly resilient, zero-impact acoustic and paving panels that are completely biodegradable and exclusively based on organic substances. The result of five years of research and development, the biomaterials are obtained by cultivating mycelium on organic agricultural and food waste that has been purified from microorganisms that would otherwise damage the fungus’ growth.

acoustic panels, mogu, biomaterials
The surface of Mogu acoustic panels is white and silky thanks to mycelium. There are small differences between each panel due to the nature of biomaterials © Mogu

Ecovative

Ecovative, a startup based in New York, USA, also works with mycelium from fungi originating from food waste. Using materials from this same family, Ecovative has created Mycocomposite, a type of packaging that presents itself as an alternative to polystyrene. It takes about ten days for the raw material to develop and become stable at which point it’s ground and can either be moulded or grown directly in ad-hoc moulds to obtain a flexible, light, shock-absorbing, fire and water-resistant material.

Developed in 2007, Mycocomposite is a high-performance packaging material, completely biobased and C2C Gold certified, a mark of distinction for alternative and circular productions. It’s been used by various companies, including Ikea, to reduce their environmental impact.

Even bioplastics can originate from biomaterials

Finally, we mustn’t forget that the world of contemporary ecodesign also embraces natural-origin bioplastics, materials derived from microorganisms exposed to specific cellular stress conditions. These are also the object of experimentations and research because they represent a new generation of circular plastics, with aesthetic as well as use value, which can meet conscientious consumer choice principles.

Read more: Plastic waste as a resource, how design can shape intelligent (re)use

mushroom packaging, biomaterials
Developed in 2007, Mushroom Packaging is made from high-performance biomaterials © Ecovative

Lessons from history

The advantage of biomanufacturing is undeniable: it offers an increasing amount of valid alternatives to an industry accustomed to using synthetic materials. As things stand, the latter have no future because of their environmental impact, therefore they must be revisited and substituted. Furthermore, the interest designers and businesses are demonstrating in biomaterials offers positive signals from a qualitative perspective as well.

History, however, teaches us to be cautious.

Synthetic materials were developed as an alternative to natural materials inadequate for industrial production. Today, in a world where nature is providing the alternatives, we can’t ignore the fact that no one knows exactly what will happen if these types of materials take hold on a much larger scale.

The cultivation of materials requires us, at least, to question whether a mass transition to biobased products will really allow industry and society not only to restore, but, most importantly, preserve a new environmental balance that can meet the requirements of the future.

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