It’s Only Natural: Are Biomaterials the Future of Sustainable Manufacturing?

Furniture made from mushrooms. Clothing made from seaweed. Shoes made from spiderwebs. It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but these are are just some of the examples of the fascinating innovations of Biofabrication.

Autor*in Daniella Mattiuzzo, 12.12.16

Furniture made from mushrooms. Clothing made from seaweed. Shoes made from spiderwebs. It may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but these are are just some of the examples of the fascinating innovations of Biofabrication.

The manufacturing industry needs to change. Old technologies using petrochemicals and other toxic, non-biodegradable materials contribute to land and ocean destruction at an alarming rate, while most current manufacturing processes use a large amount of resources like water and coal while producing enormous carbon emissions. The clothing industry alone is the second biggest polluter of freshwater resources, never mind the effect of microfibre pollution on our ecosystems.

While many large companies, such as Patagonia, are making an effort to use recycled materials in their manufacturing, the end result remains a non-biodegradable product. So how do we break this chain? Enter the brave new world of Biofabrication.

What is it?

The more-or-less official definition of Biofabrication is “the production of complex living and non-living biological products from raw materials such as living cells, molecules, extracellular matrices, and biomaterials.” To put it a bit more plainly, it is the manufacturing of products built or grown entirely from organic materials, meaning they are 100% biodegradable.

Originally used to describe medical technologies, i.e. replacement body parts, the term has grown to include manufacturing technologies of many kinds, from fabrics to furniture materials, and even concrete. Popular leather alternatives, which may help eliminate the unethical, and resource-intensive animal industry, are just one example of the growing awareness of biofabric potential.

A recent meeting of some of the most innovative companies in the field at the Biofabricate 2016 Conference in New York revealed some of the latest advances in the area, and a glimpse into the not-so-distant future of sustainable manufacturing.

New Frontiers

Here are just some of the fascinating projects that were featured: Teaming up with German fibre manufacturers AMSilk, global sportswear brand Adidas revealed their first shoe made entirely out of spider silk biopolymers, i.e. proteins based on spider silk. The shoes are lighter, tougher, and more breathable than their plastic counterparts, as well as being antibacterial and 100 per cent biodegradable.

According to American company bioMASON, around 1.23 trillion bricks are produced annually, creating approximately 800 million tonnes of carbon emissions. Inspired by the properties of coral, the company has developed a fast way to ‘grow’ bricks from sand and bacteria. This ‘Biocement’ can be manufactured on-site reducing transportation and energy costs, and overall bring down the construction industry’s carbon emissions.

Biomaterial company Ecovative create furniture made from mushroom roots and agricultural waste. Strong, fire-resistant, cheap, non-toxic and biodegradable, the company uses their magic ingredient to also produce plastic-free Styrofoam.

Research company Bioesters are busy testing out biodegradable filaments made from brown algae (i.e. seaweed) to create new clothing textiles designed to help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and toxic waste produces by the clothing industry.

For Better or Worse

Other than being mind-blowing, would these products really be able to make a difference? The answer is, probably, that many of the technologies are too much in the early stages to tell, however one thing is for certain: a lot of money, thought, and effort is being put into developing them. There is still a multitude of questions to address such as, for example, what is the procurement process for the by-materials, such as sand? Also considering the specialised equipment involved, will they ever be a cost-effective solution? Or will they remain a niche product? Whatever the future holds, these projects are aiming to re-define manufacturing from the bottom up; an essential aspect if we truly want to make our way towards a waste-free future.

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