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Medusae project – Jellyfish bio-based materials, research and developments

Creating a material from ancestor’s techniques, the rediscovery of collagen as a base for tissues and its collection from jellyfish

Recovery of jellyfish material starting from medieval techniques

Identifying artifacts and analyzing components was critical for Van Alem to understand the reasons for the durability of those materials dating back to the Middle Ages. The first research approach has occurred in the restoration studio on paper products and books that also had other components such as leather. In particular the use of collagen has been found in several areas. Merging these studies and the desire to restore heritage through an upfront approach to issues such as mass consumption and the use of synthetic materials, Van Alem decided to create the Medusae project. The regenerative and sustainable techniques used in the restoration study are the focus of this project, which developed from a concern of jellyfish overcrowding. «Human activities such as fishing and the release of chemicals into the ocean are blamed for reducing the amount of fish and disturbing the natural harmony of the world’s oceans. Jellyfish are resistant to many of these chemicals and are not fished. To compound this increase in jellyfish numbers, many of their predators, such as tuna and salmon, are overfished», can be read on the project website. It must be specified that these organisms are not mistreated, and no harm is given to them, but their use is related to the depositing of carcasses on the beaches due to sea currents. Because they are composed of ninety-five percent of water and the remaining five percent of collagen, stranded jellyfish decompose in a short time, while this largely available and sustainable resource can be used for creating a material implied in the fashion sector. 

Jellyfish collagen, the textile development

Jellyfish are picked up depending on the tides that deposit them on the beaches. Their health becomes compromised, because their lives are closely connected to the underwater life, but within the first twenty-four hours they have certain spells of life that permit them to keep the material and to restore it, giving a new sense of life. The jellyfish undergo several processes during production, to prevent the decomposition when they wash up, explains Van Alem. During this phase in which it is necessary to work with certain types of salts in order to prevent the collagen from decomposing, water must be eliminated, so the salts are added, and this process is repeated three times and renews the stalls for the jellyfish to be flat. In this way it results easy to transport the material, this procedure can also be applied at home as long as the jellyfish are maintained moisturized. The collection of the material must be done in an accurate manner as the integrity of the jellyfish and their fragile constitution must be preserved. The raw material is then stored in the freezer to save its wholeness. The following steps are based on different techniques depending on how you intend to manipulate the material, Van Alem usually focuses on making the composition as strong and maintaining characteristics such as flexibility and transparency. The raw material is mixed with polymers or proteins that are all natural components, usually to give a stronger structure to the tissue. A key aspect about jellyfish tissue treatment is the cross-linking reaction that occurs between natural polymers such as protein and jellyfish collagen. Cross-linking is a biological phenomenon that occurs when different polymers attach to each other. These cross-links allow for a change in the chemistry of the jellyfish tissue, which compacts resulting in a resistant and flexible material. Research into natural components began in 2015 during an internship at a restoration studio in Cologne when Van Alem approached the method of dyeing and looking at pigments in manuscripts from the Middle Ages relied on the Tempera technique, an example being the use of egg yolk as a pigment that melts and makes bright color pigments still after hundreds of years. For jellyfish tinctures, a mixture of egg yolk, oil and a few other ingredients is made and integrated by dissolving into the skin. For the composition of the fabric, components that are antibacterial have to be added to avoid the decomposition process. Natural materials can be used, but in particular in this case are used chitosan from the exco skeleton from for example shrimp or crustaceans. Also, natural kind of chemicals like glycerin can be applied in these composites. The technical equipment used to create this type of fabric is basic, similar to that used in a restoration study, explains Van Alem, speaking from her small workshop, which basically consists of a press for old books, small tools such as tweezers or scalpel-like, drying tools and freezer.

Properties and characteristics

Collagen is a material widely present in the world, explains Van Alem, humans and animals consist of a high percentage of collagen, so she chose it as a suitable material with several benefits and properties. The possibility to model it with different approaches and methods is one of the features that makes it usable for different fields and objects, as it happens in nature, even if at the moment the project has developed some garments related to the clothing sector. Strength and homogeneity are not characteristics unique to the base material but can be achieved by creating compounds. Since the production of this material is still in the research stage, it is complicated to determine the amount of energy required to produce it compared to synthetic or other materials, no facilities to do a stress production are implied and the jellyfish preparation implies slow manufacturing. The use of energies occurs mainly at the human physical level and at the time level being the process quite long and handmade. Depending on the composition and the manipulation done to the raw material it acquires different properties, its main characteristics are the transparency and the flexibility. Both of them can be adjusted based on the producer and product needs, explains Van Alem. For example when she uses more layers, sometimes she also applies silk fibers in between, as it is done a lot in making a skin replica for wound healing. Silk fiber also maintains transparency making the tissue very strong. Another experiment was done adding linen, but this diminishes the transparency and the flexibility. «Depending on treatment the final material will have a texture not dissimilar to rubber, parchment and/or leather. Jellyfish material is flexible, strong, and depending on the treatment also waterproof», states Van Alem.

A series of experiments to test the suitability of Jellyfish collagen as a substrate for bacterial growth, Charlotte van Alem

Biodegradation experiments, jellyfish material disposal and the future of bio-based raw materials

The biodegradation process is tricky to be studied in nature, laboratories and particular machinery are needed to observe, monitor and document it scientifically. Over the years Van Alem has conducted some experiments to try to verify this, on the jellyfish itself. In the two experiments reported we find in the first case a dissolution guided by the insertion of a fungus, in the second case that occurs through the insertion of water. In this last one was made tests using tentacles, smashing them into small particles. Being a jellyfish consisting of the majority of water, when adding it, it will slowly biodegrade because of the lack of antibacterial components. In these cases, the studies were guided and implemented through the use of external agents, so they cannot effectively attest to the feasibility in a natural environment of the fabric created; more experiments on the latter will be developed in collaboration with a laboratory at the Radboud University. Jellyfish, along with other marine elements such as algae or crustaceans, can be key substitutes for synthetic materials. The first experiments on the possibilities of use faced by Van Alem tested the material in the field of fashion through the production of some accessories such as hats and shoes. In the first case there are already developments for the creation of a commercial product, while in the second case it is complicated to ensure that this type of material, like any bio-based material, is made resistant to atmospheric agents without damaging the natural properties. It is complicated to find a natural coating that is capable of maintaining the durability of the product. There are already solutions of water-resistant coatings, but they are not so efficient to deal with years of rain and more. Starting from regeneration to overcome the problem that exists at the marine level is the perspective from which this project begins to develop a sustainable material from an unused waste material. The insignificant cost to produce it is compensated by the long time to develop it, the duration of the entire process, starting from the collection of jellyfish until the production of the object, is about six months. This timeframe could be reduced by developing the project to an industrial level capable of providing the different facilities and machinery. Despite the growing attention and appreciation for the art of science, there is a lack of funding to develop projects, Van Alem explains. Fortunately, this project will find further developments thanks to the research possibilities offered by a lab at the Radboud University and to an agreement with a big French brand, already interested in developing this material and that will involve Van Alem in the production. These fibers may replace synthetic or gasoline-derived materials in the future, simply by creating something that doesn’t harm and can be manipulated and recreated, according to Van Alem. 

Medusae Project

Inspired by washed up jellyfish in the Baltic Sea, Charlotte van Alem’s project set out to explore the possibility of creating an environmentally friendly material from jellyfish. In order to learn more about preserving organic material she visited the department of bioscience at Technical University Delft. She ran a series of experiments at the university to test the suitability of jellyfish as material.

Chiara Narciso

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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