The development of a new technology which allows living organisms to be 3D printed into a piece of clothing – a possible venture into the practicality of fashion
3D printing isn’t a new concept
Involving the construction of a three-dimensional object through a layering method usually made up of plastic, 3D printing has been useful in different industries including manufacturing, engineering and even the medical industry. The Meyer lab in the department of biology at the university of Rochester have come up with a new application for the 3D printer. «We invented the concept of 3D printing bacteria», explains Anne Meyer, the principal investigator at Meyer Lab. Once the process of printing bacteria into a three-dimensional shape was thought of and experimented on, Meyer explains that they decided to come up with a way to create something which would serve as a design application in the real world — a thought process which introduced microalgae to the world of 3D printing with possible applications to the world of fashion as «something that is different than conventional fabrics».
Additive manufacturing technique
One of the best known and commonly used techniques in the world of 3D printing is called additive manufacturing; it is typically used with a coil which melts and deposits the material onto a surface to make a shape. «We bought the cheapest version of an additive manufacturing 3D printer that we could find to scavenge it for parts», tells Meyer. «We took off the extruder because when you’re working with living organisms, you don’t want to overheat them as it will kill them». The nozzle of the 3D printer was kept in to ensure maximum precision when printing out the shape. They replaced the extruder with a syringe pump – a machine which lets the substance out in a controlled manner. This allows the liquid culture to be dropped onto a surface which would resemble, as Meyer puts it, a «blob». The next step was figuring out a way to give the liquid culture a shape once it was deposited onto the surface. The solution involved food chemistry in which the bacterial culture was mixed in with alginate, a polymer made from seaweed. This, mixed with calcium, turns said liquid culture into more of a jelly-like substance, something which can resemble more of a shape. The process of adding the calcium is something that the Meyer Lab is still developing; either the calcium is already present on the surface when the culture gets printed onto or figuring out a way in which the calcium is slowly added at the same time as it’s being printed.
A component made up of bacterial cellulose
Once the culture is printed out onto the surface, the end product isn’t nearly as robust enough to be used as a fabric or textile. The solution to this is a component made up of bacterial cellulose, a chemical compound similar to cellulose from trees but easier to make and source. Simply leaving a bacterial culture out for a couple of weeks will result in a thick layer of cellulose on top. «If you leave your kombucha to sit out for two weeks it’ll create that layer of cellulose as well», Meyer gives as an example. Once washed, it results in something with the texture of a «chicken breast». «When we dry it out, it becomes a flexible paper-like material. It becomes the surface where we print out the algae». Meyer describes it as «the cellulose of the future». «Cellulose is a great material for many applications. It could be used as new fabric, new paper and in medical applications with something like artificial skin. Conventional trees and plants are where you would typically harvest cellulose from. It is a long process, especially if you consider the time it takes for the tree to grow. Afterwards, there’s energy that goes into the processing aspect whereas bacterial cellulose just sits there and grows. Then all you do is wash and boil it and it’s ready to go».
Microalgae: unicellular photosynthetic microorganisms
With regards to how sustainable and environmentally-friendly it is, the end product is «made up of the same stuff that was in the environment to begin with». Microalgae are unicellular photosynthetic micro-organisms which convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into algal biomass. This signifies that it does not demand to be fed. Although sugar can be a source of nutrition for the microalgae, a step which would make the process a little less sustainable, it isn’t necessary for it to survive. The alginate which supports the microalgae is made up from seaweed and the entire operation requires little to no processing: «overall it is more ecologically friendly than growing cotton on a farm and dyeing it».
As Meyer expresses interest in having this technique be applied to the world of fashion, she also explains how the final piece of clothing would not act as any sort of conventional fashion already out there. Once the microalgae is printed onto the paper-like material made from cellulose, it continues to live, grow and change. Unlike the 3D printed bacteria which would only last a couple of weeks before it starts to die, the photosynthetic properties of the microalgae allow it to thrive with little to no intervention: «We know that if it’s sitting quietly, the algae will keep getting healthier. We know that after a week, when it’s green, you can take our material and bend it and twist it without it breaking or getting visibly damaged». This take on unconventional fashion means that a piece made from this 3D printed material would result in a dynamic garment which would constantly change.
Testing the robustness and durability of the microalgae material
«Micro algae is good at feeding itself. Over the weeks it goes from light green to medium green to a rich forest green. The aesthetics are always changing», describes Meyer. As with any other living organism, «it’s alive so it could die. Dyeing it or hanging it in the closet for a year means it probably wouldn’t survive because it needs sunlight». Experiments were done to test the robustness and durability of the microalgae material in conditions where it thrives the most. A sample was dunked into water and «after a week, the material looked the same as before. In the water itself there was no evidence of any algae that had escaped». The only possible next step which could be taken to make this more conventional would be working on the texture of the material. «It’s a little stiff to wear as a shirt. The material is more like that of cargo pants or a tent». To answer to that, the cellulose component would need to become softer, an act which would sacrifice its sustainable element. «Printing it on cellulose means that everything is made from microbes and is as sustainable as possible», explains Meyer. The microalgae does not necessarily need to be printed on the paper-like textile made from cellulose though. It can be printed on any fabric and still maintain its photosynthetic properties and add to the future practicality of fashion.
Beyond applying their work in fashion, Meyer explains that this discovery could have big applications in the world of solar power and energy storage with focus on artificial leaves. The concept lies within the question «can you make something that takes energy as easily and simply as a tree does in a sustainable way?» Artificial leaves technology involves heavy metals, such as solar panels and cells, as well as high tech manufacturing. 3D printed microalgae creates a material «which is cheap, robust and sustainable to produce». One of the possible applications it could go towards, says Meyer, is space travel as «you can’t exactly grow a tree inside of your space shuttle».
The future of micro algae technology
Integrating into the real world and becoming readily accessible isn’t that far of a reach. 3D printers are becoming more attainable to everyday people in normal households. There is continuous development in their scales and they are becoming more affordable. To obtain a material made from microalgae and cellulose though, a 3D printer isn’t necessarily needed. The machine is used to print out precise and specific shapes, but «if you just want a blob», you don’t need one. Alternatively, the culture can also be cut out by hand. The ease in which this technology can be adopted in society revolves around the idea of «sharing the materials and resources» as well as its sustainable elements. The microalgae can be sourced from any typical swamp area. Additionally, it’s bacteria-like properties means that its growing process involves dividing itself rather than growing like a plant. This means that a small amount of the algae can grow, get divided and separated, and continue to grow without intervention. The Meyer lab is developing a bacterial 3D printer which would result in depositing engineered bacteria in specified three dimensional shapes and patterns and would be available to everyone. Such technology which results in minimal impact to the environment as well as its versatility and possible applications to such diverse industries, outlines the possible future to sustainability – a solution which mostly requires mother nature to do the work.
As the biology department at Rochester University in New York, the Meyer lab is currently researching and developing new technology surrounding 3D printers, in particular a first-of-its-kind bacterial 3D printer. Their discoveries would lead to applications in many sectors including the production of artificial leaves for the space industry.