If the key to a young graduate's future was once "plastics," today it's biopolymers, plastic analogs made mostly from natural, biodegradable components instead of petrochemicals. "If you can create materials from the waste of biological products [corn husks, sugarcane, etc.]," says Andrew Dent, vice president at New York—based Material Connexion, "you can close the loop on sustainability." Dent's company houses what may be the largest collection of innovative materials anywhere (see examples below) and counsels companies on how to deploy them in manifold design contexts. Not all of its inventory is green, but in December, it's rolling out a "Cradle to Cradle" section, created with architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart.
- The glass fiber "textiles" in this Luccon transparent pre-cast concrete from Heidelberg Cement are added layer by layer during casting; the strands then carry light through the seemingly impenetrable (the sample here was photographed while backlit). Slabs can be used on walls, floors, or as decorative accents.
- Strips of felted wool from Lama Concept are bonded to a flexible polyester sheet, creating a breathable, repairable, water-repellent mat. A compound from Zelfo Australia, made entirely from plant waste, can be molded or sprayed onto a form, then glued, screwed, and otherwise worked like hardwood (it even has good acoustical properties). This brick from Henry Liu is made of fly ash, a residue of burned coal: It's as hard as concrete, but its manufacture uses less energy and costs 20% less than standard bricks.
- Use these KU-Green dishes from Kasetsart University for lunch, then feed them to the cows for dinner! Made from cassava, they hold up to hot liquid and (limited) microwaving, and have a shelf life of about two years. The green polymer chainmail from Freedom of Creation proves what can be done with laser sintering (creating a durable solid by heating without melting), using polymer, ceramic, or metallic powders. With the sintering process and a CAD program, designers can create one-off products of extreme complexity.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.