If you want to visit the moons of Jupiter or Saturn someday, you might end up wearing a 3-D-printed spacesuit filled with bacteria. An ordinary spacesuit wouldn’t be enough to survive the crushing gravity, toxic air, and wild temperature extremes of interplanetary travel. But living, growing wearables could eventually be up for the task.
A new set of prototypes demonstrate how 3-D-printed bio-spacesuits could someday interact with extreme environments to make them livable. MIT professor Neri Oxman, collaborated with German designers Christoph Bader and Dominik Kolb to create the designs.
In each of the wearables, a 3-D-printed skin holds microbial life engineered to support humans. In a design for the moons of Saturn, a hairy, fibrous surface holds bacteria that can turn hydrocarbons into food. Another suit, meant for the Earth’s moon, uses algae to collect biofuel and produce and store oxygen. The spacesuit for Jupiter’s moons, shaped like an oversized digestive tract, consumes and digests biomass, generates fuel and sucrose, and expels waste.
“Each piece intends to hold life sustaining elements contained within 3-D printed vascular structures,” Oxman said. “Living matter within these structures will ultimately transform oxygen for breathing, photons for seeing, biomass for eating, biofuels for moving and calcium for building.”
Instead of designing the shapes from scratch, Oxman worked with Bader and Kolb to create algorithms that guide the designs. “Starting with a seed, the process simulates growth by continuously expanding and refining its shape,” the designers say. It’s a mesmerizing process to watch:
Each of the designs was printed on a special multi-material 3D printer from Stratasys. For now, the 3D-printed shells are empty, but Oxman and her team at MIT Media Lab will soon begin new tests that pump engineered bacteria into the forms.
Don’t expect to wear these anytime soon–this is purely speculative design. But for Oxman, the project is a first step in exploring how synthetic biology might be incorporated into product design, whether those products are meant for distant planets or for more prosaic reasons on Earth. For example, bacteria-filled clothing might someday help fight disease. We may be on the verge of a new class of 3-D-printed structures that Oxman calls a “new class of functional, living materials.”
“The future of wearables lies in designing augmented extensions to our own bodies, that will blur the boundary between the environment and ourselves,” says Oxman.