Anyone who’s fermented their own kombucha has encountered the SCOBY–a mucusy colony of yeast and bacteria that floats on the surface to give the tea its funky bite. Dried out, and a SCOBY becomes a little disc of vegan leather. But what if a SCOBY broke free of its jar? What could it become then?
That’s the general premise of Growduce, a conceptual 3-D printer by Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires master’s student Aakriti Jain and designer Guillian Graves. It’s essentially a fermentation tank that you feed with compostable scraps, and over the course of about two weeks, the SCOBY (not a true kombucha SCOBY, but very similar in biological makeup) will grow into a shape of your liking–ranging from bandages to gloves. At the end of that time, it can be dried out, or even baked, to harden. The remaining cellulose would be sterile, dead skin–like a bacterial-sourced leather.
“We understand this perhaps requires a shift in thinking about the materials we use,” Jain writes in an email, alluding to the potential squeamish factor of the stuff. “[But] people actually drink this and they are alive and healthy!”
The environmental benefit sounds seductive. Instead of merely composting our scraps to make soil, we’d be composting our scraps to make new goods. Anything you might imagine printing in plastic on a Makerbot could be fair game for the Growduce. Well, in theory, at least.
One catch is that the SCOBY needs a template to grow on. And the most obvious way to produce such a template? 3-D print it. (In other words, you’d need a standard 3-D printer to use the Growduce.) But for disposable items, like, say, SCOBY picnic plates, a plastic template could be reused, churning out plate after plate directly from compost.
While the team has successfully grown SCOBY-based objects on 3-D printed templates, they have a long way to go before the Growduce will become a reality. They hope to have a working prototype by the end of the year. And after that? It may still be more of a provocation than a mass-manufactured product.
“Growduce embodies a thought process and a potential shift in the way we think about materials and the production process,” Jain writes. “There is still a lot of testing that is required before this is something that could hit the shelves and that is something we need to work more on before claiming that it will be available to the market, but we definitely hope that devices like this will revolutionize the way we produce everyday objects.”