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Decay by design: These 3D-printed organic plastics naturally decompose

A group at MIT created polymers derived from organic matter, printed by a robot, and shaped by water.

Decay by design: These 3D-printed organic plastics naturally decompose
[Photo: courtesy of Mediated Matter/MIT Media Group]

Stepping into most any store and scanning the shelves of products, all packaged for consumption and destined for recycling or the dumps, makes you feel like a truly sustainable world is a daunting, if not impossible, prospect. But the Mediated Matter Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, led by researcher and designer Neri Oxman, is hoping to get people to think differently about the objects and structures we make. With their latest research and art installation, Aquahoja I, the group created polymers derived from organic matter, 3D-printed by a robot, and shaped by water.

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Mediated Matter calls this process “designing for decay.” Whereas most plastics, wood, glass, and metals are never recycled after they have outlived their function, the group’s biopolymers are designed to decompose upon reaching the end of its product life cycle, returning to the earth instead of being destined for a dump.

[Photo: courtesy of Mediated Matter/MIT Media Group]
With Aquahoja, Mediated Matter presents three artifacts created by its Water-Based Digital Fabrication Platform: an architectural pavilion shaped like a closed set of wings, a library of material experiments, and a set of “hardware/software wetware enabling technologies” developed by the group for the design and fabrication processes. The experimental biopolymer artifacts debuted in an installation at the MIT Media Lab’s lobby in February, and are now headed for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection.

“Works included in this project are digitally designed and robotically manufactured out of the most abundant materials on our planet–the very materials found in trees, insect exoskeletons, apples, and bones,” the Mediated Matter group wrote in a statement. “Cellulose, chitosan, pectin, and calcium carbonate are combined and compounded with high spatial resolution over material tunability producing biodegradable composites with mechanical, chemical, and optical functional properties across length scales ranging from millimeters to meters.”

[Photo: courtesy of Mediated Matter/MIT Media Group]
The biopolymers used in the pavilion and artifacts are all composed of chitosan, cellulose, pectin, and water. Research into chitosan as bioplastic for large-scale consumer products (created from shrimp and other crustacean species’ exoskeletons) has been ongoing for several decades. Cellulose polymers have been used to make plastic cups, while pectins and starches can also be used to make organic plastic films.

As Mediated Matter explained in a recent research paper, “Water-Based Robotic Fabrication,” chitosan, cellulose, and pectic can be stabilized and dissolved in water, as well as recycled within minutes. The group calls these water-shaped skin-like structures “hojas” (“leaf” or “sheet,” in English), which can be created at the architectural scale or as handheld products. The group also says they can be designed and fabricated as if they were grown and not manufactured. In fact, since the biopolymer is 3D-printed into the artifacts seen in the exhibition, no assembly is required.

[Photo: courtesy of Mediated Matter/MIT Media Group]
Mediated Matter composed the pavilion, which stands 16 feet tall from biocomposites. The polymers extruded by the robots can be fine-tuned with software to vary in stiffness, flexibility, opacity, and color, and the pavilion reflects these programmed possibilities. Its color varies from brown to yellow, while the patterned textures resemble materials such as threads and tree leaves.

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From afar, the pavilion resembles a fine art sculpture. Up close, however, the surface looks organic instead of synthetic.

As visually stunning as the pavilion is, the library of artifacts are equally intriguing, especially when considering the practical applications. Six years in the making, Mediated Matters calls these computationally grown artifacts “functional biopolymers.” In other words, they aren’t a design pipe dream, but full of product potential. The various objects’ iterations and designs suggest a near future with naturally decomposable packaging or even toys, which typically get thrown in a closet instead of being returned to the earth.

[Photo: courtesy of Mediated Matter/MIT Media Group]
A bag created from chitosan, using the first generation of the Water-Based Digital Fabrication Platform, points to these more immediate application possibilities. Unlike the ugly and ecologically damaging plastics bags humans are accustomed to using, Mediated Matter’s bioplastic bag has a certain beauty to it, where aesthetics meets function.

“The wide array of forms and behaviors embodied in both pavilion and artifacts reflects the manner in which they are expressed in nature, where a material such as chitin can compose both the exoskeletons of crustaceans and the cell walls of fungi,” says Mediated Matter. “In contrast to steel and concrete, the composites formed by these materials are in constant dialogue with their environment.”

[Photo: courtesy of Mediated Matter/MIT Media Group]
Mediated Matter says that some artifacts in Aquahoja I exhibit dramatic changes in response to atmospheric factors like humidity and heat, while others darken or lighten as the seasons change. Some of the group’s other biopolymers exhibit brittle and transparent,  glass-like textures, while others are flexible and rigid like leather. Whatever their design qualities may be, the biopolymers can all return to the ecosystem.

The surface area of [it] is limited only by the robotic gantry–a continuous construction modeled after human skin–with regions that serve as structure, window, and environmental filter,” the group explains. “At the end of its life cycle, when no longer useful, the structure can be programmed to degrade in water (e.g., the rain), thereby restoring its constituent building blocks to their natural ecosystem, augmenting the natural resource cycles that enabled its creation.”

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Mediated Matter calls this process “environmental programming,” and the group foresees a future where the properties of built structures can be modified relative to seasons to encourage or inhibit decay. What is particularly interesting, but perhaps left understated by Mediated Matter, is that this system is scalable. In theory, an entrepreneur with software, a 3D printer, and the biological materials could create biodegradable products almost as easily as a corporation with mass production capabilities–financing and marketing considerations notwithstanding. And that wouldn’t just be great for the environment, but a win for independent businesses.

Mediated Matter is planning a second pavilion and library of associated artifacts called Aquahoja II, which will debut on May 20 as part of “Nature: Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial,” co-organized by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and Cube Design Museum in Kerkrade, Netherlands.

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About the author

DJ Pangburn is a writer and editor with bylines at Vice, Motherboard, Creators, Dazed & Confused and The Quietus. He's also a pataphysician, psychogeographer and filmmaker.

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