Materials Ecology: design that works with and is inspired by nature.

I’ve developed a habit of listening to TED talks while cleaning and getting ready, and a recent talk that has stood out to me as exceptionally fascinating is one by Neri Oxman, titled “Design at the intersection of technology and biology”. This was my first time learning about the concept of materials ecology, something Neri defines as moving away from machines in design and towards symbiosis: the interdisciplinary intersection of computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic biology. Computational design allows use of code to design complex structures and additive manufacturing allows us to create ‘parts’ without carving material out of something. Materials engineering allows the understanding of how different materials behave and how we can modify them, and synthetic biology allows for edits in DNA to translate into new functionality.

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The result is objects that are free of seams, whole, symbiotic objects rather than objects made of defined parts. In 3D printing silk scaffolding, the team found both their matrix and glue in the work of silkworms, without boiling them alive as is common practice in the silk industry. As 6500 silkworms grew, pupated, mated, and spun silk, their dome ecosystem was filled in, resulting in a silk pavilion. In the creation of a 100% biodegradable building material, Neri and her team used chitin (a waste product of the seafood industry), and 3D printed a scaffold encasing trapped genetically modified photosynthetic bacteria that capture carbon from the atmosphere, and converting it to carbohydrate.

Additional works of interest that are related to the concept of materials ecology include Neri Oxman’s clothing designs: combining E. coli and cyanobacteria, as well as Mitchel Joachim’s TED talk, “Don’t build your home, grow it”.

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