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Will our future clothes be made of algae?

Using 3D printers, an international team of researchers has printed algae into living, photosynthetic material

A mini t-shirt shows the photosynthetic living materials created in the lab of University Rochester biologist Anne S. Meyer and Delft University of Technology bionanoscientist Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam using 3D printers and a new bioink technique. (University of Rochester photo)

Making sustainable clothing and recycling clothes are tricky propositions. But now, researchers and scientists around the world are looking at everything from mushrooms to bioplastics to design clothes of the future. What are the the other possible options? Algae.

For the first time, an international team of researchers from the University of Rochester and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands used 3D printers and a new bio-printing technique to print algae into living, photosynthetic materials that are tough and resilient.

Living materials, made by housing biological cells within a non-living matrix, have gained popularity in recent years as scientists recognize that often the most robust materials are those that mimic nature.

"Three-dimensional printing is a powerful technology for fabrication of living functional materials that have a huge potential in a wide range of environmental and human-based applications," says Srikkanth Balasubramanian, a postdoctoral research associate at Delft and the first author of the paper, which was published along with the accompanying research in the journal Advanced Functional Materials recently.

"We provide the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed in real-life applications," Balasubramanian explains in a news release.

To create the photosynthetic material, the researchers began with non-living bacterial cellulose -- an organic compound that is produced and excreted by bacteria.

Bacterial cellulose has many unique mechanical properties, including its flexibility, toughness, strength, and - more importantly - ability to retain its shape, even when twisted, crushed, or otherwise physically distorted. The cellulose is like the paper in a printer while living microalgae acts as the ink. The researchers then used a 3D printer to deposit living algae onto the bacterial cellulose.

The combination of living (microalgae) and non-living (bacterial cellulose) components resulted in a unique material that retains the photosynthetic quality of the algae and the robustness of the bacterial cellulose. The material is not only tough and resilient, but also eco-friendly, biodegradable, and simple and scalable to produce, the release explains.

The plant-like nature of the material means it can rely on photosynthesis to "feed" itself over periods of many weeks, and it is also able to be regenerated -- a small sample of the material can be grown on-site to make more material.

The unique characteristics of the material make it an ideal candidate for a variety of applications in the future, including novel products such as artificial leaves, photosynthetic skins, or photosynthetic bio-garments.

Artificial leaves are material that mimic actual leaves, using sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide -- a major driver of climate change -- into oxygen and energy, much like leaves during photosynthesis. The leaves store energy in chemical form as sugars, which can then be converted into fuel. These artificial leaves could be a potential source to produce sustainable energy in places where plants don't grow well, including outer space colonies, the release explains.

Also read: How green are digital fashion shows?

Mannequins with plastic covers are displayed outside a closed shopping mall in Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Bio-garments made from algae would address some of the negative environmental effects of the current textile industry.
Mannequins with plastic covers are displayed outside a closed shopping mall in Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Bio-garments made from algae would address some of the negative environmental effects of the current textile industry. (AFP)

The artificial leaves produced by the researchers at Delft and Rochester are additionally made from eco-friendly materials, in contrast to most artificial leaf technologies currently in production, which use chemical methods.

"For artificial leaves, our materials are like taking the 'best parts' of plants -- the leaves -- which can create sustainable energy, without needing to use resources to produce parts of plants -- the stems and the roots -- that need resources but don't produce energy," Anne S. Meyer, an associate professor of biology at Rochester says in the release. "We are making a material that is only focused on the sustainable production of energy."

Another application of the material would be photosynthetic skins, which could be used for skin grafts, Meyer adds. "The oxygen generated would help to kick-start healing of the damaged area, or it might be able to carry out light-activated wound healing."

Besides offering sustainable energy and medical treatments, the materials could also change the fashion sector. Bio-garments made from algae would address some of the negative environmental effects of the current textile industry in that they would be high-quality fabrics that would be sustainability produced and completely biodegradable.

They would also work to purify the air by removing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and would not need to be washed as often as conventional garments, reducing the usage of water.

Also read: Adidas' growth strategy: be more sustainable

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