Bacterial biker jackets and after-market parts for people

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2010

This year seems like it’ll be the one where the mainstream starts talking about custom-made replacement organs as something more than science fiction. A few weeks back we heard about the rat who got a new set of lab-grown lungs; this week, Wired is running a photo-essay on bioprinting that’s a must-see for anyone who wants to be able to write a plausible description of the working environment of a contemporary Frankenstein.

Bioreactor - image credited to Dave Bullock/Wired.com

Meanwhile [via BoingBoing] Ecouterre reports on UK-based designer Suzanne Lee, who’s been using bacteria to grow an entire range of clothing from a rather mundane starting point – sweetened green tea. The end results are made entirely of cellulose, though they look (to me at least) like the skin of something that still slinks through radiation-soaked cities long after the posthumans abandoned Earth for the new terrain at the top of the gravity well…

Bio-couture jacket by Suzanne Lee

Organic ain’t yer only option, though, no sir. 3D printing means one-off custom designs of mechanical prosthetic limb can be made for amputees or other folk with different levels of physical ability… and not just for us longpigs, either, as Oscar the cyborg cat ably demonstrates. 3D printing is still an unevenly distributed piece of the future, of course, but it’s spreading fast; Ponoko have just set up their first 3D print hub here in the UK, and if they can afford to do that in the current economic climate, the business model must have something going for it, right?

It’s interesting to see the organic and inorganic racing along in parallel like this; it doesn’t take a genius to see the possibilities of the two streams converging somewhere down the line, though I’d guess that’s a good few decades off from the present day. What’s interesting to me about these phenomena is the way they seem to be an end-game expression of the desire for individuality and customisation; at the moment, price will keep all but those with a serious need for these products out of the market, but as prices fall, everything will become bespoke, unique, a one-off. Which is kind of ironic if you think about it: through the total ubiquity of mechanised manufacture, we’re actually putting an end to mass production.


Plastic fantastic: plastic from trees

Tom James @ 19-05-2009

leafIn preparation for when the oil runs out (or becomes economically unviable to extract – as detailed in The End of Oil by Paul Roberts) scientists have started developing alternative methods for making plastic. In this case from trees:

Some researchers hope to turn plants into a renewable, nonpolluting replacement for crude oil. To achieve this, scientists have to learn how to convert plant biomass into a building block for plastics and fuels cheaply and efficiently. In new research, chemists have successfully converted cellulose — the most common plant carbohydrate — directly into the building block called HMF in one step.

HMF, also known as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, can be used as a building block for plastics and “biofuels” such as gasoline and diesel, essentially the same fuels processed from crude oil.

Given that so much of our industrial infrastructure rests on oil it is reassurring that alternative sources of basic materials are being developed.

[from Physorg][image from linh.ngân on flickr]


Cast aside your iron for super-paper!

Paul Raven @ 28-06-2008

Stack of paperHere’s a little something I missed the other week: a Swedish research team are working to develop “nanopaper”, a material based on wood-pulp cellulose nanofibres that can be stronger than cast iron.

The new method involves breaking down wood pulp with enzymes and then fragmenting it using a mechanical beater. The shear forces produced cause the cellulose to gently disintegrate into its component fibres.

The end result is undamaged cellulose fibres suspended in water. When the water is drained away Berglund found that the fibres join together into networks held by hydrogen bonds, forming flat sheets of “nanopaper”.

So what, you may be thinking. Well, as Charlie Stross suggested, if the current generation of 3D-printing/fabrication systems (like RepRap) swapped the soft plastics they currently extrude with for the nanopaper formula:

“… the future may turn out to be made of papier maché.”

Anyone have any idea how recyclable this cellulose nanopaper would be by comparison to plastics or steel? [image by Tina Raval]