Infrastructure and urban development have taken over the world. We are surrounded by synthetic, human-made materials that — although they provide reliable building blocks — are not always advocates of a sustainable environment.

In efforts to create more environmentally friendly materials since the beginning of the climate crisis, scientists have expanded their research in self-sustaining biological compounds. These compounds have been used to develop “living materials,” which are essentially biological substances used to make durable, environmental materials.

Although these living materials are a fairly new innovation, the current and future implementations have incredible potential and promise.

Green construction

As the second most consumed resource and most widely used manmade material, concrete is an enormous contributor to greenhouse gases. Cement is responsible for 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. In efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of this material, scientists built a completely new material that absorbs carbon dioxide through photosynthesis, rather than producing it.

The “living building material” can be created within a day using gelatin, cyanobacteria, and a variety of common materials (unlike concrete which needs specific sand). Advantageously, the living building material is self-mending and can grow and reproduce in relative conditions in any shape desired using molds. Currently, shoebox-sized creations pose promise for implementation in real construction. Other living building materials are used to repair cracks and porosity of existing concrete.

As negatively connotated as “fungal” may be, fungus is being used to upcycle byproducts to create inexpensive, environmentally sustainable building materials called mycelium composites. Mycelium composites, commonly formed from the root network of mushrooms, are customizable in that they can replace insulation, timber, and plastic for applications like flooring and furnishings.

Their low thermal conductivity and fire safety properties make them exceptional for thermal and insulator applications, and as structural supplements to construction materials that lack these properties. Furthermore, Dell Computers has utilized mycelium materials — in substitution of non-ecofriendly Styrofoam packaging peanuts — for packaging and shipping.

Mycelium has also been used in combination with corn stalks to create bio-bricks — which were arranged to construct circular towers in a MoMA pavilion — and the roof of a pavilion in India. One designer has even crafted a mycelium chair using 3D-printed fungus by injecting mycelium into straw, and another designer developed headphones made from fungus and yeast-based bioplastic.

However, architect Dirk Hebel and engineer Philippe Block have rethought the use of mycelium to focus on strength through structural support and balance, rather than relying on the material itself. Through compression, Hebel and Block crafted tree-shaped structures from mycelium.

The process is simple: 1) combine mushroom spores with sawdust and sugarcane, 2) fungi consumes the food and transforms into a dense substance, 3) organism is grown to desired shape, then dehydrated to stop growth, 4) new materials are used as a building block. The simple process leads to impressive results and confidence in future development of two-story buildings.

Biofabrication with algae

The evolution of clothes is never-ending. Rather than changing the style of clothing, Canadian-Iranian designer Roya Aghighi has changed the textile entirely. Aghighi uses algae, which absorbs carbon dioxide and produces oxygen through photosynthesis, as opposed to fast-fashion industries that emit an abundance of greenhouse gases.

The photosynthetic textile is not woven but spins together nanopolymers and single-cell green algae to compose a fabric that feels like linen. The maintenance of the clothing is different in that rather than washing it, the owner has to spray it with water once a week, and proper care will allow the garment to last a month or longer. Because of the living aspect of the clothing, the user can improve the environment around them and even develop a connection to nature through caring for the article.

Other uses of algae include the creation of a bio-curtain that rests over buildings and helps remove air pollution, a bioplastic that can be used as a substitute for plastic packaging and is biodegradable in two to three months, another algae bioplastic that is used for 3D printing and is a potential replacement of synthetic plastics, and tiles inlaid with algae that can remove toxic dyes and metals from water.

Conclusion

The push for a world with completely environmentally friendly materials does not seem far away. Crafting our world around biology and photosynthesizing materials could bring hope to building life elsewhere in space. The continuation and use of living materials will also guarantee a path to the increased approval of, and therefore the implementation of, climate change policies.

We can finally realistically look forward to a greener, more sustainable world.

Photo by Antoine Raab