May 8, 2015 | By Alec

One of the biggest shortcomings of 3D printing is the enormous amount of waste we produce. If you’re a regular ABS user, you must also be acquainted with the garbage bags full of non-biodegradable failed prints that are accumulating around you. While PLA is already a safer option in that respect, a biologist and designer have joined forces to develop solution to this problem that goes even further: the Growduce, a bio 3D printer and compost heap in one, that turns waste, bacteria and yeast into specific cellulose shapes. In the future, they hope, this could become a tabletop recycler for household products.

A 3D rendering of the Growduce

The Growduce has been developed by biologist Aakriti Jain and industrial designer Guillian Graves. In a nutshell, it’s a fermentation tank that lives off of compostable scraps that are turned into cellulose (a naturally occurring polymer) shapes over a period of two weeks or so. While they have experimented with a number of interesting results, perhaps most fascinating is the growth of a bandage or a glove. Most cases will, however, require drying or backing to harden the materials to create a sterile type of dead skin (you could call it vegan-friendly leather!).

Some interesting shapes grown in cellulose.

This interesting approach to 3D printing should become, just like a food 3D printer, part of every household in the world. ‘We envision something like a coffee maker or toaster in your kitchen. Our microfactory would be a part of the future home.’ Jain told reporters. The concept itself was born in a Parisian biohackers space that focuses on creating efficient and sustainable bio-products. ‘We logically moved to another approach: using living systems as a powerful and sustainable technology,’ he adds. And that is exactly what the Growduce is.

While their machine is still largely at a conceptual stage, its designers are already imagining a future where small micro-factories will play a key role in replacing household objects and thus contributing to decreasing the world’s garbage piles. It will also decrease the need for transportation and packing of goods, in turn decreasing the damage done to the environment. ‘In today's linear design process, though individual items seem inexpensive at first, they actually come at a great, undisclosed cost,’ they say. ‘From layers of plastic packaging, immense transportation costs of the various chemicals and materials that go into creating ordinary products, then transporting the products from the producer to the supplier and finally to your home, the energy consumed by the production machines, the waste production and disposal processes, and more all sum to an enormous hidden environmental cost.’

The Growduce relies on a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast known as SCOBY, which is also used for many beverages relying on fermentation. These can be inserted into molds (to ensure the cellulose grows into the desired shape) as long as there are air holes in them to enable the bacteria to breathe. Other materials, such as mint, aloe vera and pigments, can be added to the mixture to create desired results. This means that it can, theoretically, be used to manufacture just about anything.

A series of monitors can them be used to keep an eye on growth and the health of the colony. All of this, at least that’s the plan, will be released as open-source content to enable people to use the Growduce at home. ‘We understand this perhaps requires a shift in thinking about the materials we use," Jain writes in an email, alluding to the potential squeamish factor of the stuff. "[But] people actually drink this and they are alive and healthy!’

‘As a proof of concept, I conducted a host of simple experiments with bacterial cellulose to demonstrate the different shapes, textures, colours, and additives we can play with,’ Jain told reporters. ‘The experiments are not close to being comprehensive, but demonstrate the potential for such a product.’ Perhaps best of all is what the designers call a ‘circular design strategy’: because all the products are organically 3D printed, they can in turn be added to the compost heap once you’re done with them.

All this sounds very tempting and environmentally friendly, but there is one catch: how do you make the templates for the bacteria to work on? So far, the only solution is regular 3D printing to make all the molds of the objects you’re trying to produce in cellulose. While this slightly diminishes the environmental aspect of this interesting innovation, it still offers very interesting design possibilities and certainly remains better for the environment than 3D printing everything in plastic.

For now, however, the Growduce is little more than a concept. ‘Growduce embodies a thought process and a potential shift in the way we think about materials and the production process,’ Jain says. ‘There is still a lot of testing that is required before this is something that could hit the shelves and that is something we need to work more on before claiming that it will be available to the market, but we definitely hope that devices like this will revolutionize the way we produce everyday objects.’ Hopefully, a working prototype of a desktop device can be realized by the end of the year, so we’re still a long way away from seeing these machines in homes.

 

Posted in 3D Printers

 

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