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Researchers Reveal 3D-Printable Material Made from Live Algae

Bio-based materials have been on the rise for some time—ranging from faux leathers made from fungus to textiles made from trees. According to a research team led by Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, “the most robust materials are those that mimic nature.”

The researchers have pioneered the creation of a never-before-seen bioprinting technique that uses 3D printing machines to transfer algae into a live, photosynthetic material. The resulting substance could have a variety of applications, they said, given its tough, resilient composition.

“The printing of living cells is an attractive technology for the fabrication of engineered living materials,” Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, an associate professor from the faculty of applied sciences, said in a statement. “Our photosynthetic living material has the unique advantage of being sufficiently mechanically robust for applications in real-life settings.”

A key to the material’s potential is that it relies on an amalgamation of both living and non-living ingredients, the researchers said. They started with a non-living bacterial cellulose, which is produced and excreted by bacteria. The organic compound boasts some notable mechanical properties, including flexibility, strength and the ability to maintain its shape under duress. Even when it is twisted or crushed, they said, it demonstrates resilience, springing back to its original configuration.

The bacterial cellulose acts like the paper in a printer, while living microalgae acts as the ink, researchers noted. The team developed a specialized 3D printer to deposit the live algae onto the cellulose substrate, and the resulting combination marries the unique properties of each.

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Algae’s ability to photosynthesize also means that the material can “feed” itself over a period of “many weeks,” the researchers said—and it can also be regenerated from a small sample. The substance is biodegradable, as well as simple to produce to scale.

A photo from the research team shows the material's ability to regenerate.
A photo from the research team shows the material’s ability to regenerate. TU Delft

Given its sturdy makeup, the material could have a range of uses, the researchers suggested. Not only is it produced in a sustainable manner—making it appealing to a number of consumer goods industries—it can also sense and respond to environmental cues and conditions.

“What if our everyday products were alive: could sense, grow, adapt, and eventually die?” Elvin Karana, a member of the industrial design engineering faculty queried. “This unique collaborative project shows that this question is beyond the realm of speculative design.”

The group hopes that its research will “spark new conversations between design and science communities and inspire new directions for investigations for future photosynthetic living materials,” she added.

Non-living algae biomass has become an increasingly viable ingredient in footwear midsole foams, which have long been made exclusively from non-renewable polymers, or oils. Algae foam maker Algix, which works with brands like Adidas and Sanuk, said that 2020 represented a record-setting year as its brand partners have become increasingly intent on curbing their environmental impact.

Algix works with private companies and government organizations to coordinate the harvesting of algae from lakes and water treatment systems, drying and then blending the natural material with carrier polymers to produce a hybridized substance used in footwear foams.