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This photosynthetic material could be made into living clothes

Professional Engineering

A small sample of the bioprinted photosynthetic material, which could one day be used to make 'artificial leaves' or living clothes (Credit: University of Rochester photo)
A small sample of the bioprinted photosynthetic material, which could one day be used to make 'artificial leaves' or living clothes (Credit: University of Rochester photo)

A new living, photosynthetic material could be used for clothes, energy harvesting or medical applications, its developers have said.

An international team of researchers from the University of Rochester in New York State and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands used 3D printers and a novel bioprinting technique to print algae into the ‘tough and resilient’ material.

“3D 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," said Srikkanth Balasubramanian, a postdoctoral research associate at Delft and the first author of the paper. “We provide the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed in real life applications.”

To create the material, the researchers began with non-living bacterial cellulose – an organic compound that is produced and excreted by bacteria. Bacterial cellulose has many appealing mechanical properties, including flexibility, toughness, strength, and its ability to retain its shape, even when twisted, crushed, or otherwise distorted.

The researchers compared the bacterial cellulose to the paper in a printer, while living microalgae acts as the ink. The team used a 3D printer to deposit living algae onto the cellulose.

“The combination of living (microalgae) and non-living (bacterial cellulose) components resulted in a unique material that has the photosynthetic quality of the algae and the robustness of the bacterial cellulose,” a research announcement said.

“The material is tough and resilient while also eco-friendly, biodegradable, and simple and scalable to produce. The plant-like nature of the material means it can use 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 materials.”

The living material could be used as ‘artificial leaves’, the researchers said. The devices use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy, much like leaves during photosynthesis. The leaves store energy in chemical form as sugars, which can then be converted into fuels.

‘Bio-garments’ made from the material could address some of the negative environmental impacts of the textile industry, the researchers claimed. The photosynthetic material can be sustainably produced and is completely biodegradable.

“Our living materials are promising because they can survive for several days with no water or nutrients access, and the material itself can be used as a seed to grow new living materials,” said Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, an associate professor of bionanoscience at Delft.

Another futuristic application could be photosynthetic skins for skin grafts, said Anne S Meyer, associate professor at Rochester. “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.”

The research was published in Advanced Functional Materials.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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