In a big step towards sustainable fashion, scientists create a biodegradable, carbon-capturing textile from algae

Made using a 3D printer, this is the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is tough enough for a t-shirt—or an artificial leaf
May 6, 2021

Algae, simple aquatic plants that include pond scum and seaweed, are an important source of food, cosmetic additives, and fertilizers. They are also a promising source for making biofuels and bioplastics. And now, sustainable clothes.

Researchers have used 3D printing to make a tough, sustainable material from algae that could be used to make clothes and labels. Because the material, reported in the journal Advanced Functional Materials, is made of living, breathing algae, clothing made from it it would be photosynthetic, absorbing carbon dioxide from the air and breathing out oxygen just like plants. Plus, the material is easy to make on large scale and is biodegradable.

Bio-textiles like this could help change the direction of the modern fashion industry, which today is an environmental disaster. Manufacturing clothes for ever-changing low-cost fashion results in more carbon emissions than aviation and shipping combined. It also uses enormous amounts of water, and produces toxic wastewater and microplastic pollution. Plus, over three-fifths of garments end up landfills or incinerators within a few years.

As a greener alternative, some companies and designers are making forays into eco-friendly fashion based on algae. Algae does not take up precious land, grows incredibly fast, and uses much less water and resources than conventional natural materials such as cotton, wool or silk. But on its own, it is not a tough material that can withstand the elements for a long time.


An artist’s illustration demonstrates how 3D printed materials could be applied as durable, living clothing. (Lizah van der Aart illustration)


The research team from the Delft University of Technology and the University of Rochester wanted to make algae-based materials more resilient and also easy to produce. So they turned to bacterial cellulose, an organic compound that is excreted by bacteria.

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Using the bacterial cellulose as the paper in a printer, and an ink made of live microalgae, they employed a 3D printer to deposit the living algae onto the cellulose. The material combines the toughness of the bacterial cellulose with the photosynthetic ability of algae.

“Our photosynthetic living materials are a huge step forward for the field since they are the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed for real-world applications,” said Anne Meyer, a professor of biology at Rochester, in a press release.

Another advantage is that the material is simple to produce on a large scale. A small snippet of  the material could be cultured and grown to make more materials.

Source: Srikkanth Balasubramanian et al. Bioprinting of Regenerative Photosynthetic Living Materials. Advanced Functional Materials, 2021.


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