Microbial Weaving Article

Microbial weaving

Our patent pending microbial weaving process uses bacteria to 'weave' customizable biotextiles and composites.
Microbial weaving is a biofabrication process which means the material is actually grown, using a microbe. Technically speaking, it’s not really weaving, but it’s a good analogy. If we talk about our process in the context of traditional weaving: we’re weaving the warp, and the bacteria are growing the weftMore specifically, we create a ‘warp’ pattern (or scaffold) using robotic yarn/fibre placement which then bacteria grow material around to create a strong, lightweight biomaterial with boundless customisation potential.
 

Tiny weavers

 

Our microbial weaving process was inspired by the natural growing behaviour of a bacteria called k.rhaeticus, which is one of the bacteria often found in kombucha tea. It produces a material called nanocellulose, which has long fascinated both scientists and designers for its unique properties. 

 

Cellulose is the most abundant polymer on earth and the building block for most plant based materials from cotton to linen to wood. We believe this versatile fibre will play a vital role in the transition to the new circular economy because it’s inherently low-cost, biodegradable, and, as evident in nature, adaptable to many different applications. At nanoscale, though, it gets even more interesting. On a fibre level, this material is actually up to 8 times stronger than steel and stiffer then kevlar. And when it’s grown by bacteria (bacterial cellulose), the material becomes a tightly packed mesh of fibres that are so small, they appear to us like a semi-transparent film or gel. 

 

But we were actually most inspired by the way the bacteria grow the material. Looking under a microscope, the bacteria look like tiny weaving shuttles, leaving a tiny trail of fibres in their path. By studying this natural process and manipulating the conditions for growth, we were able to collaborate with the bacteria to make a new type of material made part by human, part by microbe. This is microbial weaving.

Bacteria

grew 

this

K. rhaeticus Bacteria trail tiny fibers of cellulose behind them as they grow formed a dense non-woven film

 

Organism driven design

 

There’s a lot we can learn from nature in regards to materials. After all, nature has had 3.8 billion years to perfect the ultimate circular economy, which is life. Perhaps a better understanding of biology could help us rethink our own fabrication systems.

 

 Nature doesn’t make materials in sheets

 then cut them for assembly as we 

manufacture things today.

 

Jen Keane, Co-founder

Most organisms in nature produce directly to purpose, and no more. One of the biggest advantages of microbial weaving is actually its versatility. Like 3D printing or knitting, you can design a piece to shape, virtually eliminating waste. But because the bacteria are so small you have even more design flexibility to create new aesthetics or performance features. Our founder, Jen Keane, explored this potential in her 2018 project This is Grown, which was driven by a frustration with plastics and a visible disparity between scientific research and design manifestations around ‘natural’ materials. She grew the upper of a shoe to show how technologies like this could affect the way we approach product design and prove that biomaterials can be technical and sustainability doesn’t have to be boring.    The really interesting part will come when new genetic engineering techniques allow greater design control over the microbes themselves. But this also opens up ethical and regulatory questions that future generations will need to grapple with. We’ve started to explore this topic as well through a recent collaboration with the Tom Ellis Synthetic Biology lab at Imperial College London, This is GMO.

Biofabrication

The use of biological materials and mechanisms for construction.

Cellulose

An insoluble substance which is the main constituent of plant cell walls and of vegetable fibres such as cotton. It’s the most abundant polymer on the planet.

Circular economy

Looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model, a circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system.

Fibre

A thread or filament from which a vegetable tissue, mineral substance, or textile is formed. Textiles are made up of yarns which are made up of fibres.

Warp and weft

The two basic components used in weaving to turn thread or yarn into fabric. The lengthwise or longitudinal warp yarns are held stationary in tension on a frame or loom while the transverse weft (sometimes woof) is drawn through and inserted over-and-under the warp.

Weave

To interlace (threads, yarns, strips, fibrous materials, etc.) so as to form a fabric or material.