Through human history, forests have provided a great variety of natural resources such as woods, nuts, and fruits. While we have gotten accustomed to these conventional resources, the current environmental crisis has pushed interdisciplinary research to innovate with bio-based materials as an effort to contribute to a bio-based economy.
For the past decade, a great variety of bio-based materials have been developed to replace synthetic packaging, structural materials, leather, and other fossil fuel dependent materials. Many of these are made of agricultural waste such as corn starch, leaves from different plants, coffee waste, and a large etcetera. Moreover, other bio-based materials are developed by harnessing living systems such as mycelium (the root of fungi), algae, and bacteria. This relatively new practical approach (in material design) is called Biodesign.
Re-thinking materials and finding new uses in biomass is a growing practice in material science. An example of a source of material that in my opinion should be further researched are pine needles in forests. Dry pine needles on the ground are regularly fuel that causes fires to spread rapidly and pose extreme damage to animal and plant life in coniferous forests. Instead of letting this biomass going to waste, it can be utilized for instance, as reinforcing agents for polymer composites. The following images are examples of how pine needles are utilized or investigated as an alternative material.
Nevertheless, many of these bio-based materials are investigated in ongoing research and the process of their development is quite slow. Among several other reasons, there is a lack of an integrated approach, where science and practice come together to innovate from different perspectives in the generation of new bio-based materials.
In my Master thesis, I worked with a composite material consisting of mycelium fed on biomass. My main objective was to create a novel technique for molding the material while achieving new outcomes within the physical and mechanical properties of the material. While prototyping skills, intuitive leaps and creative process are innate in product designers (like myself), appropriate scientific experimental methodologies, a proper laboratory and guidance of biotechnology expertise were missing. Here I realized that we need an integrated approach, where science, engineering, and design (the creative part) come together. Interdisciplinary research studios such as Modern Meadow, Bolt Threads and Mycoworks are proof of how an integrated approach can lead to cutting-edge bio-based materials, where protein cells can be modified at DNA level to achieve specific material properties.
Information should be available allowing for an aperture to an integrated mindset, without underestimating any area of expertise. A partial solution for this is the implementation of Design Thinking, a strategy that consists of interdisciplinary approaches, aiming at mutual understanding and involving different perspectives to encourage creative processes.
To come back to the headline of my text: if we want to further innovate and develop bio-based materials to depend less on fossil-based resources, we have to keep an open, integrated mindset. In forests, further research should be done to amplify the variety of bio-composites, biopolymers, and natural fiber-reinforced plastics that could be obtained from biomass normally considered as waste. Moreover, with advanced biotechnology, we can improve the properties of bio-based materials to make them as time-lasting and functional as conventional ones. However, apart from a radical change of mindset, we also need public and private funding, and an approachable society to make a new generation of bio-based materials feasible at a global scale.