hot off the mill

Scientists are using 3D printers to grow artificial wood in labs
Current affairs | 10 March 2021
Text Finn Blythe
This article is part of Eco Watch

Above image: Still, The Thing from Another World by Christian Nyby (1951)

Scientists in America are conducting a new study that aims to grow artificial timber in a lab without sunlight or soil. The research, which is being carried out at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is at the forefront of scientific efforts to improve the sustainability of construction materials and reduce the need for deforestation.

(Left) A flow diagram showing the process of cultivating artificial wood. (Right) Wood-cells as seen under a microscope

The team of researchers at MIT, which is being led by PhD student Ashley Beckwith, have used 3D printers to produce a gel that can be used to shape plant cells into the required shape. The process began with a sample extracted from the leaves of a Zinnia plant (a relative of the daisy) that was then grown into the desired wood-like plant tissue called lingin (an organic polymer that lends wood its firmness) through the use of hormones.

The practical implications of the projects are radical. Depending on the scalability and affordability of the technology, the findings promise a complete reconfiguration in land-use and construction, with the ability to grow wood to fit precise specifications and transform what is currently a highly inefficient process.

“The work extends our lab’s focus on microfabrication and additive manufacturing techniques like 3D printing,” said one of the project’s researchers, Velásquez-García. “In this case, the plant cells themselves do the printing with the aid of the gel growth medium. Unlike an unstructured liquid medium, the gel acts as a scaffold for the cells to grow in a particular shape.”

With the ability to grow a structure the size of a coffee table in only a few months (still a lot faster than growing an equivalent-sized tree), the research has the potential to massively reduce deforestation and re-wild large areas of land. For its implementation to be successful however, much will depend on its ability to attract both public and private investment over the next ten years.

Read the full paper in Journal of Cleaner Production here


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