Researchers at the University of Rochester and Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands have, for the first time, used 3D printers and a novel bioprinting technique to print algae into living, environmentally friendly material that is tough and resilient. The material has a variety of applications in the energy, medical, and fashion sectors. The research is published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.
“Three-dimensional printing has shown to be an effective technology for fabricating living materials that have many environmental and other benefits,” said Anne S. Meyer, an associate professor of biology at Rochester. “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.”
How to build new materials: Living and nonliving components
To create the photosynthetic materials, the researchers began with a nonliving bacterial cellulose — an organic compound that is produced and excreted by bacteria. Bacterial cellulose has many important mechanical properties, including flexibility, toughness, strength, and ability to retain its shape, even when twisted, crushed, or otherwise physically distorted.
The bacterial cellulose is like the paper in a printer, while living microalgae acts as the ink. Dr. Meyer and her colleagues used a 3D printer to deposit living algae onto the bacterial cellulose.
“The printing of living cells is an attractive technology for the fabrication of engineered living materials.”
The combination of living (microalgae) and nonliving (bacterial cellulose) components resulted in a unique material that has the photosynthetic quality of the algae and the robustness of the bacterial cellulose. 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’s also able to be regenerated — a small sample of the material can be grown onsite to make more materials.
“The printing of living cells is an attractive technology for the fabrication of engineered living materials.” said Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, an associate professor from the Faculty of Applied Sciences at Delft University. “Our photosynthetic living material has the unique advantage of being sufficiently mechanically robust for applications in real-life settings.”
Artificial leaves, photosynthetic skins, and bio-garments
The characteristics of the material make it an ideal candidate for a variety of applications, including new products such as artificial leaves, photosynthetic skins, or photosynthetic bio-garments.
Artificial leaves are materials that mimic actual leaves in that they 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.
Artificial leaves offer a way to produce sustainable energy in places where plants don’t grow well, including, potentially, outer space colonies. The artificial leaves produced by Dr. Meyer and her colleagues are additionally made from eco-friendly materials, in contrast to most artificial leaf technologies currently in production, which are produced using toxic chemical methods.
Another application of the material is making photosynthetic skins, which could be used for skin grafts, Dr. Meyer says. “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.”
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