We, as the human race, has come to the serious realisation that we cannot keep abusing nature for our own personal gain. We have to reconsider our approach and the only answer is for us move away from the anthropocentric system that relies so heavily on natural resources towards a systems that embrace rather than dominate the natural environment.
Ali, Wes and myself had a great interest to discover just what that statement means and how we can repurpose nature in way that does not only not exhaust it, but can actually replenish it at the same time. The project brief opened up a floodgate of possibilities and we dove head first into all the various technologies currently available to us.
We wanted to create the ultimate repurposing machine called Re:Cell. A mobile lab that had the capability of discovering usable materials in nature and in particular the parts of nature that in that in the past was considered debris, but with this new philosophy we realise that it is all part of an adaptive system, a feedback loop with evolutionary steps and thus there had to be many ways to revitalise and reuse this ‘debris’. This lab would be able to sense usable material and be a ecosystem of its own tthatt would produce the necessary chemical and biological reactions to activate the rebuilding of debris.
This took us down a path of exploration, we had experience with materials such as kombucha and mycelia, but our approach was to go beyond an end product to a system that could self-propagate and self-actualise and thereby provide solutions to a world in disrepair and we started to investigate what one could do with the skeletons of nature, the bits that were once left for dead.
In our dystopic, disaster zone that we would need to rebuild we focussed on the materials that would still be there and that could be used to regenerate the area. We came up wiht the following scenarios
- Decellularization of decaying protein matter to create scaffold for future growth of new tissue cultures.
- The retraction of the sea and the drought in rivers would expose the shells of countless sea life and the chitin they contain have many useful properties, not only in creating bioplastics, but also in electricity storage and conductivity.
- Mycelia as the biological succes story of survival and longevity. (Their spores aparently can survive out in space, they are said to grow and propogate from the same mycelial base for centuries and they have the ability to cleanse surrounding areas of toxins, not to mention that they are edible and grow from debris)
- Algae and its potential use as biofuel, nourishment and fibre.
This is a process currently only used in the medical fields where mammalian flesh is reduced to its protein scaffolds and used to grow new cells on through tissue culture. Our idea speculated that in the future it will be quite possible to reduce plant and animal life down to its protein scaffolds and grow tissue or cell culture on this scaffold. It is huge leap, but not impossible, that just like we are able to grow new tissue over organs, we will be able to grow large areas of cells that could create canopies and other external forms of protection. They are already growing leather in labs.
We attempted to see what the chemical process was and made samples with 4 different materials: meat, mushrooms, carrots and seaweed. Decellurisation happens when organic matter is left in a detergent and the current standard is Sodium dodecyl sulfate (or sodium lauryl sulfate as it is known in the cosmetics industry) and is used in soaps and shampoos.
Setting up the samples : Meat, carrot, algae and mushrooms.
The most successful of our samples was the meat and almost all the extraneous cellular matter was removed and we were left with a white protein scaffold. Unfortunately we could not experiment beyond this point as we don’t have the knowledge of growing tissue culture yet.
Our next step was to move onto chitin. Chitin is the second most abundant substance in the world after cellulose and is found in exoskeletons of crustaceans, in the mycelial walls of mushrooms and cell walls of insects. It is considered a biopolymer and there is currently a lot of research going into the development of the derivative, chitosan as a bioplastic. Mycelia is also currently a hot topic in the building industry as packaging material and insulation. But we wanted to see if we could find another use for the multi-use material. Our research lead us to the latest direction that mycelia and chitin is being researched for: conductivity. But for our mobile lab, we wanted to see if there was a way that we could store energy using this organic matter for later use.
We found a reference that said that chitin could be used in the creation of a supercapacitor. So we set about building one with household chemicals and materials, but in our mobile lab we would have had access to half of our materials direct from natural debris.
What is a supercapacitor?
Capacitors can store power. Batteries can hold large amounts of power, but they take hours to charge up. Supercapacitors, on the other hand, charge almost instantly and can store large amounts of power. In our electric-powered future, when we need to store and release large amounts of electricity very quickly, it’s quite likely we’ll turn to supercapacitors(also known as ultracapacitors) that combine the best of both worlds.
What does a supercapacitor consist of?
“Supercapacitor have two plates that are separated. The plates are made from metal coated with a porous substance such as powdery, activated charcoal, which effectively gives them a bigger area for storing much more charge. Imagine electricity is water for a moment: where an ordinary capacitor is like a cloth that can mop up only a tiny little spill, a supercapacitor’s porous plates make it more like a chunky sponge that can soak up many times more. Porous supercapacitor plates are electricity sponges!” For more info:
We did research and found out that we could replace the activated charcoal with activated chitin.
Below is the protocol for our experiment:
- Cuttlefish bone (which we reduced down to chitin)
- Hydrochloric Acid ( We use toilet cleaner)
- Potassium Carbonate (We use drain cleaner)
- Copper wire
- Sodium Chloride (Common table salt)
- Separator made out of thick cellulose paper. (we also found out in our research that kombucha can be used.)
In our mobile lab we would be able to get the following ingredients from nature.
- Seawater – Ionic Solution
- Seawater – Sodium Hydroxide- electrolysed Sodium Chloride (salt)
- Shellfish – Chitin
- Porous membrane – Kombucha (acetobacter)
What our mobile lab would need:
- Hydrochloric acid
- Electrical Source
Protocoll for supercapacitor.
Dissolve the cuttlefish bone in the acid. The chitin will separate from the liquid and become a gel like subsctance at the bottom. This is then neutralised with the potassium carbonate and left to dry down to a powder.
Create positive and negative electrode out of graphite and copper wire.
Create a ionic solution with table salt and iodine.
Separate the chitin into two separate containers. The separator needs to be solid enough not to transfer current, but porous enough to allow ionic movement. Add one graphite electrode to each.
Charge the electrodes.
Our supercapacitor was not so successful, but it think our separator was too porous and our graphite was the wrong kind. With more experimentation we would have succeeded. And we are all keen to continue this investigation.
With the discovery of the chitin superconductor we investigated how to make electricity with minimal materials and found that you can make electricity with magnets and a wheel.
The key to making electricity from magnets is the rotary action and this lent itself perfectly to put the whole system on a wheel. A self-powering wheel system that could provide electricity, store electricity in the supercapacitor and be used as transport – with a little stretch of the imagination this is all technically possible.
We imagined the rotation of the could further be use in the supercapacitor itself. We would pour the solution from one container to the next to mix with the various chemicals and then the powder would dry in the network of tubes in the middle.
Although none of our devices of inquiry worked this time around, the research we did proved that all our proposals are possible and with a little time and research behind it we could be solving a lot of energy problems in a future of debris and learn to embrace the relationship technology affords us with nature.