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Microbe-Grown Electronics: An Alternative To Plastic

Aivan, a Finnish design company, used fungus, yeast, and other naturally-derived materials to create a pair of concept headphones.

Plastic is all around us… it’s probably in your hand right now. Cellphones, laptops, headphones, and watches – these are all objects that we depend on, that we use constantly, and that are filled with plastic. And while electronics are often thought of as inevitably reliant on plastic, there are natural alternatives.

Photos via Aivan

Finnish design house Aivan has just presented a pair of concept headphones they’ve called Korvaa, made almost entirely from natural materials. Yeast, fungus, bioplastics, and other natural materials were used to replace anything that they could in the electronics. The name ‘Korvaa’ derives from the Finnish language and has a double meaning of both ‘ear’ and ‘to substitute’.

The team behind the project chose headphones due to the fact that they are a pair of electronics that rely on a wide variety of materials. As Dezeen reported, the Korvaa headphones utilize six microbially grown substances to mimic materials from soft leather to hard plastic or thin mesh. Together with scientists from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Aalto University, Aivan is using the headphones to demonstrate the potential of synthetic biology.

The main structural component of the Korvaa headphones is 3D-printed out of a bioplastic that is created as a byproduct of yeast processing lactic acid. A protein called hydrophobin is used for the padded earpieces and is then covered with mycelium, a leathery and malleable fungal material. On top of all of that is a mesh of synthetic spider silk. (Interesting sidenote: this biosynthetic silk can also be used for bulletproof vests.)

Various other lab-grown materials are concocted to use in these headphones, and each is derived entirely from nature, but can’t exactly be found in nature. In other words, the materials aren’t just lying around in your garden, they require high-tech labs, specially trained designers, and scientists to be involved, and so you won’t see these headphones in your average electronics shop anytime soon. The Korvaa headphones are intended more as a demonstration of what is possible within the interdisciplinary realms of design and synthetic biology. Our dependence on plastics is entirely reversible. We have the technology, we simply need to dive into the fungus-filled world of biologically engineered materials and see what they can do.

The Korvaa headphones are currently being presented at the Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale 2019, from May 19th – September 19th, and at Helsinki Design Week 2019 from September 5-15th.

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Written By

Erika is a writer and artist based in Berlin. She is passionate about sharing stories of climate change and cleantech initiatives worldwide. Whether it’s transforming the fashion, food, or engineering industries, there’s an opportunity and responsibility for us all to do better. In addition to contributing to CleanTechnica, Erika is the Web and Social Media Editor at LOLA Magazine and writes regularly about art and culture.


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