Yeast, Fungus, & Microbe-Grown Electronics, Oh My! (Interview)

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What do yeast, fungus, bacteria, and spider silk have in common? They’re all ingredients in the Korvaa concept headphones from Finnish design studio, Aivan. The project is an experiment in design and science that showcases the potential of synbio and lab-grown materials.

Photos courtesy of Aivan

Synbio (short for synthetic biology) is a disruptive technology, using synthetic organisms to produce materials, chemicals, medicines, or fuels from various renewable raw materials, waste, and CO2. What better way to showcase the potential of synbio tech than by making a pair of headphones? Contemporary electronics are riddled with plastic parts which could potentially be replaced with microbe-grown materials.

The Korvaa Headphones

The Korvaa headphones are made up of six materials that were developed from microbial matter: enzymatically produced cellulose, microbial bioplastic PLA, fungal mycelium, biosynthetic spider silk, a composite of fungal mycelium and bacterial cellulose, and protein foam and plant cellulose. These materials create everything from a leather-like material to soft foam or the mesh-like part of the earpiece. In addition to the Aivan design team, the Korvaa project partners and collaborators include VTT Technical Research Center of Finland, Wihuri Center for Young Synbio Scientists, Aalto University, Linkier, Parad Media, and Sitra Fund.

Curious to learn more about the potential of synbio and the development of the headphones, we spoke with Saku Sysiö, founding partner at Aivan and Lead Designer of the Korvaa project.

How big is your team at Aivan? Who did you collaborate with to develop the materials?

We are around 40 people at Aivan. For this project we were two industrial designers from Aivan collaborating with the VTT Technical Research Centre scientists.

Are there any plastic or non-microbially grown materials in the Korvaa headphones? Elements that were particularly difficult to substitute?

All the materials in this concept are microbially grown. From a design perspective, the foam (Protein Foam and Plant Cellulose) and leather (Fungal Mycelium) materials took the most time to get density, form, and fabrication process right.

Leather by Fungus Phanerochaete Crysosporium

How is the functionality of the headphones — are they comparable to your average audio device?

Our main goal has been to highlight the development of these materials, and to prove that these materials are possible to use in products in the future. I don’t see any difference in comparison to any average consumer electronics device, as long as the materials and the design are done right.

When could we see this implementation of synthetic biology become more mainstream? What would need to happen for it to become a reality?

As a designer, it’s hard to give anything exact as to when this becomes more mainstream.. Definitely these materials will replace some of the plastics (also building materials & fuels) in the future, we’ll probably see the change first in high-end products because of the higher cost of production, and then becoming more ”norm.” The research is still in the early stages, and when the development goes further we’ll see lots of new materials with more and improved properties, and better control over them. The field of synthetic biology has taken leaps in the past ten years. Something that took a year to grow, we can now grow in a matter of days, and I think this trend keeps going.

Bioreactor growing microbes
Manuel Arias Barrantes, Aalto, VTT
TrichodermaReesei Bacterial Cellulose Biocomposite

Are there any other designers or companies that are working with synbio that you’re particularly excited about?

While maybe not directly linked to synbio, we’re impressed with the work of designers and social scientists like Leyla Acaroglu, who are good at popularizing sustainability and circularity.

The headphones are currently being presented at the Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale 2019. What has the general reception been like?

The reception has been really good and people have been really surprised and excited. It’s still an unknown field of research for most people. We designers are, of course, happy that the product design itself has also generated some of the interest, and not just the material technology. This has helped highlight the cause (showcasing synbio material development) even further in the field of design and consumer electronics.

Pezhman Mohammadi
Spider silk is incredibly strong
Spider silk nanofibers
Spider silk

Has anyone purchased the headphones or are they for sale?

The headphones are a product and material concept made to highlight innovative material development within the field of synthetic biology. They are not for sale commercially.

Do you plan to continue designing and developing products using synthetic biology in the future? Any specific projects already in the works?

We aim to create a working prototype for the Korvaa headphones next. We are also investigating possible material demos for the upcoming exhibition that will take place during Helsinki Design Week, in September 2019. All our work-in-progress client projects are confidential, so unfortunately I can’t give you any information on other, yet unreleased, projects.

Any new material innovations are interesting to designers, and synthetic biology as a field of research is incredibly interesting and inspiring to us. I would say most definitely, we will continue working with the design and development of products using synbio.

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Erika Clugston

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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