Mediated Matter at the MIT Media Lab

Few things have managed to capture the imagination of hackers and engineers around the world the way Synthetic Biology did over the last couple of years. The promise of “applying engineering principles to designing new biological devices and systems” just seemed way too sci-fi to missed out on, and everyone jumped on the bandwagon. All of a sudden, the field which used to be restricted to traditional research organizations and startups found itself crowded with all sorts of enthusiasts, biohackers, and weirdos alike. Competitions such as the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) paved the way, and the emergence of community spaces like GenSpace and BioCurious finally made DNA experimentation accessible to anyone who dares to try. As it often happens, the Sci-Fi itself did not go untouched, and a whole new genre called “Biopunk” emerged, further fueling people’s imagination and extrapolating worlds to come.

That’s where the MIT Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group comes in – somewhere in between the real world of DNA experimentation in research labs and “design fiction,” exploring concepts and ideas at the very edge of what’s possible. Led by [Prof. Neri Oxman], this amazing group deals with research “at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science and synthetic biology”. In the true Media Lab spirit, the group goes beyond pure research and engages in designing and fabricating incredible structures at both micro and architectural scale, demonstrating potential uses of new materials and design concepts. Probably the most famous piece showcasing the sheer awesomeness happening in the Mediated Matter group is the Silk Pavilion — a large-scale structure created with the combination of “digital” and “biological” fabrication. For this piece, primary structure was created with CNC-deposited silk fiber, whereas the rest was completed by deploying 6,500 live silkworms.

At this year’s SXSW Interactive, we had an opportunity to talk with [Sunanda Sharma], a graduate student in the Mediated Matter group. One of the projects [Sunanda] is working on is digital fabrication using the hydrogel called chitosan, made by deacetylating crushed shrimp shells. The team that [Sunanda] is a part of has developed a custom 3D Printing technique based on extruding chitosan at different concentrations and viscosities, allowing them to fabricate large architectural structures solely based on this amazing new bioplastic. While the kind of “living” pavilions that the group fabricates primarily reside in the domain of “what could happen in the future,” they also serve a great purpose of initiating the conversation about the many potential real-world applications of biomaterials like this. Not the least of which is replacing plastic with something completely biodegradable.

For more info, check out the interview that Hackaday’s “mythical creature” [Sophi Kravitz] did with [Sunanda] at this year’s SXSW:

17 thoughts on “Mediated Matter at the MIT Media Lab

  1. The problem with any readily biodegradable material is keeping it from degrading too soon. So what exactly is the mechanism for degradation of this “amazing new plastic”? Took a few minutes of Googling, as most articles doesn’t go into that, but:

    “When compared to petroleum-based plastics, the chitosan material is not naturally waterproof, requiring a coating of beeswax to create a water barrier, Fernandez says.”

    It’s water soluble. Oh yes, I’m sure this amazing new plastic will be used in things such as soda bottles very soon now. In the meantime, I’m filing this under “artistic nonsense”.

      1. A fair distinction. However, chitosan is in fact water-soluble (per Wikipedia). And that they’re depositing a chitosan *hydrogel* suggests that this property remains unaltered in their plastic.

      2. While milk cartons are indeed made from paper, it is still the carton, the structural element alone, that is made from the paper. Those type of carton rely on a wax or plastic coating to retain the milk and prevent the moisture from disintegrating the carton.

    1. Development of new materials and material applications isn’t ‘nonsense’ it’s called progress and is also a large industry. Many of the materials and their applications which we enjoy today were developed in commercial labs and then ignored for many years until someone found a specific application for them. Through projects and groups like this applications can be flushed out sooner rather than later. Even if the applications may not be immediately visible, or practical, they’re much more likely to be discovered in a shorter time in such an environment.

      1. Speaking generally, I agree with you. But specifically, in this case, what exactly did they develop?

        They didn’t develop chitosan. They didn’t find a way to manufacture it more efficiently or cheaply. They didn’t alter its properties, giving it an potential advantage over other existing bioplastics, like those made from potato starch. They didn’t create a new composite using it, like Shrilk. Packaging and various other products are already being manufactured using injection molding of chitosan, for the few applications for which it’s a practical option.

        Best I can tell, they merely figured out how much water you need to mix with it to successfully extrude it with a 3D printer. A feat that I’m sure at least a dozen of the regular readers here could replicate within less than a week, working alone, and without funding; if so inclined.

        I’m pretty sure no one has ever loaded a 3D printer with Velveeta before. Suppose I were to do that, and then proudly announce I was “applying engineering principles to designing new biological devices and systems”, and that my research leads the way “to fabricate large architectural structures solely based on this amazing new bioplastic”. Honestly, would you be any less critical than I have been, based on the questionable utility of the material being used? Or is the act of using a “green” material in a slightly different manner, then attaching some grandiloquent claims of what I’m doing and what it could lead to (assuming significant other advances which I have not furthered), enough to garner a positive impression from you?

        1. I’m really not a green and renewables worshiping kind of guy, so the attempt to throw that into the mix as what impresses me is a wasted talking point. We’ll have to agree to disagree on what value each of us sees in this kind of work as we both expect different things. They didn’t develop the material but they are working on ways to apply it, and in a learning institution that is fine, from my perspective and, in a worst case scenario, it gives those involved with the project the experience needed to progress in their fields as well as experience working in a team environment.

          In regards to the whimsical Velveeta research, while it probably has some applicable properties as a GRAS structural adhesive and/or semi-solid lubricant, it’s certainly not a foodstuff. I’m sure more research would be needed. A more interesting talking point vs. Velveeta would have been graphene as it already exists, but has furious development going into the mass production and specific structuring of the material in ways that make it a viable technology rather than a scientific novelty.

          1. We can agree to disagree, but I don’t feel our viewpoints are completely disparate. As you said, this is a learning environment, and with that I agree. You can’t demand groundbreaking original research from every student, only that they try something new that tests them; and if failure results, then that can be an important part of the learning experience. But that learning occurs only if the failures and limitations are acknowledged, and there seems to be an overall lack of that here (suggesting chitosan could produce large architectural structures without any mention that it’s water soluble is a prime example). Combined with a lot of verbal fluffery like the quotes I used in my last post, this all led me to my original opinion of “artistic nonsense”. Which I have a low opinion of, and I don’t think really serves budding engineers. (Oh, and thanks for humoring my Velveeta example. I chose it because I think I’ve used it as an expedient stick incense holder more often than I’ve eaten it.)

        2. This is the usual puffery wrapped around bioplastics, and of course the problem is the usual one: Plastic is usually used to make moderately durable items, and biodegradible materials, of course, degrade. Fast-use items such as single use serviceware have taken a small part of specialized markets but that’s about it. Then you have the long-standing economic problems for many of the bioproducts (using petrochemical-intensive farming to inefficiently compete against polymers derived directly from petrochemical feedstocks). In other words, they don’t stand up and they cost too much, so if you don’t get some sort of image boost out of it, it won’t be used.

          So far as velveeta goes, well, yes..actually:

  2. Really interesting work being done in the Mediated Matter group. It’s cool to see how they’re researching biodegradable materials and experimenting with different applications for them!

  3. I think the biggest use for that bio plastic like material that dissolves in acidic water would be a replacement for food packaging.
    If it’s strong enough it would be a perfect packaging for things like bread,cereal,and cookies etc.

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