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Designer grows shoes from bacteria

EcoNote | December 7, 2020 | By:

Jennifer Keane/Vita Larvo.

Biodesigner Jennifer Keane is moving forward with her efforts to help create a more sustainable future by “replacing the petrochemical-based materials of today with more sustainable ones.” She has been working with the k.rhaeticus bacteria that “naturally grow a tiny fiber called nanocellulose, which is eight times stronger than steel and stiffer than Kevlar, transparent and incredibly lightweight,” she says. 

The project was motivated by the designer’s frustration with plastics and the disparity between “scientific research and design manifestations around natural materials,” Keane says. “A greater understanding of nature … could allow entirely new systems of making and categories of materials previously unimagined.”  

In addition to culturing the bacteria, the designer also had to craft new tools to manipulate how it would grow. She eventually devised a process she calls microbial weaving. In the context of traditional weaving, she says, “I am weaving the warp and the bacteria grow the weft, at a nanoscale. This allows for the potential to weave patterns not possible with traditional weaving and engineer the material strength in multiple directions.”

The shoe upper she created in a single piece she named “This is grown.” The cellulosic material also offers potential for customization and application in numerous industries from high-performance composites to biomedical applications, Keane says. 

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