Inside the Weird Wide World of Bioplastics: 5 Plant-Based Material Alternatives

Janelle Zara Janelle Zara

The next building you build may contain sources of fungus, invasive alien plant species, mutant fruit, or weeds. But in a good way.

These materials and more are some of the main ingredients in the new generation of biopolymers and biocomposites, products that mainly comprise plant, animal, fungal, and bacterial sources that can now be used in construction. “Grown [PDF],” a new report recently published by international think-tank Material ConneXion, outlines the ways that simple, renewable natural substances from grasses to algae can be converted to environmentally sound construction materials with lower carbon footprints than their traditional counterparts. Thanks to new technologies, these biopolymers have become increasingly easy to produce and at a higher quality, giving them more to offer in the way of architectural use.

“I am amazed at some of the properties of these synthesized cellulose fibers that can have stiffnesses greater than carbon fiber,” Andrew Dent, VP of Library and Materials Research at Material ConneXion, tells Architizer. “We are beginning to see a much wider range of potential applications for grown materials, both in their ‘natural’ state as well as following improvement through engineering and synthesis into more consistently performing and more durable solutions, and I am a great believer in the curiosity of architects to look to new materials for inspiration and to solve creative and engineering challenges.”

Here, we’ve selected a handful of innovative new biopolymers and biocomposites that offer sustainable, smart alternatives to traditional building materials.

Mineralized Alien Concrete, manufactured by Allied Prefer

They’re not called Alien because they’re weird-looking — the name actually refers to the invasive Australian paperbark tea trees that have been wreaking havoc on the Florida everglades since they were introduced there in the early 20th century. The concrete is derived from the wood of this alien species, hardened and mineralized by a lime solution that forms a crystalline structure within the organic material. The mineralized chips are then cast into acoustic- and thermal-insulating concrete tiles, which Miami-based Nick Gelpi Studio plans to symbolically build an entire house with just south of the endangered everglades.

Milkweed Insulation, Manufactured by Encore 3

What’s a milkweed? Think dandelion: It’s a perennial plant whose seeds are attached to silky-fine strands of fiber that get airborne in a gust of wind. Because they’re hollow, the fibers are both lightweight and insulating, making them an ideal component to construction-grade thermal insulation when heat-compressed in addition to synthetic fibers. When used in fashion, pure milkweed can be used as a humane alternative to goose down.

Fungus-based Myco Board, Manufactured by Ecovative Design LLC

Myco Board, unlike composite woods like particleboard and hardwood plywood, is not held together with resins laced with carcinogenic formaldehyde. Instead, the biocomposite uses mushroom mycellium (fungus, basically) as a binder for loose fibers of agricultural byproducts. The fungus and fiber mixture starts as a foam that solidifies when heated, either pressed into rectangular boards in an array of density options, or molded into various structural forms, obviating the need to mill them into shape afterwards, thus further cutting down on the production of sawdust.

Hemp-based Biomattone Bricks, Manufactured by Equilibrium Srl

Cement production, we’ve all heard by now, carries out a heavy toll on the environment. In addition to being the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries, cement production accounts for more than five percent of the world’s carbon emissions. As an alternative to the traditional cement block, there’s Biomattone, a brick made of a lime-and-hemp compound called Natural Beton. Lime reacts with the hemp’s cellulose to “mineralize,” or harden it, to form a solid material that can be used as roof insulation or compressed into Biomattone blocks suitable for construction projects. As a bonus, it actually absorbs and stores CO2, laying manufacturers’ claims that it’s actual carbon negative.



Your Conceptual Bonus: The Modular Lagenaria Gourd, designed by Andrew Mowbray

Having discovered that lagenaria gourds will actually grow to the shape of their container, Boston-based designer Andrew Mowbray began growing them in block-shaped plastic molds. Each face of the resulting cube-shaped plant has either a corresponding indentation or a protrusion that can lock into another, much like an oversized, cubic, organic Lego. Gourds are resilient — objects and tools built by thousand-year-old cultures remain intact — so although these LEGOurds still remain in conceptual stages, they’ve got potential for someday being put to architectural use.

Images, unless otherwise specified, via Material Connexion

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