Materials

Lab-grown plant matter marks a step towards 3D-printable wood

Lab-grown plant matter marks a step towards 3D-printable wood
Researchers have developed a new technique that could one day allow for wood to be 3D printed out of plant matter
Researchers have developed a new technique that could one day allow for wood to be 3D printed out of plant matter
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Researchers have developed a new technique that could one day allow for wood to be 3D printed out of plant matter
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Researchers have developed a new technique that could one day allow for wood to be 3D printed out of plant matter
A diagram illustrating how plant cells can be cultured and 3D printed into custom shapes, with different strengths based on different levels of added hormones
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A diagram illustrating how plant cells can be cultured and 3D printed into custom shapes, with different strengths based on different levels of added hormones

Chopping down trees and processing the wood isn’t the most efficient or environmentally friendly way to make furniture or building materials. Scientists at MIT have now made breakthroughs in a process that could one day let us 3D print and grow wood directly into the shape of furniture and other objects.

Wood may be a renewable resource, but we’re using it up much faster than we’re replenishing it. Deforestation is having a drastic impact on wildlife and exacerbating the effects of climate change. Since our appetite for wooden products isn’t likely to change, our methods for obtaining it will have to.

In recent years, researchers have turned to growing wood in the lab. Not trees – just the wood itself, not unlike the ongoing work into cultivating animal cells for lab-grown meat, rather than raising live animals and slaughtering them. And now, a team of MIT scientists has demonstrated a new technique that can grow wood-like plant material in the lab, allowing for easy tuning of properties like weight and strength as needed.

“The idea is that you can grow these plant materials in exactly the shape that you need, so you don’t need to do any subtractive manufacturing after the fact, which reduces the amount of energy and waste,” says Ashley Beckwith, lead author of the study. “There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures.”

First, the team isolated cells from the leaves of plants known as Zinnia elegans. Then, these cells were cultured in a liquid medium for two days before being transferred to a thicker, gel-based medium. This stuff contained nutrients and two different plant hormones, the levels of which could be tweaked to tune the physical and mechanical properties of the material.

Next, the team 3D printed this cell-loaded gel into a specific shape, the same way you’d 3D print a plastic object. After three months of incubation in the dark, the material is dehydrated and the final result is a custom object made of wood-like plant matter. In one test, for example, the team shaped the material into a model of a tree.

A diagram illustrating how plant cells can be cultured and 3D printed into custom shapes, with different strengths based on different levels of added hormones
A diagram illustrating how plant cells can be cultured and 3D printed into custom shapes, with different strengths based on different levels of added hormones

The team experimented with different levels of the hormones, and found that lower levels led to lower density material, with rounded, open cells. Higher levels, meanwhile, grew smaller, denser structures that were more stiff, thanks to the increased growth of the organic polymer lignin. This difference could be used to make products that are softer and lighter, or stronger and more rigid, as necessary.

Ultimately, the goal is to develop the technology to the point that wooden objects can be essentially 3D printed and grown, rather than cut, shaped and joined from larger pieces of wood obtained from cutting down trees. The process might start with small wooden objects like dowels or decorative pieces, before eventually moving up to furniture or planks for construction.

The next steps, the team says, is to work out how to apply the method to other plants. Zinnia doesn’t produce wood, but adapting the process to work with something like pine could be a major breakthrough.

The research was published in the journal Materials Today.

Source: MIT

7 comments
7 comments
windykites
This reminds me of the production of square watermelons. Check it out.
Just think how long it would take to grow a table, for example. Some people make chairs by carefully pruning small trees.
Robt
Most of the global tree loss is from clearance for farmland or other development
Wood for furniture or housing, comes from forests that are well looked after for the obvious reason that they represent the raw material for an ongoing business
Lamar Havard
There are more trees in America, and in managed timberlands than there was 100 years ago.
Nelson Hyde Chick
Lamar Havard, a hundred one year old trees is not the same as one hundred-year-old tree, not by a longshot.
Anechidna
I wonder what the real environmental cost of this process is or will be. Researchers in the US using AI operated milling and matching equipment are using natural timber forks as structural components and have found them to be better than ones fabricated from steel. If the price of the milled products were higher we potentially would not be as wasteful of the grown products and would look at recovering more from each unit area of plantation timber than we currently do.
ljaques
Nelson, the US has been replanting 1 tree for every tree it cuts down for over 70 years now, and there are millions more trees growing now than in 1900. Canada, too. Why are we (non Amazonian countries) NOT sending topsoil or compost to Brazil to stop the burning of the rainforests there? The soil gained from the burn is only viable for 1-2 years, then they burn another mile of it. I think almost all cities in the US (and very many elsewhere) sponsor tree planting days by school children of various ages. Ditto conservation outfits worldwide. The burning of rainforests MUCH affects US and European weather. Why is nobody =fixing= that?
That said, I don't see this tech of growing lignin into furniture taking off any time soon, if ever.
dcris
Interesting...although I will put my money in Hemp....once hemp building products actually get rolling, the wood industry for building materials will diminish greatly. It's already happening....just needs better infrastructure. Many places can grow in one year what it takes the wood industry 20+ years to grow. And hemp lumber is superior to pine and even some oak hemp planks out there are stronger and way cheaper. I could see this 3D printing for novelty stuff.