Technology 3 min read

How Microbially Grown Materials Became the Future of Electronics

A Finnish design house proposes a novel concept for headphones like no other: they’re made of organic and microbially grown materials.

Image courtesy of Aivan

Image courtesy of Aivan

Electronic products are meant to be faulty, obsolete, or undesirable, and they’re designed to have a shelf life. After all, that’s the whole idea behind planned obsolescence, which is exacerbating the global e-waste crisis.

Take headphones for example. The only progress area seems to be focused around design updates that cater more to aesthetics and immediate utility than to sustainability and circular economy.

Components usually contain plastics and other wasteful and polluting materials that contribute to an environmental disaster.

That includes basically all electronics on the market, but headphones are a good indicator of the issue as they contain a variety of hard and soft materials that are usually not biodegradable.

Also, because due to their size, they are often a great area of material innovation. Now, in an effort to create more sustainable electronics, there’s a new concept for headsets made from microbes and other natural materials.

Korvaa, the Live Headphones

Aivan is a Finnish design agency whose products are “beautifully realized… both technologically possible and economically viable.”

In collaboration with engineers from VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and Aalto University, the studio has designed a pair of headphones, called Korvaa, for Synbio Powerhouse, a Finnish innovation ecosystem focused on synthetic biology.

Korvaa are made of a maximum of natural materials, like fungus and yeast, and biodegradable materials like bioplastics.

The frame of Korvaa is 3D-printed using a biodegradable polymer created from lactic acid treated with baker’s yeast. As for the padding over the ears, it’s created using a fungus, called trichoderma reesei — engineers dub it “nature’s strongest bubble-maker” — and plant cellulose. The speakers’ mesh cover is made from a microbially-grown protein based on spider silk.

Aivan describes Korvaa as “an experimental science collaboration that explores the design and functionalities of novel, bio-based, microbially grown materials. Created in collaboration between synbio scientists, industrial designers, artists and filmmakers, Korvaa documents the development of a headset made exclusively from microbially grown materials.”

Read More: AirPods 2: Why Apple Can’t Learn From Their Own Mistakes

Synthetic biology is opening up new paths for products design. This is where biology comes to the rescue of engineering.

With Korvaa, the Aivan team think they have shown the potential of synbio technology’s role in the transition to a circular bioeconomy based on eco-friendly materials.

In the Finnish language, ”Korva” means ”ear”  and ”Korvaa”, which is a verb, means ”to substitute, compensate or replace”.

They have chosen it as “the first physical implementation to showcase these microbially grown materials in a three-dimensional form”.

As it stands now, Korvaa is just a pair of concept headphones that might or might not hit the market.

“For now, certain compromises had to be made,” said Aivan product designer Saku Sysiö. “However, it’s a rapidly developing field of research and we’re excited to see what happens in this area in the next years, and the implications for various industries, how these materials are used.”

Read More: How Bioplastics Will Solve our Plastic Epidemic

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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