Finnish studio Aivan has unveiled a pair of headphones made from microbially grown materials. The Korvaa headset was conceived to showcase the potential of the technology known as synthetic biology, or “synbio” for short.
Synbio (short for Synthetic Biology) is a rapidly developing, disruptive technology that enables the design and engineering of new biological organisms, as well as the re-design of existing biological systems, for useful purposes. Synthetic organisms can produce a variety of desired chemicals, materials, medicine or fuels from renewable raw materials, waste fractions and CO2. This technology will have a paramount role in the transition from a fossil-based economy to a sustainable, circular bioeconomy.
A headset was originally chosen as the first physical implementation to showcase these microbially grown materials in a three-dimensional form, because of the variety of materials in the product itself. From a design viewpoint, a headset combines various material properties in compact size and form; hard, foam-like, pliable, rigid and solid materials, as well as mesh fabric materials. The name of the product originates from the Finnish language, where ”Korva” has an anatomical meaning (”ear”) and ”Korvaa” is a verb, meaning ”to substitute, compensate or replace”.
Each part of the headset uses microbe-grown materials with different properties. The rigid material used for the frame of the headphones is a petroleum-free, 3d-printed bioplastic. It was grown using the lactic acid in baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, and is completely biodegradable.
The ear padding is made using a fungus called Trichoderma ressei, which the Aivan team calls ‘nature’s strongest bubble-maker’. This produces a foaming protein called hydrophobin, which aids fungal cells growth into air from a moist soil. The hydrophobin is then mixed with plant cellulose to create a stable but soft structure.
Covering the foam is Mycelium — the branching, root-like part of a fungus that has elsewhere been used for clothing and architecture. In this case, the fungus is Phanerochaete Chrysosporium, and it has a leathery texture that is meant to sit comfortably on the ears.
Headphones also require a mesh-like cover for the speakers. In Korvaa, this is provided by a microbially produced protein based on spider silk, one of the toughest substances in nature. The biosynthetic version of the silk used here can also make bulletproof vests.
The material properties have been a major design driver for the Korvaa headset. “We’re looking at these different materials and their properties, trying to figure out how to use them, and what to make out of them — as opposed to designing an item and then figuring out what materials we want to use… Process-wise, it’s almost like something out of the stone age. It sets this particular project apart from any other contemporary, wearable-tech project,” say Saku Sysiö and Thomas Tallqvist, both product designers at Aivan, a multi-disciplinary design studio based in Helsinki, Finland.
This unique project enabled an important collaboration between applied sciences and industrial design. During the process, valuable insight into the properties of these new materials was obtained. “As designers, we look for certain properties and qualities in materials when we design products. For now, certain compromises had to be made. 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,” Sysiö explains. “This was certainly only a surface scratch into where biology-engineered materials are going, and what we can do with them in the future. For now, we were able to showcase two versions of the Korvaa headset; the current material composition, and the target for the future,” Tallqvist continues.
Both headsets and the project documented in its entirety will be displayed at the Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale 2019, open from 19th May until 19th September, and during Helsinki Design Week 2019, 5-15th September.