Look out, polyester. Here come the eco-friendly, recyclable, organic fabrics of the future.

Marilyn Zimmerman, a Fine Art major in Studio Art and Experimental Art and Technology at The University of New Mexico, recently participated virtually in the BioDesign Challenge Summit 2021 to present a project called FutureFabric. She, along with fellow students Jose Orosco and Jennifer Valdez, designed the project under the direction of Andrea Polli, director of STEAM NM with appointments in the College of Fine Arts and School of Engineering at the University of New Mexico. Polli holds the Mesa Del Sol Endowed Chair of Digital Media and directs the Social Media Workgroup.

Marilyn Zimmerman
Marilyn Zimmerman

Orosco did illustrations for the SCOBY biofabric recipes. Valdez did a partial web design and lesson plan cover sheets.

"The BioDesign Challenge highlights the most innovative and exciting projects created by students internationally each year. This year, the FutureFabric project was selected by a jury of faculty experts across disciplines to represent UNM in the BDC,” Polli said. This was the third time UNM has participated. “We are very proud that are students are a part of this important event looking towards the future of biodesign using nature-inspired solutions to global health, sustainability, and security challenges.”

In addition, UNM has recently received a VentureWell grant to improve the biodesign facilities on campus and to create a Southwest Biodesign Hub, Polli said, adding, “We look forward to helping to bring together the biodesign community in our region."

The FutureFabric project  ̶  which is still in the concept stages  ̶  is designed as a portal to introduce new groups of people to the science and art of biofabric, Zimmerman explained. Biofabrics are materials grown from live organisms, such as bacteria, yeast, algae, and fungi. The microorganisms can be designed to produce materials are similar to yarn, or grown in a mold, or shaped into materials to be harvested. Artists, ecologists, and scientists are experimenting with food products, biodegradable packaging, clothing and cosmetics, to name a few examples.

Many high end fashion houses have a bio fabric line of goods. Designers such as Stella McCartney are designing with biofabrics. Suzanne Lee is well known as a pioneer in the field of biofabrics and Zimmerman recommends her TED Talk about growing a kombucha-based material that can be used to make clothing.

Biofabrics are petroleum-free and biodegradable and considered sustainable since they do not require extensive land usage, don’t require pesticides, and don’t need chemicals or large amounts of water for processing. In contrast, Zimmerman pointed out, it takes 700 gallons of water to make a cotton shirt, a whopping 2,600 gallons to make a pair of jeans, 101 gallons of water to process a pound of wool, and 2,110 gallons of water for one pair of leather shoes.

Zimmerman was first inspired when the UNM BioArt course introduced modules for growing bacteria on agar in petri dishes, followed by modules for growth medium experiments.

“Since UNM was following COVID protocols, the labs were not available as usual. I decided to choose a scientific protocol that could be utilized in an at-home lab using readily available materials. When I saw how exciting the process and results were I realized how important it was to share the concept,” she enthused.

The first  component of the FutureFabric project is educational plans to teach the art and science of biofabrics; the second is developing a website as a hub for inspiration, discussions, and sharing of ideas on international level; and the third is continuing to perfect at-home biofabric lab experiments, building on the success of initial experiments. Zimmerman has developed a worksheet for kids and adults to experiment at home to make their own biofabric from tea, sugar, water, and kombucha starter known as SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria & Yeast). After growing in a warm, dark place for two to three weeks, a cellulose mat floats to the top of the mixture. After it is dried in the sunlight the mat can be used as a biofabric. Another biofabric process involves mycelium from mushrooms.

“If biofabrics are to become part of our future world, students need to be introduced to these exceptional materials early in their lives. Whether students are knowledgeable consumers or develop into pioneering designers, they need to be not only familiar with the properties of biofabrics, but to push the science forward,” Zimmerman said.

Participating in the virtual BioDesign Challenge Summit “was a matchless opportunity,” Zimmerman said. She got to view presentations of 51 teams from prestigious institutions around the world, participate in a gallery event that gave her the opportunity to speak with other students and the judges to share information and ideas, and meet the judges to learn more about their classes or art projects.

“All of the presentations were well considered and presented with energy and sincerity. Experiencing the privilege of presenting FutureFabric to an interested, encouraging audience of peers and professionals, I would have to say that the journey was very rewarding,” Zimmerman said, adding, “Speaking of journeys, the framework that the UNM BioArt taught by Andrea Polli provided a balance of guidance with an opportunity for discovery. As a Fine Art major this course opened a new world of art combined with science and ecology.”

Now that the BioDesign Challenge is over, Zimmerman plans to continue to develop the website and work on the mycelium experiments. In addition, she’s working via Zoom with some Dharamshala, India designers to start a series of biofabric workshops.

“For my own art work, I’m working on conductive SCOBY and mycelium materials for a series of wearable electronics,” she concluded.

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