Breathing chandeliers and algae sculptures: bionic art comes to the V&A

[UK] The first living addition to the museum’s permanent collection symbolises a growing synthesis of art and science.

In a quiet corner of the Victoria and Albert Museum, beyond the sculpture gallery, hangs the first living addition to its permanent collection — a large green bionic chandelier called Exhale. Its 70 delicately veined plastic leaves contain green microalgae, whose photosynthesis absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and releases oxygen.

Exhale is an object of remarkable beauty that symbolises a growing synthesis of art and bioscience. In the UK this movement is championed by the Arts Foundation, which gives fellowships for materials innovation with support from the Clothworkers’ Foundation.

“We believe that the arts can stimulate advances in materials science and technology — and vice versa,” says Shelley Warren, director of the Arts Foundation.

Julian Melchiorri, the creator of Exhale, is the 2017 fellow. He has just completed a residency at the V&A, where he designed the bionic chandelier, following a double postgraduate course in design engineering affiliated to both Imperial College and the Royal College of Art.

Creator Julian Melchiorri © Alastair Levy

“The combined masters degree gave me a wider perspective than engineering on its own and helped me to think more creatively,” says Melchiorri, a 30-year-old Italian who began his career in industrial lighting design.

“The science-art movement is creating an atmosphere in which life-changing technologies are more likely to emerge.” The chandelier marks the start of what Melchiorri hopes will be a new career as a bio-entrepreneur, exploiting algae to produce food for humans and feed for fish farms — and in the longer term as a weapon to fight global warming by removing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Exhale chandelier © Alastair Levy

His small start-up company Arborea, based in Imperial College’s White City innovation hub, has already won grants from the government’s Innovate UK research agency, the EU’s Climate-KIC initiative and SynbiCite, the synthetic biology centre at Imperial College.

The next step, Melchiorri says, will be to raise several million pounds from investors in an initial venture financing round in 2018. Melchiorri regards photosynthesis as “the most important chemical reaction in the world”.

“Photosynthesis by microalgae made the ‘oxygen revolution’ more than 2bn years ago, which enabled life to proliferate on Earth,” he says. Algae remain the world’s photosynthetic champions because their chloroplasts, the microscopic compartments in which the photochemical re­action takes place, are packed more densely than in plants.

BioSolar panels field

Aesthetic appeal will remain at the heart of Arborea’s activities, he insists. While lab research continues on the microfluidic technology that trickles water and nutrients through his “bionic leaves”, Melchiorri’s next eye-catching installation will be an algal “tree” — looking like a giant green mushroom — under which people will be able to walk.

The location has not yet been decided, though the V&A’s garden courtyard is a candidate. Looking slightly further ahead, Melchiorri has designed some more extensive installations, including a skyscraper whose southern face will be clad in an undulating green wave of algal panels, occasionally peeled back to reveal windows. But Arborea’s long-term commercial future lies in building large-scale algal farms in sunny regions such as southern Europe.

While energy companies tend to see algal cultivation primarily as a route to biofuels — one of the most active, ExxonMobil, is collaborating with Synthetic Genomics, founded by genomics pioneer Craig Venter, to enhance the oil content of algal cells — Melchiorri expects to derive commercial returns first by harvesting algae for food.

CGI of Melchiorri’s photosynthesising façade (2014)

He says a large company has already agreed in principle to buy food ingredients produced by Arborea. Another valuable application will be to produce protein-rich feed for fish farms, replacing the environmentally unsustainable fishmeal on which the aquaculture industry currently depends. Melchiorri even sees a role for his algal technology beyond Earth.

Although he talks about the living chandelier “purifying the air” at the V&A, the actual level of purification achieved there is minuscule. But the technology really could make the air more breathable for astronauts in future space stations or human colonies on the Moon, Mars and other planetary outposts, as growing algae turn carbon dioxide into oxygen and biomass for food and fuel.

We believe the arts can stimulate advances in materials science and technology, and vice versa He concedes that algae as a whole have not lived up to the hype expressed during some past bursts of enthusiasm for growing them for fuel or food, but says that this was because growers underestimated the operational costs of scaling up their biocultures and then maintaining and harvesting the algae.

Arborea, however, has engineered and patented techniques for solving these problems. Some of this technology is incorporated in Exhale. For example a secret polymer makes up the chandelier’s leaves, designed to promote algal growth.

A novel fluidic system keeps micronutrients flowing past the algae. At this stage Melchiorri is concentrating on engineering the hardware rather than applying biology to improve the algae through selective breeding or genetic manipulation. “We are working with wild strains but our system could use any microalgae ‘bioware’,” he says.

Other Arts Foundation fellows are also innovating with biological materials. Julia Lohmann from Germany was the 2014 winner and, like Melchiorri, also a V&A designer in residence, creating an eerily beautiful display there. She transforms seaweed — giant algal cousins of his microalgae — into materials akin to leather, fabric, plastic and paper.

Julia Lohmann’s Department of Seaweed at the V&A in 2013

Lohmann is now based in Hamburg but works around the world through her Department of Seaweed, a mobile collaborative research station. She was at the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan, a country with a rich tradition of using seaweed, last year, and at Warwick University in the UK this year.

“We work with seaweed across different disciplines to develop new uses for this fascinating material,” she says. A recent example is turning seaweed into a veneer for furniture, on which she is collaborating with a carpenter and textile developer in France.

A quite different idea, suggested by medical students at Warwick and in the early stages of development, is to use seaweed as a substitute for human skin.



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