Forming hybrid materials by accretion and aggregation of mineral particles and living matter

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Bartlett Sch of Architecture


The research aims to create a new generation of grown materials for the built environment that do not employ energy-consuming and/or polluting processes in their production. The research will look into biosilicification in nature by extracting principles, as well as applying lab-based growth systems in which living organism promote the mineralization of new solid materials. In addition to the investigation of physical properties, new applications in the built environment will be explored, as well as how novel aesthetics can stimulate human senses.

The proposed study will be conducted with a cross departmental supervision in the Built Environment - Prof Marcos Cruz and Chemical Engineering - Prof Marc-Olivier Coppens, merging expertise in chemical and biochemical engineering and architectural design. It will be developed in the engineering and physical sciences research remit and contribute to the delivery of Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund areas mainly of manufacturing processes and materials of the future, but it will also encompass smart, flexible and clean energy technologies and, to some extent, bioscience and biotechnology.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/R512400/1 30/09/2017 31/12/2022
1956005 Studentship EP/R512400/1 09/11/2017 08/02/2022 Nina Jotanovic
Title Ars Electronica Festival 
Description The prototype questions perceptual and environmental 'flatness' of synthetic materials in comparison to extremely thin, but highly expressive and performative biogenic 'microcrusts'. These living, grown micro-crusts are highly ordered three-dimensional structures on a microscopic level. As such, they act not only as visual enhancers through lustrous appearance that changes with light and viewers movement, but as a living mediator between building tissue and the environment by capturing CO2. Through microbial colonisation, biomineralization and self-assembly of nanoscale building blocks the project aims to produce such biological micro-crusts in ecologically benign processes. Components exhibited are encrusted in living microbial colonies embedded in silica precipitated matrix and as such have a potential to actively engage in nitrogen, carbon and silica cycles, some of the most important element exchanges on our planet. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact Due to global pandemic the exhibition took place physically locally (in Belgrade, Serbia) and digitally locally (through Ars Electronica platform). This was the first time a prototype with an approach of combining biotechnology and architecture was exhibited and presented in context of Serbia. By choosing a venue where exhibitions of experimental architecture are regularly taking place this exhibition contributed to informing and engaging architectural students and professionals about these new practices. Globally, exhibition was streamed on Ars Electronica platform visited by more than 2,000 people, and on the festival website visited by more than 300,000 viewers. 
Title Ceramics tiles exhibited at SynbiTECH Conference 
Description Four ceramic tiles veneered with self-assembled cellulose nano-crystals to achieve the lustrous surface quality were exhibited during a one day exhibition during the conference. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Presented tiles have shown interdisciplinary work to scientific and industry based audience observing how these bodies interact with the piece and what question about the work arise from these interactions. 
Title City X Venice, Venice Architecture Biennale 
Description Several architectural prototypes of 'Biogenic Architecture' project shown as a part of a movie about Bio-integrated Design. The movie was exhibited within the project City X Venice, Italian Virtual Pavilion at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 titled 'How will we live together?'. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact The Exhibition was open to the public from May 22nd through November 21st 2021, and included works by 112 participants from 46 countries. The exhibition has drawn 7,000 accredited visitors, 1,000 accredited journalists and 5,500 visitors in the first two opening days. It is estimated that the exhibition has drawn around 300,000 visitors during a six month period. 
Title Feateured in Bio-ID film exhibited at 'La Fabrique du Vivant' Centre Pompidou, Paris 
Description A short sequence showing silicification of soft hydrogel scaffold infused with amines. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Exhibition had a wide reach over two months with establishing itself as the most complete show on the topic of 'living design' that gathered international contributors from different disciplines. 
Title London Design Festival 2018 & 2019: Biodesign Here Now 
Description Year 2018: Several prototypes in petri plates showcasing formation of bio-inspired silicified 'crusts' on soft amine-infused hydrogel scaffolds. Year 2019: A wall segment 170x87cm consisting of ceramic tiles veneered with living microbial colonies self-assembled into highly ordered structures to yield iridescent structural colour. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Both exhibitions had a wide range of audience visiting, from common public and scientist to industry professionals. Exhibited prototypes generated discussions about the future application of such living systems in built environment. Important questions were raised and noted in regards to public interaction with bio-intergrated and bio-inspired systems, that are valuable experiences and observations for future project development. 
Description Employment of biogenic mineral encasing as surface strategy allows materials to be in a constant state of exchange with the environment. This is a key aspect that can have a profound influence on the way surfaces are designed and understood. Through these strategies, surface is gradually moving away from purely decorative or protective function, revealing itself as an active component that is not only arbitrary being changed by the environmental factors, but reacts purposefully to them. After a long tradition of encrusting buildings with mineral materials, like stone or clay, biomineralisation strategies offer a new dimension to mineral encrusting whose workings are multidirectional, protecting architecture and the environment.

Operating in several directions is to a large extent made possible by the interior structure of the thin mineral layer, which although thin in relation to the matter they enclose, tends to be highly three-dimensional. Understanding of the thin surface layer as bulky is a conceptual shift in architecture. New comprehension of the thin boundary layer in is reinforced by the introduction of terms integument and crust in architectural discourse, which changes the common conception of sealed, unchanging surfaces as the default condition. These terms encompass much wider field of performative and perceptual surface characteristics, from temporary and soft to fragmented and uneven. Proposed as integuments, material surface boundary layers could encompass many more performative characteristics than currently anticipated in thin material layers, like the element exchange. This is the key aspect necessary for greater inclusion of biological and environmental process happening at the material surface as the interface.

Silicification under biological control or influence in particular has pointed to one significant aspect - involvement in carbon cycle. Having capacity to consume carbon through hybridisation with organic molecules, such as polyamines, or with microorganisms, such as cyanobacteria, silica represents an important ally in efforts to combat environmental damage. It is not only through precipitation, but through dissolution that silica engages and locks carbon. Rethinking of silica-based materials in architecture should reflect importance of biochemical cycles, where buildings' exterior surfaces could be seen as interfaces for carbon capture and enhanced silica return to soils and water systems. Transformations of biogenic mineral materials, including weathering, could be used to induce performative benefits. Staged weathering of a specific siliceous boundary layer, synthesised in the lab to be weathered easily and applied on exterior surfaces designed to provide micro climatic conditions and surface water flow to accelerate the transformation, could integrated buildings in the extended geological workings by participating in silica (SiO2) and carbon (C) cycle and sequestering carbon-dioxide (CO2) in a long run.

Treating the thin outermost layer as a spatial condition with its own bulkiness, not only enables environmental exchange, but also induces characteristic perceptual depth. The specific depth owns its appearance to bulkiness and ordering on the microscopic level, encompassing visual properties of variation and lustre. After comparison of biogenic and synthetic instances of lustre, perceptual depth and variation seem to be the two most important aspects in perceptual engagement. Fascination with luminosity and iridescence of biogenic chromatic instances is likely partially related to its uncommonness. This indicates a necessity to allow manufacturing process a level of autonomy, capable of producing slight variations that will make material appear more captivating by being visually more complex. Inclusion of biological process in material formation brings this subtle, but very important perceptual variation to materials. Variation, together with lustre, also contributes to the appearance of material vitality, increasingly more important for sensory engagement and well-being. Biogenic processes of material creation have a great capacity to produce visually diverse materials.
Exploitation Route Understanding the relevance of biomineralisation processes in the context of built environment through simultaneous design and lab experiments has opened up several routes that could be taken forward by other researchers. Calcium phosphate in particular, not considered for architectural use so far, could have important implications for surface treatment. Its marginalisation for use in the built environment has been prompted by poor mechanical properties of precursor constituents in the laboratory synthesis. But, it has been extensively researched as highly porous scaffold material for bone regeneration or dental remineralisation, where its microstructure is believed to advance cell attachment and proliferation. In this context it could become a strategy for a 'scaffold coating' for increasingly important bioreceptive building surfaces, where it would provide an initial surface for the first colonisation by cyanobacteria followed by higher species of lichens and mosses.
Sectors Other

Description Collaboration with 'Bio-inspired Photonics' research group from University of Cambridge 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department Department of Chemistry
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Expertise in computational modelling, digital fabrication, scale-up and know-how on ceramic slip casting, as well as access to Bartlett's B-Made facilities for manufacturing and prototyping.
Collaborator Contribution Support of Bio-inspired Photonics group brought expertise and in-depth knowledge on cultivating microorganisms for structural colour, with insights to specificities of substrate needed for their growth together with life span of such a system of 'living colour'.
Impact This collaboration examines use of living iridescent structural colour in the built environment. Collaboration was established to test a potential of such a system on a larger scale in regards to perceptual effects and biochemical feasibility and its endurance. With this aim a wall segment 170 cm in length and 90 cm in height was produced and exhibited at London Design Festival as part of the 'Biodesign Here Now' exhibition. Wall consisted of ceramic tiles veneered with living microbial colonies who self-assemble in a highly ordered three-dimensional microscopic bulk that exhibits iridescence and peculiar luminosity. Prototype merged expertise of several disciplines including architecture, biochemistry and photonics.
Start Year 2019
Description Collaboration with 'Green Nano-materials' research group from University of Sheffield 
Organisation University of Sheffield
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Design input of how to guide precipitation of silica nano-spheres onto designed and fabricated scaffolds of a particular shape.
Collaborator Contribution An insight and know-how on laboratory techniques of bio-inpired silica precipitations.
Impact This is a multi-disciplinary collaboration including architects and chemical engineers, with an output in a form of exhibited prototypes at the London Design Festival in 2018 at 'Biodesign Here Now' exhibition and a short movie exhibited at Centre Pompidou at the 'La Fabrique du Vivant' exhibition in 2019.
Start Year 2018
Description Collaboration with Faculty of Biology, University of Belgrade and Botanical Garden 'Jevremovac' Belgrade, Serbia 
Organisation University of Belgrade
Country Serbia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Expertise in computational modelling, digital fabrication, scale-up and know-how on ceramic slip casting, manufacturing and prototyping large scale prototype.
Collaborator Contribution Collaboration brought expertise and knowledge in the selection of cyanobacteria specie appropriate for site, substrate material and climate zone. Additionally, in times of no access to central UCL laboratories, the collaboration allowed cultivation and subsequent application of these microorganisms.
Impact This collaboration examines promotion of cyanobacteria growth on vertical ceramic elements in the built environment. Collaboration was established to test and monitor development of different cyanobacteria consortia on a larger scale in regards to colonisation of architectural elements. With this aim a three-dimensional wall segment 150 cm in height, 1500 cm in width and 25 cm in depth. was produced and exhibited at Ars Electronica Festival. Prototype merged expertise of several disciplines including architecture, biology and photonics.
Start Year 2019
Description Lecture at CEPT University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Postgraduate students from a traditional architectural background and working on the theme of ecologically sensitive architecture emerging from hybrid materials attended the lecture. They were very curious to hear how such concepts can be put into a practice and eager to learn more about the interdisciplinary approach to achieving these aims. Student group felt very motivated to continue their efforts on the topic as they were encouraged there will be multiple opportunities rising in this growing field.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Presentation & meeting with P+ and Foster&Partners 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A presentation and a brainstorming meeting where the research was presented to practitioners whose insights are valuable for discussion on applicability of the study.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019,2021
Description Talk at the 'Designing with the Living', The Design Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact A one-day symposium at the Design Museum London featured talks on how designing with living organisms can respond to some of today's ecological challenges.
Various talks and panel discussions generated great interest and discussion within postgraduate students who have attended the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019