News: MIT scientists create 3D printed lab grown wood

 Scientists at MIT have developed a ground-breaking process to use a “tunable bioprinting” method to 3D print wood-like plant material in a lab. This technique has the potential to enable the growth of wooden products such as tables, without cutting down a single tree or processing lumber.

Lead author of the study, Ashley Beckwith, a recent PhD graduate at MIT, explains that “The idea is that you can grow these plant materials in exactly the shape that you need, so you don’t need to do any subtractive manufacturing after the fact, which reduces the amount of energy and waste. There is a lot of potential to expand this and grow three-dimensional structures.” 

Why do we need it?

The process has energy saving potential, by enabling localised, high-density production there is an associated reduction in operational emissions from collection and hauling materials. This is additional to the forementioned reduction in manufacturing processes and waste.  

If commercialised the process also has the potential to meet the increasing demand from the environmentally conscious consumer for alternatives to fossil-fuel derived products. This breakthrough technology also has the potential to significantly reduce deforestation, which causes a net loss of 15.3 billion trees per year.

The supply for wood is currently strained, caused by slow tree growth and low yields of high-value materials, as well as the waste associated with tree harvest, transport and processing. With production impacted by climate, pests and disease the process could improve resilience.  

How does it work

The process begins by isolating cells from leaves of young Zinnia elegans plants, and then adjusting hormone levels to tune the physical and mechanical properties of the plant cells that grow in that nutrient-rich broth. Using a 3D printer, the cell culture gel solution is extruded into a specific structure in a petri dish and incubated for three months. 

The researchers have also shown that the plant material can be grown in a custom shape and size using a 3D bioprinting process. This involves using a customizable computer-aided design file that is fed to a 3D bioprinter, which deposits the cell gel culture into a specific shape. For example, they were able to grow plant material in the shape of a tiny evergreen tree.

The hope is to evaluate how this method could be transferred to a new species, such as the commercially important pine tree. 

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